Postmodern Conservative

Against Competency and Diversity: Confessions of an Educational Heretic

So here’s a kind of composite of lectures I’ve given over the last year. I will, in fact, give something like it at the University of Dallas on February 12 and as my “keynote” at the fabulous ACTA (great texts) conference.

It’s also sort of a summary of my concerns in my forthcoming American Heresies and Higher Education, which is already available for pre-order.

Because of my ranting on higher education, I was interviewed yesterday by a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. She’s writing an article on the demand for more diversity courses by student protesters at mostly elite institutions.

I didn’t tell her, but I’ll tell you: I don’t think these students are much like (or, truth to tell, enough like) those who were demonstrating in the Sixties against the soulless technocracy that is the multiversity and on behalf of more reason, freedom, creativity, and love in the curriculum. Their demands are eerily specific in terms of more turf and perks for faculty in the “studies” areas — as in gender studies and African-American studies. Typically, turf that’s added has to be subtracted from someone else. And, in the case of “diversity,” it’s often from the more traditional areas of liberal education.

Why me, I asked the reporter? Because I’m a well-known anti-diversity authority.

Well, that might be good news, insofar as I might be able to start charging for anti-diversity insensitivity seminars.

But it’s probably bad news. Because to be anti-diversity, the mainstream view is, is to be a racist, sexist, xenophobic Trump fan. And so it’s to be excluded from the “conversation” that is higher education.

So I tried hard to explain to the reporter that when it comes to civil rights and related matters I’m a liberal child of the Sixties.

That means my objection to “diversity” is to the use of the word when people really mean something else, like equality or justice.

The word “diversity” has been so promiscuously misused in higher education that it’s been emptied of all real content. Yet it functions as a kind of cancer on some campuses, sucking the life out of everything in its path.

Who can we blame for our abuse of such an innocuous, even charmingly democratic, word? 

The Supreme Court! The Court says (and so far, is sticking with the thought) that only diversity in the classroom passes the strict scrutiny required to justify race-based classifications in higher education under our basically colorblind, classless Constitution.

As I just read in the hyper-liberal Nation, diversity never was a sustainable justification for affirmative action. For one thing, the point of it is not to benefit those who have been historically denied the full exercise of their rights. It’s to produce in the classroom the diversity of viewpoints that benefit all students equally. Still, the Court taught our experts to say “diversity” when they were really thinking about justice. And when you don’t say clearly what you mean, it’s impossible to have a real conversation about the merits of your argument.

If the argument for diversity is about having a wide range of opinions present in the classroom, then conservatives are right to whine that we ought to attend more to “viewpoint diversity” on campus, especially when it comes to the composition of our faculties. If the point of diversity is to have a classroom that looks like America when it comes to, say, race, surely we should have the same concern when it comes to ideological diversity in a country that, according to studies, has roughly the same number of conservatives as liberals and the same number of Republicans as Democrats. And especially on our elite campuses, it’s very hard to find conservative faculty members and harder still to find one who’ll admit to having voted for Romney. But if the claim is on behalf of groups that have suffered from legal discrimination, then the bottom line isn’t viewpoint diversity, and the conservative whine makes a lot less sense.

Let me expand my concern by repeating my thought from previous posts that the two cancerous (and basically admin-speak) words on campus are “competency” and “diversity” and that they are both threats to liberal education. The danger is that our curricula will  become nothing but competency courses and diversity courses. That doesn’t mean, of course, that being competent is anything but good, and the same with a proper appreciation for diversity. 

Peter Augustine LawlerPeter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is executive editor of the acclaimed scholarly quarterly Perspectives on Political Science and served on President George ...

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