Teaching Diversity and Democracy across
the Disciplines: Who, What, and How
By Jack Meacham, SUNY distinguished teaching
professor emeritus, University at Buffalo–State
University of New York
Several years ago, as a Fulbright scholar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I assisted high school teachers and university professors in constructing a curriculum to teach students about democracy. I was far from an expert on the topic, but within weeks of my arrival, I had addressed a national conference and spoken at several educational and religious institutions about the need for democratic engagement with diversity--far from an abstraction in a country disengaging from a devastating war that inflamed ethnic differences. In preparing for these events, I found myself struggling to reflect deeply on decades of experience living in the world's best-known pluralist democracy. I felt less than prepared to share my perspectives on diversity and democracy with my colleagues in my host country.
I imagine that this feeling is familiar to many professors
in America's colleges and universities. Today's students
expect faculty to engage in meaningful conversations
about democracy's promise and reality. Knowing that
the landscape on which they will construct their adult
lives is unstable, they see faculty as models for how
they can influence the conversation about democracy's
role in America's diverse society and in the world at
large. Faculty, particularly those whose disciplinary
work seems less connected to these issues, may not feel
prepared to engage these questions. Yet all faculty
can bring issues of diversity and democracy into their
teaching. The challenge is finding a way how.
A Cross-Disciplinary Task
The learning outcomes associated with diversity education and with liberal education more generally--civic knowledge and engagement, intercultural knowledge and competence, ethical reasoning and action--are not the exclusive domain of any single discipline. Indeed, strengthening our students' skills and knowledge in these areas will require advances and insights from many academic fields, as contributors to this issue of Diversity & Democracy affirm. At the same time, the breadth of these learning outcomes can obscure their close connections with focused disciplinary endeavors, leaving some faculty to imagine that better-prepared colleagues in other departments are engaging students with these important learning goals. This is a formula for institutional failure.
Success in attaining these outcomes requires students to engage with questions of diversity and democracy throughout their educations, strengthening their skills as they apply what they have learned to increasingly complex problems. For this to happen, all faculty in all disciplines must commit to teaching toward these outcomes. In some cases, this means highlighting disciplinary content that attends to diverse perspectives--for example, including narratives that reflect Americans' diverse backgrounds and experiences, as some humanities scholars have done. I transformed a traditional course in developmental psychology by including autobiographies reflecting diverse experiences of growing up in America (Meacham 1997). Faculty can also teach toward these outcomes by drawing on content from multiple disciplines. In teaching World Civilizations, a general education course for first-year students, I emphasized themes of religion, race, democracy, and gender by drawing on content from art history, classics, economics, history, philosophy, and political science.
Still, for faculty accustomed to the narrow subdisciplinary focus of current doctoral training, teaching toward these outcomes through course content can be challenging. For these faculty members, it may be productive to ask not what they will teach, but how their method of teaching can encourage democratic outcomes and engagement with diversity.
Critical Thinking and Diversity
The lessons of civic engagement and diversity have significant implications for teaching. Our classrooms should be models of democracy in action. The search for better modes of deliberation across difference occurs not just in the town hall, but in the classroom, where our students can learn and practice the value of listening with respect to others. The skills students need to form better understandings are very similar to those they need to become engaged citizens in a pluralistic democracy: written and oral communication, teamwork, inquiry and analysis, intercultural competence, and critical thinking. We should thus seek opportunities to model these skills through discussion and debate, presenting evidence on both sides of historical and contemporary issues and encouraging students to draw their own conclusions while engaging deeply with multiple viewpoints.
Too many students (and perhaps too many faculty) understand the goal of debate in the classroom (and in a democracy) to be to convince other students (and fellow citizens) of their views. In short, they see inquiry, analysis, and critical thinking as ways to prove that they are right, and assume that those who disagree with them are simply failing to engage in these activities. Yet I believe that the essence of critical thinking is not criticism of others' ideas but reflection on one's own ideas and assumptions that are developed in dialogue with others. This seems especially true in the context of preparing students to be citizens in a democracy. I now tell my students that evidence of critical thinking can include reflecting on and critiquing one's own paper, criticizing one's own thesis, and discussing both sides of an issue. Critical thinking should be a tool not merely for exposing flaws in others' arguments, but for reflecting on one's own assumptions and--most importantly--strengthening one's own understanding.
What does this conception of critical thinking imply for how we engage students around issues of diversity and civic knowledge? For many years, my overarching goal in my diversity courses was for students to know about the histories and experiences of people who are different from themselves. In retrospect, I suspect that this approach led students to focus too much on learning about "the other" and too little on reflecting on their own beliefs and attitudes. Engaging with civic knowledge and diversity should mean applying critical thinking to learn about "the other" and to learn about oneself. Students should understand how gender, race, ethnicity, class, and religion affect those who are different from themselves, but they should also understand how these forces affect them. Just as in a democracy, students should analyze and critique the other's and their own positions.
In this context, the parallels between interdisciplinary and intercultural engagement abound, with deep implications for the way we teach and learn. Like diverse groups in society, each academic discipline (and each person within each discipline) provides unique perspectives on significant questions. Likewise, the boundaries of each discipline support faculty identities. Faculty who succeed in interdisciplinary teaching are able to stretch beyond their disciplinary training, taking delight with others in the mutual enrichment of their disciplines and encouraging students to appreciate connections among diverse approaches to knowledge. Interdisciplinary teaching and scholarship provide an opportunity to reflect on, test, and strengthen one's own ideas and assumptions while working with colleagues from diverse disciplines toward mutual understanding and achievement. These benefits are very similar to the benefits of engagement with diversity in a pluralist democracy.
A Democratic Approach
Given the connections between diversity, democracy, and interdisciplinarity, it's not surprising that faculty who are invested in their disciplinary identities might claim that the content of their work doesn't touch on topics related to race, gender, ethnicity, social class, or religion. But any classroom should exemplify respect for others' voices and perspectives. It's thus important for faculty to model for their students how to listen with respect and learn from those with divergent voices.
How can faculty best approach this task? In teaching toward the outcomes of civic engagement and diversity, and so sometimes stretching beyond the bounds of our disciplinary training, we should be honest with our students and ourselves about the limits of our knowledge. Effective teaching in a democratic classroom requires a willingness to shift from what one knows (and the authority that a disciplinary grounding implies) to what one doesn't know--or what one still needs to learn (and the lack of authority that this implies). Teaching a general education course, World Civilizations, after being trained as a psychologist, I learned to cast myself in the role of a student as I learned about the history of the human adventure together with the students in my course.
In doing so, I came to understand better the limitations
of my own perspective on historical and current events.
I tried to model for my students how to be a naïve
learner, admitting that there are gaps in my understanding
of Islam, for example. (I describe my experience teaching
Islam in World Civilizations in a 2009 article in Peer
Review.) In learning about Islam, I found an opportunity
not merely to learn about "the other" but also to critique
my own beliefs and attitudes about religion and society.
And I believe my students found this opportunity as
The intellectual gain for my students came less, I would argue, from any specific content--the what--that I taught, and more from the give-and-take among the students, the respect with which we engaged with others' beliefs in the classroom, and the students' sense that the true focus of our lessons wasn't Islam, per se, but was their own beliefs, attitudes, and values. Specific content on civic engagement and diversity does make a difference. But how we incorporate this content--by modeling the democratic process of discussion, debate, and the search for more informed judgments--is the key to empowering our students to be better citizens in our pluralist American democracy.
Meacham, J. 1997. Transforming a developmental psychology
------. 2009. Effective teaching to counter misinformation and negative stereotypes: The example of Islam. Peer Review 11(2): 13-16.