Matters of Diversity

The other topic that I reflected about as we are beginning the semester is the diversity issue.  To me this is a very real problem.  Those of you who peruse the New York Times now and then may recall the news item entitled “Assigned Reading on Koran in Chapel Hill Raises Hackles.”  The University of North Carolina is being legally challenged by conservative Christian groups, who think that biblical readings would be more constructive for the young minds.  As the issue winds down, students are not now required to do the reading if they do not wish to do so; however, they must write an essay to justify their refusal.  And I’d love to know how that essay will be graded with standards perceived completely fair by the students.  You also know that Florida is firing some professors with Palestinian leanings and that a school board in Georgia is on the ramparts again about a balanced teaching of evolution and creationism.

But this is also close to home.  When one of our student leaders a few years ago told of the new chapel here at ERAU, he was overheard to say that it was there for the four recognized and approved religions. And the atheist student-group looking for a meeting place there was clearly told, “No, guys; it’s not for you.”  And so, here we are, still ruminating over diversity and tolerance issues. 

Some years ago, when my head was still full of hair and a lot less gray and when I still believed in the essence of academia as wonderful groups of scholars striving ego-lessly for greater truth, when—in other words—I was still an idealistically deluded graduate student, we thought deeply about matters of racial integration.  Then at Ball State University, I still recall a venerable senior faculty rising to say, “Yes, we really need to have Negroes [I think that was the term still then!] learn to write.  When they do take to it, they really have a flair with it, you know.”  Oh, well!  You knew that her heart was in the right place, even though her thought might be gapped.  And she was certainly a long way from being color-blind.

 And so we today.  I am sure that we are all variously committed to diversity; but I’m also willing to bet large sums of cash that our hearts are more flawless than our mental gaps.  Let me invoke Scylla and Charybdis: On the one hand, we might go aground with what’s been called a “Readers’ Digest” approach to philosophy and ideology.  That’s essentially the view that if we just look at things from sufficient distance and superficiality, all features begin to melt into one, by way of exhibiting marvelously all those characteristics that we subscribe to in our religious or ideological views.  And I don’t mean the more Freudian and Joseph Campbell type analyticity that sees the blue mosque of Tripoli as a giant phallus and that sees the main gate to the Magdeburg cathedral at Otto the Great’s tomb as an equally obvious yonic image with surprising anatomical correctness.  That would be too discomforting for the Readers’ Digest version of philosophical analysis. 

How the loose and distant view can backfire is illustrated marvelously by a Muslim presentation at the City Library in response to which one of the attending ladies stormed forward impulsively to shake hands with the presenter, who then refused his hand on the grounds that he was not permitted to touch a woman in public.  Just one of those details we have elected to ignore in order to build common ground. 

And leaving Scylla for Charybdis, I have also evidence of the ethnocentricity that lurks as danger on the other side.  A colleague asked me not too long ago whether I didn’t think that some religions weren’t really morally superior to others.  Yikes!  By what standards, I wonder.  I suppose if you were to press me hard enough, I might also default back to some layer of German Lutheranism that somehow has been nesting comfortably in some hidden recesses of my psyche.  As Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine says in his contribution to this month’s Scientific American, “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

The point of diversity, to my limited way of reflecting, is that we do NOT know the answers in ideological matters as comfortably as we would in matters of observation or scientific prediction.  And so, the best we can do is to open such issues to free and vigorous debate in our classes and everywhere.  In short, I don’t think of diversity with any levity at all.  I do take it very serious.  More than a fad, it is at the core of how one conducts one’s self as a teacher in an ethical manner. 

On my faculty page, I sport a quote from George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.“  This has always impressed me because I try to endorse a rugged freedom of speech for myself, for my colleagues, and for my students.  Lest I fall prey to what Moliere depicts in the Misanthrope, I am sure that some social constraints must be at work there somewhere; nonetheless, I am working toward the time when we could—ideally—simply mind-meld with one another without fear of recoiling in horror and disbelief. 

Such a position is also entailed by philosophical diversity.  We must be able to disagree with one another and to respect one another in the midst of those disagreements. That, to me, is diversity.  Diversity is not a wishy-washy suggestion that, at the center of things, we are really all the same or will be if the other person has just had time enough to see the superiority of my position. And what’s in a couple of words such as “under God” anyway?  And why don’t those people grow up and accept the way everyone is? 

That’s not what I would mean by diversity.

How can we make sure that all our classes preserve this kind of acceptance of other ideas in an honest, forthright, and non-intimidating manner of dialog and debate in our classrooms?  What seems to work for me is that I pose problems that are controversial for the students interacting with each other.  I hold my own views back.  I am an editor on the sidelines.  I am the ambiguous sphinx on the wayside, so much so at times that students are upset about my not “teaching” [i.e.: lecturing and bullying] sufficiently.  I feel called on to intervene when a student is a lone voice and is about to be swamped by the majority or when a majority is beginning to be swept along by self-endorsement in the absence of any lone voices of dissent. 

Of course, that route has its pitfalls also.  I did get a very scathing after-the-semester e-mail comment from one of my students criticizing me bitterly for having unduly supported and given preference to minorities and women in my class.  And I must admit myself guilty as charged because they were the quiet and seemingly intimidated elements in the class and they appeared to need a bit of a boost. 

But generally that method seems to work well enough.  Some students don’t find out what I’m really all about until they ask me directly and I give them the address to my website, asking them to read my lectures posted there.   My feeling is very strong that I am very privileged in assisting students as they weave the fabric of the world they’re growing into, particularly in the ethics class.  My feeling is as strong that I am not there to preach, proselytize, dominate, or push any kind of agenda.  The world is complex enough to pose its own, and our student body is also complex enough that we merely need to create the space for people to speak their minds. 

I seek unabashed dominance as I discuss principles of logical discourse and principles of courtesy and respect in debate, but I am most yielding to any moral or ideological view that is being advocated as long as it demonstrates an awareness of the complexity of the issues.  I typically begin the semester with an admonition that, in my classes, anyone can say anything whatsoever without any restrictions as long as he or she is willing to concede that same kind of liberty to all others in the class.  In order to operate at the level of near-authenticity in dialogue, I have tolerated some near-obnoxious language and some very hostile homophobic comments, making room then  also for equally fervent criticisms from other students.   I suspect that, as a culture, we do avoid so hard the discussion of controversial topics of religion and politics that it is a major revelation to students when they realize that the group is not as ideologically homogeneous as they had expected it to be.  Frequent end-of-semester comments that the diversity of other views was a central learning feature of the course seem to indicate that the openness and frankness of discourse is an important feature of what we can offer our students.

Let me close with these words from William Ellery Channing, a Unitarian, and you may substitute “ideological” wherever he uses “religious”: 

The great end in religious instruction is not to stamp our minds upon the young, but to stir up their own;
Not to make them see with our eyes, but to look inquiringly and steadily with their own;
Not to give them a definite amount of knowledge, but to inspire a fervent love of truth;
Not to form an outward regularity, but to touch inward springs;
Not to bind them by ineradicable prejudices to our particular sect or particular notions,
But to prepare them for impartial, conscientious judging of whatever subjects may be offered to their decisions;
Not to burden the memory, but to quicken and strengthen the power of thought;
Not to impose religion upon them in the form of arbitrary rules, but to awaken the conscience, the moral discernment.
In a word, the great end is to awaken the soul, to excite and cherish the spiritual life.

How to do that in practical terms is another problem altogether.  


Reinhold Schlieper
August 27, 2002