Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Racial diversity and opinion diversity

This Inside Higher Ed article summarizes a study about the effects of racial and opinion diversity on people’s opinions about access to college. The "newsworthy" finding is that racial and ethnic diversity in a discussion group are more likely to lead to changes in opinions than is opinion diversity (which may not be manifested if the "outliers" don’t speak up). The study’s authors and the IHE reporter want the big takeaway to be that racial and ethnic diversity matter in education, and that, by itself, "mere" diversity of opinion doesn’t have the same sort of effect as the former sort of diversity. If you want to change people, change the complexion of those with whom they interact.

Well, I dunno. A one-time discussion isn’t a very good proxy for a classroom relationship that extends over a semester or a campus community that goes longer than that. People who are initially silent may gain the confidence to speak up over time.

Unless, perhaps, their opinions are clearly and consistently disfavored by the dominant (student, professorial, or administrative) voices. I’d be interested in a study of what it takes to get the silent to speak up.

Update: On reflection, there are all sorts of other things wrong with this study, at least as it’s reported. First, let’s raise the question of whether changing people’s opinions is, absent everything else, a good thing. If the opinions are bad, sure, but if not, why? Second, why not be open to the possibility that the result of exposure to "diversity," however understood, might be to confirm opinions? Openness to evidence and argument may produce confirmation rather than change. Third, the bare argument for intellectual diversity is almost (but not quite) as reductionist as the argument for racial and ethnic diversity. Proponents of the former who go no further assume a kind of intellectual and moral equivalence among arguments, leaving it to the "marketplace of ideas" to sort out quality. But absent considerations of quality, a diversity of arguments can’t be expected to produce anything good, especially if the folks who are supposed to sort them out aren’t all young Socrateses.

What this last consideration leads me to is not a simple-minded call for intellectual diversity in faculty hiring, but rather a call for faculty to be intellectually honest and even-handed, putting forth the best possible arguments for all positions, or perhaps even tilting against a classroom consensus to make students think their own positions through. This is good teaching, regardless of who the professor votes for in November.

Discussions - 8 Comments

There is nothing wrong with diversity, so long as it is real. The problem is that there is a double standard. What "diversity" really means is that there should be additional rights for minorities, but that the rights of whites (Euro-Americans) should be retracted. In order to have real diversity, Euro-Americans must start demanding representation and equal treatment.

Given PC taboos, the likelihood is that the "whites" in the group were the ones changing their minds. True "slop-bucket science."

The political motivation is clear: to cast doubt on common-sense conclusions about the desirablity of intellectual diversity. Loud laughter is the appropriate response, as the dumbest most uneducated man on the street knows what these mercenary researchers pretend not to: that the quality of a converstation is not something that can be quantified.

Tenured lefties, if you wanna start quantifyin’, let’s count how many Republicans v. Democrats and see how your illustrious institutions fare. The only fig leaf of defense possible for the stark bias found in higher education today is in fact the very notion that "what we do here" cannot be quantified.

Note: if upon reading this intellectual discourse, you found that your opinion changed, please e-mail the research team: soulplotter@prestige.edu

If we were to take the study’s results as true (or true as far as it goes), what would it say about contemporary students? That they’re more apt to have their views changed by identity-based opinions than views based on different reasons? I can just hear the conversation now, centered around "well, my experience has been...", which is, of course, naught impossible to critique. As I write this, I begin to wonder more and more if it isn’t true after all...

Almost certainly what it means (all else constant) is that some moral authority is being lent to arguments based on the skin color of the advocate. Essentially, the students have been taught rank racism (oh, you’re black, you must be right!).

"In addition to our highest ranking in the UN News and World Report tabulation of the Number of Ethnic Groups Represented in Enrollment, studies show that Walt Whitman University’s students ’change their opinions more frequently than those found at any comparable institution.’ Indeed, according to the report made by one pyschological profiling of our student body, ’Even more amazing than the intellectual diversity and dynamism that one finds on a day-to-day basis at Whitman, is to witness the multifaceted evolution of these students’ intellectual paradigmns and learning styles occuring right before one’s own eyes. You literally cannot predict what these students will say before they open their mouths!"

What this last consideration leads me to is not a simple-minded call for intellectual diversity in faculty hiring, but rather a call for faculty to be intellectually honest and even-handed, putting forth the best possible arguments for all positions, or perhaps even tilting against a classroom consensus to make students think their own positions through. This is good teaching, regardless of who the professor votes for in November.

I think you have it exactly right, Joe. How do we encourage that?

P.S. - At the very least, Joe's criterion requires that faculty learn in some detail views not their own. Pressures to write do not encourage that. And it also requires a deft handling of student questions, since students are often overly interested in their professors' own political opinions, even out of context.

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