diversity digest
Winter 01
Curriculum Transformation
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Diversity Requirements: Part of a Renewed Civic Education
Carol Geary Schneider, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities

As we reported in the last issue of Diversity Digest, AAC&U has released a national survey, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, which shows that 62 percent of 543 responding colleges, universities, and community colleges either have in place a cultural diversity requirement for graduation (54 percent of responding campuses) or are in the process of developing one (eight percent). Of the 434 responding four-year campuses, 60 percent report that they already have requirements in place.

Of those schools who responded to our survey from the West Coast, even more (78 percent) require the study of diversity for graduation. Our survey also revealed that among all the responding schools, the movement toward these new requirements has been rapid. Most of them have been established within the last decade and a significant number, 30 percent, within the last five years or less.

What is the educational significance of this rapid curricular change? Colleges and universities require a particular study for graduation when they believe it important to their students' social functioning, both as human beings and as citizens. Writing, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, the arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences--all made their way into virtually every required curriculum because the academy reached a consensus that educated people need competence and conversancy in these areas, whatever their intended life roles and work.

Similarly, in the early part of the twentieth century, the study of Western Civilization also moved rapidly into many campuses' curricula. This reflected an emerging consensus that Americans, as citizens of a newly significant world power, needed a developed understanding of the values and institutions that undergird western democracies. By the 1970s, however, Western Civilization requirements were already on the decline because faculty members increasingly felt these courses to be too limited in their worldview and scope.

As an historian, I am persuaded that the new diversity requirements are filling the curricular "civic" space once assigned to "Western Civ." That is, diversity requirements signal the academy's conviction that citizens now need to acquire significant knowledge both of cultures other than their own and of disparate cultures' struggles for recognition and equity, in order to be adequately prepared for the world around them. Colleges and universities clearly recognize that international boundaries are blurring and that citizens need what AAC&U's American Commitments initiative called "the liberal arts of translation" in order to live and work in the multi-ethnic borderlands that comprise our world.

AAC&U has worked hard to add the study of both world cultures and U.S. diversity to the college curriculum. We can all be pleased at the progress academe is making with these changes, especially because the requirements reflect the successful addition of new scholarship--on women, U.S. minorities, and world cultures--to a curriculum which once excluded all these topics.

AAC&U also has urged, however, that campuses develop general education courses which explore diversity in the context of democratic values, histories, and aspirations. There, our experience suggests, much less progress is being made.

Many diversity courses, especially those that deal with racism and other forms of systemic bias, implicitly appeal to democratic values such as justice, dignity, freedom, and equality. But it is the rare diversity course which systematically explores these democratic premises in and of themselves. Students are left on their own to determine what a society means by the idea of justice, or to deal with the tensions that inhere between, for example, freedom to do as one likes, on the one hand, and the expectation that we need to renounce prejudicial biases and exclusion, on the other. Nor does the typical college graduate have much idea at all where our concepts of democracy have come from or of the extent to which democratic premises have been changed and enlarged by the courageous efforts of excluded minorities, subjugated communities, and women.

When I review new general education programs, I observe that students frequently are asked to choose among either courses on world cultures, or courses on U.S. diversity, or courses comparing diversity at home and abroad. I've also seen some programs which allow students to choose two semesters from some version of the following list: a two-semester world history sequence, a two-semester American history sequence, and a course dealing explicitly with cultural diversity issues such as social hierarchies or cultural encounters. Sometimes students may substitute language study for diversity courses.

Students, I suggest, need all the above studies. A single course or even two courses on diversity is at best a down payment on the kinds of knowledge citizens need both as members of a democratic society still riven by the legacies of segregation and hierarchy, and as participants in an ever more connected global community. Making diversity a requirement certainly signals the significance of cultural intersections in our time. But one or two courses cannot begin to exhaust the kinds of knowledge--of history, of diverse cultures and languages, of cultural intersections, or of democratic and human rights traditions at home and abroad--that citizens in fact need both to comprehend and to reach judgments about a world teeming with ethnic tensions and conflicts.

For these reasons, one of the themes in AAC&U's Greater Expectations initiative on twenty-first century college learning will be a review of the different kinds of knowledge--historical, cultural, and civic--students need to be well prepared as U.S. and global citizens. AAC&U will explore more intentional connections between high school and college study, and between general education and majors, to achieve these essential outcomes.

In a more complete education for the twenty-first century, diversity will surely play a role. But diversity needs to be part of a comprehensive effort to educate students who are simultaneously at home in the world, knowledgeable about their own and other traditions, and also well prepared to engage their role as citizens in a democracy with interests around the globe. In this context, the emergence of diversity requirements is best understood as the beginning, not the end, of an important educational reform.

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Liberal Education, Fall, 2000.

AAC&U Resources on Diversity and the Curriculum

General Education and American Commitments:
A National Report on Diversity Courses and Requirements

Debra Humphreys Analyzes the latest curriculum trends and themes in over 100 American colleges and universities all working to incorporate issues of diversity into their undergraduate curricula. The report examines the strengths and weaknesses of various models for diversity requirements and strategies for curriculum transformation. (1997)
American Pluralism and the College Curriculum: Higher Education in a Diverse Democracy
This study explores curricular practices that prepare students for participation in a diverse society. It makes specific recommendations for teaching diversity across the curriculum in both general education and major programs and connecting diversity with the study of both self and society, including the values of a democratic society. (1995)

To order or to receive information:
By phone: 800/297-3755 (202/297-3755)
By email: pub_desk@aacu.nw.dc.us

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photo of Carol Geary Schneider
Carol Geary Schneider

Diversity requirements signal the academy's conviction that citizens now need to acquire significant knowledge both of cultures other than their own and of disparate cultures' struggles for recognition and equity, in order to be adequately prepared for the world around them.