On ‘Diversity’

I suppose I am in a position to say something about ‘diversity.’ The usual protocol of posts like this one requires me to elaborate on the reason why I am, which then usually devolves into an abstract celebration of my country of origin, and a pseudo- (or proto-)nationalist tale of how and why its values can enrich these United States of A-. To an extent, there is nothing wrong with that; but, for obvious reasons, I dislike the celebratory tone that inevitably creeps in when I write about my so-called home country and the reader, again for obvious reasons, is structurally unable to tell the sarcasm. Suffice it to say, then, what the usual protocol recognizes as the minimum threshold for my voice to get an authority which is somewhat greater than other speakers’ whose country of biological origin happens to be the aforementioned United States of A-, to speak about diversity in conjunction with the question of foreign countries: I am legally obliged to present a German passport when stopped by the police of my host country, and one can indeed discern a German accent (though I am told that it is slight) when I speak.

Credentials aside, I do have something to say on diversity, especially with a world-wide context. This issue, too, tends to assume a rather celebratory tone when it is asserted that “students encounter and learn from others who have backgrounds and characteristics very different from their own,” encounters whose “educational value … will become more important, not less,” as the United States of A- approaches the Twenty-First century (Milem, 127). A significant portion of students’ diverse backgrounds is indeed contributed to A-can campuses by students from foreign countries – like myself, which I add here just to make sure that my credentials remain intact – such that A-can students are encouraged to significantly improve their foreign-country-related (language, cultural, social) skills. For, after all, “[s]tudents need to become “global citizens” and useful neighbors to everyone, including those in our own communities.” (Braskamp, 2).

There is certainly nothing wrong with such commitments – though experience (…and here we go with the credentials again…) obliges me to add a skeptical question mark to the idea that the so-called “3M mix- millenial, post-modern, and missionary” (Braskamp, 3) is indeed a positive attitude of students leaving the country I mentioned so often already that I will simply refrain from doing so for the remainder of this post, and fly to foreign countries. Since Braskamp’s source does not elaborate on what the first two elements of the mix mean, we are invited to focus on the third: what exactly is there to be ‘missionary’ about? What, besides the Simpsons (of which I myself happen to be a long-time fan, watching them in my native tongue first, and subsequently developing my English, or perhaps rather American, language skills in tandem with the growing elaboration and complexity of the Simpsons’ characters), craft beers, and the occasional financial unpleasantness, is it that makes American education, and American educators so special?

Certainly not the reduction of difference to ‘common values’ this paragraph celebrates in a manner lending itself to be quoted at length:

“What is important is that we do not limit our perspective to cultural differences that historically have been associated with nations and countries. We instead need to understand and respect justice, equity, fairness, and equal opportunities as virtues and values that should not be viewed as assumed universal truths, but important and contested goals and ends in our dialogues that also accept different traditions. Moreover, we need to work together and collectively to achieve these virtues and values.” (Braskamp, 4)

This invites a number of questions, of which I will focus only on one. What is justice, loftiest of all old ideals, if not an abstract virtue, a regulative idea hovering over us, inviting us to paint castles into the sky and neglect that there is no such thing as a common ‘justice’ shared by all different perspectives on it: there are only different perspectives on different questions, and it is doubtful whether they can be resolved towards a common ideal of ‘justice’ shared on a world-wide scope. Diversity is disagreement about justice, not within justice; for if justice is already established as the eventual point of arrival, result, and redemption, what about the injustice to those whose systems of justice are different from the one closing itself over the others? What ‘justice’ is in the endless attempt of systems of law to approach it? More importantly, what kind of justice are we talking about when we presume, somewhat willy-nilly, that it can account for the endless attempts of several systems (plural) of justice? Justice: eternal and everlasting? Justice: authoritative, substantial and unquestionable?

Furthermore: what is said about ‘diversity’ if it is already defined – structurally, not in terms of content; this freedom to elaborate we have – as a form of ‘productivity’? Why should I encourage diversity in the classroom, and at the same time draw boundaries around it such that the prefiguration of a commonality of ‘justice’ induces weakness of argument, sloppiness of critique, complacency of discourse? What productivity is the possible likely result of such ‘diversity’? Why ‘promote diversity’ and yet preclude questioning the very differences that give rise to its merits in the first place?

No: we need to ask what we mean by ‘diversity.’ There seem to be two kinds of diversity: one that precludes final questioning, and one that encourages it. One is the nominal kind of diversity that is encouraged and achieved – and rightly so! – by affirmative action. I wholeheartedly support this version, but ask whether it is not possible to ge even further beyond it, towards acknowledging that the very assumption of ‘common values’ is not already a violation of someone’s sentiments, an injustice to someone’s beliefs. What we need to be aware of is that, when we talk about ‘diversity,’ what we mean to say is not so much paying attention to diversity on a common stage. Diversity is the right of the last other to disagree – and that is what, I think, should be encouraged in the classroom.

Returning to the credentials mentioned at the beginning of this post: perhaps it is the attempts to encourage the second, more far-reaching kind of diversity, in classrooms and beyond, that can make American education special, at least vis-à-vis its German counterpart.

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