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Is Diversity a Value in American Higher Education?, 52 Florida Law Review 861 (2000)


It is striking that a word which a generation ago carried no particular moral weight and had, at most, a modestly benign connotation, should in this generation have become the most fiercely contested word in American higher education. On the left, "diversity" is today the banner behind which the most progressive programs and ideas are marshaled. On the right, the same word has come to symbolize everything objectionable in contemporary educational practice. From one point of view, diversity seems the fulfillment of a liberal ideal of education. From another, it appears the antithesis of it. The battle lines are well-formed, and long familiar, and the passions which the diversity debate arouses on both sides make it difficult to sustain an intermediate position that is sympathetic and skeptical at once.

In this essay, I shall make an effort to define and defend a position of this sort, recognizing in advance the danger that it will appeal to the partisans of neither camp. But I have come to believe that the answer to the question posed by the title of my essay—is diversity a value in American higher education?—calls for a complex judgment that respects the ways in which programs of racial and ethnic diversification both promote the aims of liberal learning and challenge them as well. These aims transcend the circumstances of American life. They have a broad human meaning and value that reach beyond the historical and institutional peculiarities of our national community. Yet we can pursue them only in the context of the world we actually inhabit, and for Americans this means a world of continuing racial and ethnic divisions that still shape our experience to an impressive degree. Viewed from the latter—American—perspective, there are strong reasons for thinking that racial and ethnic diversity is essential to liberal education. But viewed from the former—cosmopolitan—perspective, there are reasons for worrying that the identification of racial and ethnic diversity with diversity of perceptions, judgments and, values, may impede the goals of liberal learning as well as advance them. I believe we must make an effort to hold onto both perspectives and that neither can be sacrificed without losing something of great importance in American higher education. But the difficulties of doing this are considerable, given the pressure to be "for" or "against" diversity without reservation. This essay is conceived in the hope that our choices are not so stark.

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