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The Limits of “Teaching” Diversity

Maria Schriver

Last week, I attended the meeting where the creation of a diversity General Institute Requirement at MIT was discussed. This sounds like a good idea. During their undergraduate career, students should learn to understand people of diverse backgrounds in order to prepare them to better work and communicate after they leave. Unfortunately, two critical questions were left unanswered at the debate: What elements of “diversity” are important for students to learn? And what is the best way to learn these elements?

Although the first question might seem to present a formidable barrier to discussion, its answer is rather straightforward. “Diversity” is a broad term encompassing any systemic way in which individuals differ from each other. It spans socioeconomic, national, racial, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and other forms of diversity.

The discussion last Wednesday night seemed to focus on racial diversity. However, it is clearly more important to teach diversity in a generalized way. It is not important that students spend time studying the genetic origins for gender and sexual orientation differences or know in detail the history of the civil rights movement, but it is important that they are able to evaluate people they meet without any prejudices. If a student leaves diversity GIR class having shed racial stereotypes but still retaining gender stereotypes that they are unwilling to change, the class is a failure.

As for the best way to learn elements of diversity, two main models were proposed: one class that every MIT student would take or a selection of several different courses from which students would be able to choose. In this latter case, the curriculum of each course would be unique but have some focus on diversity.

There are some major obstacles to implementing a successful diversity appreciation class. Such a class requires more effort on the part of the student than many other classes do. In addition, it cannot be presented in lecture format or truly be evaluated based on graded assignments, like papers. While a good paper on the history of Southeast Asia may demonstrate that a student understands history, it is hard to come up with a similar model to demonstrate appreciation of diversity. A paper on marginalization experienced by international students in the U.S. today or a written personal account of being stereotyped still may not demonstrate that a student has a true appreciation of diversity. The only way to ensure that people learn anything about diversity is for them to be actively and willingly engaged in discussions with people of backgrounds different from their own. Unfortunately, neither of the two models of learning elements of diversity accomplishes this goal.

As one professor attending the diversity GIR discussion pointed out, any class that is required of all students will be hated by many students. This is as much a result of people’s innate tendency to rebel against being told exactly what is best for them as it is because no single class can appeal to a student population as diverse as MIT’s. If students do not choose their classes, they often have little or no interest in them. Thus, even if class discussion was a graded component of the course, most students would not be engaged enough to benefit if a single course were required of every student.

Another key consideration is that “learning” diversity is impossible if the discussion does not involve people of diverse backgrounds. If students were given options of several classes with different diversity foci, those with similar backgrounds would inevitably choose the same classes. A lot of women would choose the class focused on gender issues, and a lot of international students would choose the class focused on national origin issues, with the overall result being that discussions in these classes would consist mostly of students with similar backgrounds discussing issues with which they already have experience. This would be successful at teaching the students more about a particular issue, but a complete failure at instilling a generalized appreciation of diversity.

So if these models will not work for many students, what about those for whom they do work? What harm could experimenting with the models do?

The most obvious answer is that the students would give up time that could have been spent learning something else. The subtlety of this argument lies in the fact that the class time taken up by learning diversity would have otherwise been spent in another HASS class. Most HASS courses have a discussion component. Many political science, history, literature, philosophy, and anthropology classes include in their curricula material that focuses on the understanding some facet of diversity. Because students choose these classes, they are interested and engaged in the discussion. A possible alternative to creating a diversity GIR would be to find the classes already offered at MIT that fit the above description and require all students to take one of them.

One important consequence that could come out of creating a diversity GIR is that in addition to not solving the problem, it may further cover it up. With a diversity requirement, MIT would be able to fend off criticism of diversity awareness problems on campus by pointing to a meaningless graduation requirement rather than by making more fundamental changes.

Finally, a diversity GIR that does not engage students could come to be seen as a joke and a bureaucratic requirement that doesn’t really teach anything. If this happened, it would trivialize the concepts that the class would be trying to teach. The fundamental failure of the idea of a diversity GIR is that it tries to use grades as an incentive for students to open their minds and engage actively in discussion. Grades simply are not a good enough reason for most people to consider changing their opinions. Think of how many times you have heard someone say, “I got an A in that class, but I forgot everything I learned as soon as the final was over.” Grading students on their understanding of diversity issues implies that MIT considers those issues only as important as the number of units the grade is worth, which are simply not important enough.

Discussions between students from different backgrounds happen on this campus daily in every living group, proving that issues like diversity awareness can be learned in a more meaningful context than by through a class. Dean Bob Redwine said at the diversity GIR meeting that MIT students today are more capable than they have ever been in the past. It is time to trust students to gain from their independent interactions rather than trying to grade them on forced discussions. MIT can foster these independent interactions by encouraging open forums such as student newspapers and by funding diversity events planned by student groups. It can be a role of the Institute to promote diversity awareness, but it should not be the role of the academic curriculum to do so.

Maria Schriver is a member of the class of 2005.