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Encountering Diversity on Campus and in the Classroom: Advancing Intellectual and Ethical Development
Lee Knefelkamp, Professor of Adult and Higher Education, Timothy David-Lang, Graduate Student, Teachers College, Columbia University

This article is one of a series Diversity Digest is doing on the relations between diversity and elements of cognitive development. See the article on page 10 and watch for upcoming articles in the series.

For several years now my colleague, we have been conducting a research study on the connections between undergraduate students' intellectual and ethical development. We have been asking students about their experiences of diversity both in and out of the classroom.

We have analyzed data gathered from about 200 students using various models of intellectual and identity development. Our most salient conclusion is that a student's level of intellectual complexity is the most significant filter through which she or he interprets and ascribes meaning to experiences of diversity of all kinds.

Early Encounters with Diversity

We have been particularly interested in students' experiences during their first two years of college. These are often the years during which students experience their first substantive "encounters" with diversity, to use the language of William Cross. These are also the years during which they frequently take their first diversity courses. Typically, students in these years exhibit earlier phases of intellectual development--forms of reasoning theorists describe as "dualistic" or relying on "received knowing." These students are much more likely to have firm and formed expectations of learning and firmly formed views of "others" than they will have at later developmental stages.

One of our concerns is that general education diversity courses are often designed to deliberately foster students' encounter with diversity and complexity, but too often their design is ignorant of students' actual intellectual and psychological readiness for this learning experience. We do know that when such encounters overwhelm students, intellectual regression or rigidity can result.

As educators, we want students to integrate the acquisition of intellectual reasoning tools into their personal and academic encounters with diversity so that their intellectual and interpersonal growth are facilitated by diverse and complex experiences. If that integration does not take place, or if their encounter stage is overwhelming, intellectual and interpersonal regression can result in the hardening of students' previously held views. Such regression is almost always accompanied by anger at the "other" and at having to listen to multiple perspectives of the other.

Student Reflections

Let's consider some examples of what we mean. An 18-year old, Asian-American woman who is a sophomore and a comparative literature major says:

Discussions of affirmative action in class always depress me because it is often just an excuse for people to parade their many prejudices. What really bothers me most in our class discussions is that minorities mentioned in the debate go from Afro-American to Hispanic to Asians--then it goes Afro-Americans to Hispanics--and then it just goes to Afro-Americans. Most race discussions here end up as black and white, as if no one else really existed.

This same student expresses a dualistic view of the classroom:

The ideal course would only allow class discussion at certain regulated times. As far as I can see, discussion usually involves people with no idea of what they are doing, droning on and on about how little they know.

The assessment of these two illustrations (taken in the larger context of additional data) helps us to understand how this student's cognitive level influences her encounter with diversity. Further, it shapes how she interprets discussions of affirmative action, and how she cannot yet use her own experience or the experiences of her peers as legitimate sources of learning. This student may be on the brink of regression in the face of her encounters with diversity.

Contrast the above example with another female student of the same age. This student is White, a sophomore, and an English/German major. The data we gathered on her level of intellectual development indicates a more multiplistic level. Reflecting on her encounters with diversity when she came to college, she remarks:

Now that I am in an environment where I am constantly seeing more of their cultures, I feel I have been able to understand not only foreign ideas and cultures, but also my own thought more clearly. The more I interact with students from different backgrounds, I find I am able to listen and learn more about where they are coming from and also their thought processes without having to agree or to feel good about our discussions. I've noticed a change to how I react to debates in class--I'm no longer threatened by the fact that someone had another idea. Now I realize I can disagree with someone but still understand their point of view. Understanding doesn't mean agreement and disagreement doesn't mean prejudice.

This young woman still shows elements of dualistic thinking. The "other" is still "they" and still "foreign," but she has moved to a more complex stance from which she can reflect on others and on herself. This phase is well described by William Cross as one of "immersion/emersion"--the psychological immersion into the new encountered experience or identity and the later emersion of the more complex self, who also sees others as more complex and can find connections with the "other."

Implications for Classroom Practices

Faculty who are teaching diversity courses may well want to consider assessing students' level of intellectual development and formulations of diversity as they design their courses. Classrooms can be safe spaces for the cognitive and personal challenges that diversity presents if the encounters are carefully sequenced and students are helped to learn how to be reflective about their own thinking and that of others. This doesn't happen automatically.

In our research, we have been particularly interested in students who come to college from more ethnocentric backgrounds and experiences. How do they experience the encounter with diversity about which they have only read in the past? Such encounters, even when sought, can be overwhelming or sources of growth.

Note the experience of newness, wonderment, even awe in this example from a 21-year old Irish-American sophomore:

The process is NOT easy! Having a great number of differing races and ethnic backgrounds all around you can cause tension with certain topics in class. The academic setting, however, provides for a good environment for illustrating your views and ideas but trying not to outright offend anyone else. It's tough! Often I'm unsure.

He goes on to describe a phenomenon that we consistently find in the data. The encounter with diversity often involves a direct confrontation with students' religious views. As this student describes it:

The major experience which has affected me about diversity is seeing the celebration of Hanahkah on campus as a major holiday celebration. At school here the diversity has caused me to change from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" which might not seem that significant, but is an extreme change in my perceptions of people and their views!! Similarly, the Easter holiday is also a great change. During my first year I remember telling a girl in my class--Happy Easter--and she simply and gently replied--"Thanks, but I don't celebrate Easter, I'm Jewish." That is something that I had never ever thought about at home!! She and I talked a lot about that after class. This shows that the learning process is a continuous state outside the classroom because of the diversity inside the classroom.

We found a similar pattern in a 28-year old student who had entered college later than most first year students. Note how his critical thinking skills--developed in a more enthnocentric learning environment than his present one--stand him in good stead as he encounters difference and uses his encounters to think about a particularly important issue to him. As he puts it:

As someone raised in an ultra-conservative environment, as a Hasid in Brooklyn, I had little access to the diversity experienced in most American educational institutions. Not until my exposure to "secular" education, primarily here at college, did I realize how closeted my erstwhile experience was. I was indeed surprised how myopic I was in relation to the majority of other students around me. To be certain the world of the Yeshiva definitely stressed and enhanced my mental tools for critical thinking and theoretical analysis. However, I was totally unprepared for the extreme relativism that is part of the liberal arts education. Still harboring medieval notions of an absolute truth, it took some time for me to realize the delicacy of multiple interpretations--that many interpretations not only don't contradict--but even contribute to the fuller understanding of the subject at hand. A case in point is the heated subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until I arrived here, my views were totally antagonistic towards the victimized minority. Now, however, with exposure to many thoughtful views, especially ideas about colonialism, I see things a bit differently. It now appears that both Palestinians and Israelis have been victims and victors; there is no singular truth to this quagmire. The injustices run deeply on both sides.

This student provides an excellent example of the developmental connection and interaction among the encounter with diversity, critical thinking skills, and the internal engagement with the implications of new thinking and new experiences, even those issues that are most deeply related to a sense of self and our most profound cultural experiences.


This is the essence of a liberal education: to facilitate the student's journey to awareness and knowledge of self and others, and to see the self mirrored in others--to move, as Martin Buber wrote, from a conceptualization of "we/they" to one of "I/Thou." We all will be more consistently successful at fulfilling the educational promise of the rich diversity that now characterizes higher education if we are more consistently cognizant of how our students think and how they interpret the diversity they are encountering in our classrooms and on our campuses.

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general education diversity courses are often designed to deliberately foster students' encounter with diversity and complexity, but too often their design is ignorant of students' actual intellectual and psychological readiness for this learning experience.