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Reaching Beyond the Campus with Diversity Messages

Reflections in a Different Mirror: Conference Examines Diversity, Excellence, and Academic Standards
Esther Kingston-Mann, Professor of American Studies/History and Director, Center for the Improvement of Teaching, University of Massachusetts-Boston

How do we value and evaluate the cognitive skills required by an increasingly interconnected world and a nation whose “minorities” are rapidly becoming a majority? On April 7, 1998, 275 participants gathered to discuss this question at the first ever U.S. conference to examine the relationship between diversity and academic standards.

The conference goal was to examine academic life in what Ronald Takaki has described as “a different mirror”--a mirror that reflects the work carried out at colleges and universities which ask students to face the conceptual and cognitive challenges of a world that is diverse rather than monocultural. Sponsored by UMB’s Center for the Improvement of Teaching, the gathering included educational leaders as well as students, faculty, and media representatives from UMB and the New England region.

In place of the dichotomies made familiar in America’s “culture wars,” which demand that we choose between high standards and “no standards,” conference participants heard from students whose diversity courses provided them with the analytical skills described by UMB undergraduate, Emily Lopez:

The most important thing I learned during this semester is that everything I read has already been filtered through the mind of another human being. With this in mind I began to look more closely at what I read, but also to keep an open mind about the information given to me. I tried to get as many sides to a story as I could so when I came to a conclusion it would be a fair, thought-out and educated one.

In addition to hearing about what students are actually gaining from their experiences in diversity courses, the conference explored such issues as “Redefining Academic Disciplines,” “Grades, Standards, and Learning,” “Cultural Transformations: The Teacher as Learner,” and “Shifting Conceptions of Competence and the Role of the Academy.”

The day-long conference concluded with a public event--a panel discussion on Paying Attention to Diversity in the Academy: Who Wins and Who Loses? moderated by Dean Ismael Ramirez-Soto, UMB. This panel featured a variety of viewpoints on some of the most contentious and vexing questions raised by higher education’s engagement with diversity. David Wong, Brandeis University, suggested “Much fruitful work in the academy has been done by expanding the focus of traditional disciplines to include societies and cultures with non-European origins, and by including the contributions of various racial and ethnic groups to U.S. history and culture.”

Nathan Glazer, Harvard University, emphasized the importance of social class and suggested that we need to pay attention to both “visible” and “invisible” minorities. Elizabeth Minnich, The Union Institute, argued that, rather than focusing on differences as problems, we should be “releas[ing] the potential of differences among us.” Further, she argued that it was important to undo the damage created by the “irrational exclusion of the experience of people of color from disciplines which advance claims of universality.”

Troy Duster, University of California-Berkeley, illustrated the added educational value of addressing diversity issues by telling the story of a dilemma faced by a Spanish student who learned in his English schools about a celebrated Elizabethan hero named Sir Francis Drake and in his Spanish schools about the evil El Pirata--the scourge of the Spanish seacoast. “Who was the real Sir Francis Drake?,” the student asked. As Duster puts it, “Is this a problem for the student or the teacher? In England, the history curriculum is simplified down to a single version of Sir Francis Drake, and the same is true in Spain. It turns out that when you put students together who are able to question and challenge the curriculum at this level, they elevate the whole dialogue. Diversity becomes a vehicle for better understanding the complexity of what happened in history.”

Responding to a question from the audience, conference organizer and panelist Esther Kingston-Mann argued “Learning about the history of a racial group that is different from your own is clearly an advance in your knowledge. And it’s hard for me to think about what the downside of that might be...When diverse students come to UMB, they encounter a world that was not originally constructed for them, and they raise questions which teach us about how better to understand not just the student but the subject matter. In 1991, when UMB students, faculty, and staff worked for a university-wide diversity requirement, many faculty in sociology, psychology, economics and political science supported it as a more intellectually honest curriculum..that is, one that better reflected the realities of the world. That seems like an appropriate concern for any academic institution.”

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