Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Intellectual Diversity? Excuse me?

This friday my campus is inviting the whole community to a discussion meeting about the new strategic plan. Being a good citizen, I started working my way through this document and got hung up on Strategic Objective #2, which reads "To prepare students to be citizens of a diverse world, Gettysburg College will ensure a learning experience for all students that include diversity of perspectives and that promotes a culture of understanding."

Now, don't get me wrong. I find this goal admirable. I particulary like the last phrase "promotes a culture of understanding." Moreover, I support this goal. But what sticks in my craw is the spelling out of what the committee means by diversity: "Enhance on-campus diversity of all kinds (racial, intellectual, geographic, etc) . . ." If "diversity" includes intellectual and geographic, then we have stretched this concept to meaninglessness. But, to be honest, "diversity" has become a safe buzzword. My colleague and I just lectured on this very point on Monday in our Intro. to WS course.

I understand why institutions opt to use the word diversity, but it's clear to me that this word, and the now meaningless concept that it denotes, is working against the very goals of Strategic Objective #2. Why does the committee feel the need to define diversity so broadly? Well, there are lots of reasons. Let's be charitable. Let's assume that they truly mean to recruit intellectual diversity--the kind of diversity I find most problematic. Their justification usually goes something like this: we live in the age of globalization wherein we will all confront people with different views, different political intuitions, different religious beliefs and so it behooves colleges, who are entrusted with educating our future citizenry, to expose students to a diversity of ideas. Doesn't sound half bad, right?

But, the fact is that intellectual diversity is a phrase coined and now, it seems, made indispensable by David Horowitz. The phrase is code for "conservative views." And, if we are being honest with ourselves, it is precisely this sort of mindset--aggressively opposed to any educational program that dares ask students to question their most deeply held beliefs--is directly opposed to the entire mission of a college, and particularly a liberal arts college like ours that strives to make our students global citizens.

I plan, of course, to be a bit of a pain in the ass on this point on friday. And, I want to do so precisely because I think this goal is so admirable. I think the real culprit, however, is that we have embraced the word "diversity" rather than been more honest about what our goals are: to attract students and faculty who have historically been denied access to a liberal arts institution. Either they have been denied this access because of nationalism, racism, sexism, or classism. To repair this institutionalized discrimination, we, Gettysburg College, will set a national example and thereby assiduously recruit persons who have been or continue to be denied the riches of a liberal arts education. By doing so, we are educating. We are showing, as an institution, that discrimination is not inevitable or intractable. And, we are also demonstrating that crushing poverty is largely a result of persons being denied access to elite institutions.

In response to the national tragedy that Katrina and its aftermath, our fearless leader, George W, did say:

As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created . . ."

I have no illusions that the college will drop the language of "diversity." I get its strategic importance. But when we use this language, we are simply asking for the absurd arguments made by Horowitz and his peeps. Diversity is a safe word. It makes people feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. But it doesn't say what we really want to do.