Critical ThinkingHigher Education

Should colleges and universities require students to take courses on diversity?

Here at UCLA, we faculty voted some months ago to add a “diversity” course requirement for graduation.  Such a course could be taken from any number of departments on campus, as long as the course substantially addressed issues of diversity in cultures (everything from literature to religion), human populations, behaviors and sexual orientation, and even population genetics and evolutionary history.  Because of an obscure bylaw in UCLA Senate regulations, we are now in the process of revoting this issue once more.  But that is not the point of this posting.  What I want to address is whether a diversity course requirement is something to be mandated.

Let me start with the case for “No”.  It comes in two flavors.

The first is purely logistical.  If we require all students to take such a course, it would add time to graduation, because: (1) It is one more course added to a full schedule; (2) UCLA simply doesn’t have enough such courses for the created demand, which again would decrease progress to degree; and (3) To create the needed courses would either increase faculty teaching loads to unacceptable levels or pull faculty away teaching needed, but non-diversity, courses in majors (or worse yet, pull in any warm body from the street to be under-qualified, under-paid lecturers).  In the case of UCLA, all of these objections are either erroneous or not a serious problem.  But even if they were substantive, I think these are the weakest reasons for not proceeding.  If teaching diversity is a good idea then we should work to make it logistically feasible.  If it is a bad idea, then logistics are irrelevant.  We should not be pursuing bad ideas.

So why should we NOT require taking a course on diversity simply on the merits of whether or not “requiring” is a good idea? (Note that no one argues that teaching about diversity, per se, ought not be done at university.)

  • Though we don’t often think of them as such, our students are grown ups. Grown ups should be able to decide for themselves what classes fit their interests and needs.
  • This is an exercise in political correctness. Although one would not be barred from teaching a course that argues diversity is a bad idea and should be minimized, the make up of the UCLA professoriate is such that diversity would be taught to reflect almost only the views of a narrow political spectrum.
  • The students in most need of broadening their perspective on diversity, would be the least likely to be open to the message. Forcing them into classes they abhor would create a contentious classroom that would poison the experience for students who really want to be there.  (Similarly one might say that it would be great if everyone took a class on evolution, but there is no discussion that we ought to force it on religious objectionists.)
  • This is the slippery slope to requiring an ever more expansive list of a good-for-you social engineering curriculum. The nanny university!  Instead, it should be the university’s role to teach students how to think, not what to think.

 

Taking all of the above into consideration, I am once more voting YES.  Why?  First off, universities have never been the educational equivalent of an all you can eat buffet.  You cannot simply load your plate with only the chili-cheese fries, and leave it at that.  You have to at least sample something from literature, the sciences, history, math, and even (horror!) the arts.  Our mission is to create critical thinkers, and no single area of human endeavor has a monopoly on ingenuity and genius.  Indeed, the most accomplished among us are those that can think across different fields and synthesize ideas in novel and impactful ways.  What would we call that?  Intellectual diversity!

But most of all, universities and colleges ought to tackle and teach issues that matter.  That are truly important.  One of these is that diversity is not simply a PC feel good issue.  Diversity, in my opinion, is what made the human species successful in the first place – and it is a key to helping us avoid future extinction.  If this is a slippery slope, then so be it to teaching other issues that matter.  Therefore, I’ll reprise my personal statement submitted in favor of UCLA’s diversity requirement.

“One can ask why Louisville, KY (the city of my birth and childhood), never became a world-influencing city, but Los Angeles did. Louisville had considerable early advantages in terms of location, weather and natural resources. It had a 50+ year headstart on Los Angeles as a growing city. But Los Angeles had the most important advantage: diversity. From its very earliest days LA merged Spanish, English and Native American cultures. Throughout its history, wave after wave of immigrants came to Los Angeles. It attracted the misfits, the non-conformists, the dissatisfied, the strivers. I strongly believe that it is the synergisms that arise across diverse cultures and perspectives that were absent in Louisville, but made LA one of the great cities of the world. Yet too often in the public dialog today we advocate closing off America to immigrants: closing it off from people who may not speak like we do, think like we do, or act like we do. Many want to turn the entire US into the homogenous Louisville and cease celebrating the diverse Los Angeles. This is a huge mistake for all of us, both as a culture and as a nation. This is why I support the diversity initiative at UCLA. Diversity is what made the US great, and we should do our utmost to teach this simple lesson.”

Indeed, maybe having a diversity requirement at university is damage control, presented late in the game.  Shouldn’t we already be teaching this message in high school and before?

Thoughts?

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Peter Nonacs

Peter Nonacs

Professor of behavioral and evolutionary ecology at UCLA. I study the evolution of social behavior and cooperation, and anything that ants may do. And occasionally people, too.

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