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May 03, 2007

Diversity Through Intellectual Conformity

Anyone who’s ever had the misfortune of being forced to read an academic journal or newsletter knows that most of it sounds like something produced by the Postmodern Essay Generator. Although there are still many good academics who take scholarship seriously, far too many of them believe that higher education should be defined through its inaccessibility, not its contribution to the betterment of society.

Every once in awhile, though, you come across a piece of writing that is accessible and well-written, and it scares the living crap out of you. The Association of American Colleges and Universities releases a journal called Diversity Digest, in which they gather essays on the state of diversity education in the United States. Overall, the publication is mostly harmless – full of the ‘stronger through our diversity’ pabulum that mostly leads to colleges making sure they have enough minority groups represented on the cover of their course catalog.

Overall, I believe the attempts at creating a diverse campus climate are well-meaning, but ineffective. There is nothing wrong with encouraging students to interact with people who are of a different race, religion, social background or geographic region. It simply doesn’t work that well, due to fact that like groups of people tend to self-segregate when confronted with diverse populations. It is human nature to seek out those who are like you, so simply increasing the amount of diversity on campus is meaningless. Instead, universities should increase the number of opportunities students have to work together on academic projects or in co-curricular activities – shared interests rather than shared backgrounds or races.

Unfortunately, there is a segment of those in the academic world who believe the best solution is to simply make students feel guilty about who and what they are and if that doesn’t work, well…they have ways of making you agree.


The article is entitled “Dealing with Student Resistance: Sources and Strategies.” If the writer were intellectually honest enough to confront her own assumptions, it would be called “Diversity through Intellectual Conformity: If You Don’t Agree with Me, You Have Issues.”

Education about diversity and social justice is a deeply emotional and psychological process, not simply an intellectual one. Often when we ask people to engage with questions of social justice, we are asking them to question their fundamental belief systems—how they see themselves and make sense of the world. It is therefore not surprising that, even when armed with great information, stimulating activities, and compelling issues, we find ourselves asking why our students fail to engage with—or even actively resist—our course content. This tendency to resist is particularly common among people from privileged groups—those in the more powerful positions in a given form of oppression (sexism, racism, heterosexism, classism, etc.). Many educators find resistance from students from privileged groups to be one of the more challenging aspects of teaching diversity and social justice.
Reading this is like playing a game of count the assumptions:

1. In order to truly engage questions of social justice, one must question their own beliefs;
2. Those who protest reject truth itself as communicated through “great information, stimulating activities and compelling issues;”
3. People in privileged groups resist due to their status

And this is just the introduction, folks. It goes on, and gets much worse. Skipping ahead to the “reasons for resistance:”

Our dominant cultural values, institutional structures, and social climate promote competitive individualism, hierarchy, and the belief in meritocracy. This leads people to view dominant groups as normal and superior, to accept the unearned material benefits awarded to those groups, and to blame victims for their misfortune. Our society encourages us to be self-focused, to see others as threats, and to protect our own interests and resources. Thus the drive for self-advancement can diminish the concern for greater equity. People in positions of privilege tend to resist changing a system from which they benefit. In addition to these cultural values, which discourage people from seeking a more equitable society, the taboo against noticing differences and discussing oppression leaves people with little ability or inclination to do so.
Emphasis mine. A little intellectual honesty can be found here. If you’re in a privileged group, you are by default a self-protecting oppressor who has not earned anything through hard work. Goodman has also subtly defined social justice as a “concern for greater equity.” While this definition has become trendy, it is philosophically shallow.

The concept of what it means to ensure a “just society” has been debated for centuries. Plato believed it meant a society ruled by a philosopher-king (convenient, since he was a philosopher) with a distinct class system. Jesus taught that a socially just society was one where all life had dignity and members of the society made it a point to help the oppressed, and those in need. The concept of a just society is worth debating, and should be part of every college student’s education. So why does Goodman encounter such resistance teaching it?

Maybe it’s because she says things like this in class:

While these social, cultural, political, and economic factors provide a foundation for resistance to social justice, people’s individual psychological issues also affect their responses. When people are focused on their own struggles, on their own identities as members of oppressed groups, or on protecting their senses of self, they are often less open to exploring the oppression of others and how they contribute to it.
“Listen, oppressor…resist my message, and there is something wrong with you. Seriously, psychologically wrong.”

Is it any wonder students are resisting this sort of thing? I’m sure Ms. Goodman has never even considered the fact that they might not be resisting her ideas, but the manner in which she presents them – in her mind, the matter it settled, the narrative is written and any attempts to question it or disagree with her view are based in your status, your inability to get past your own beliefs or perhaps a psychological issue.

What bothers me the most about this essay and the approach she suggests is that it does not allow for honest intellectual debate or an exchange of ideas about the causes of oppression, the meaning of social justice or what society’s response should be. To Goodman, the purpose of education is to move people out of their comfort zones, get them to confess their sins and move them on a path to being good little foot soldiers in the war against social injustice:

By considering the range of societal and psychological reasons for resistance, we can be more compassionate and more skillful in how we work with others. It is not always easy to develop and sustain compassion for our students, but I believe it is necessary to reach our educational goals. When sufficient trust and support have been created, and interesting material and activities presented, students often become engaged in the lessons of diversity and social justice despite themselves. Only by meeting resistance head on, with critical understanding of its sources and sensitive, thoughtful responses, can we hope to enlist our students in the ongoing battle for social justice and diversity.
Fly, my pretties, fly!

This is an astoundingly illiberal view of higher education, and a frightening look into the mind and goals of someone who is considered an expert on these issues. It is also yet another example of the intellectual decay caused by academia's unwillingness to engage in any sort of meaningful diversity.

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posted by Slublog at 01:50 PM

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