A More Moderate Diversity

Elizabeth Corey

Spring 2017

Diversity has become a sacred word in the contemporary American university. Like equality, fairness, inclusion, academic freedom, and critical thinking, many consider it one of the lodestars of higher education. Yet on campuses across the country, people quietly disagree about what diversity means. Of what, exactly, does it consist, and how should it be measured? Is diversity merely a matter of race and gender, or also sexual orientation? What about political and methodological diversity? Should diversity be pursued primarily in faculty hiring, or in the student body, or in the administrative staff? Do foreign nationals count as diverse hires? How exactly do all these different types of diversity benefit higher education as a whole?

Few within the university community are willing publicly to raise such questions for fear that they will be targeted as bigots or preservers of white and male privilege. This is not an unreasonable fear, and examples of such targeting proliferate. The irony is that the mainstream diversity movement actually tends toward uniformity of the most extreme kind, which happens to look very much like mainstream American progressivism. In the name of diversity — an expansive and liberating notion of engaging with people and ideas markedly different from the ones we know — one particular, narrow understanding of the concept is being used to transform every school into the ostensibly value-neutral, secular state university of today. A cold war rages between those who promote this dominant vision of diversity and those who hold different views about the purpose of a university and about diversity itself.

This war is similar to the kinds of political conflicts that are now ubiquitous in America. One side is ascendant and tries to crush the other side; the other side fights back with ridicule and anger. In the literature about diversity, for example, partisans take the good of diversity (as they understand it) for granted, assuming that the only relevant questions concern implementation and that opponents are motivated solely by bias and bigotry. Critics of diversity tend to highlight the excesses of the movement, often in op-eds that poke fun at the most radical claims of the most radical partisans. It all leads nowhere, and makes enemies of colleagues.

A more constructive approach to this controversy requires the abandonment of polemics. This does not mean that we must also abandon criticism, but inquiry should aim at clarity, and perhaps even compromise, instead of provocation. At the very least, the goal should be a better understanding of the reasons for the present conflict. In a timely new book, Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes, political theorist Aurelian Craiutu suggests that the virtue of moderation might help in navigating our polarizing ideological disagreements.

In that spirit, we can attempt to find a moderate position in this particular fight. Our goal must be to see the different "moral worlds" of both partisans and critics of the mainstream social-justice diversity movement, to point out the shortcomings of each view, and ultimately to encourage civility and good humor in the face of difference — instead of the anger and suspicion that come so naturally to many of us. To start, however, the conflict and its origins require some explanation.


Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has recently proposed a dichotomy between two ideal types of universities. In a talk titled "How two incompatible sacred values are driving conflict and confusion in American universities," he argues that "Truth University" finds its roots in John Stuart Mill's defense of viewpoint diversity in On Liberty, while "Social Justice University" originates in Marxist ideas about power and oppression. The former requires a vigorous and unfettered exchange of ideas; the latter aims at protecting and eventually liberating victims. Diversity means something quite different in each university.

Truth University assumes that the activity of scholarly inquiry is potentially open to anyone who wants to engage in it, regardless of his or her identity as man or woman, black or white, gay or straight. A black Christian man and a white Jewish lesbian can work together as they examine proto-Corinthian pottery or analyze the latest economic report. The results of such scholarly inquiry are verifiable by others and are subject to criticism, refutation, and revision. Scholarship is understood as "cogent" — clear, logical, convincing, lucid. It is politically and personally disinterested.

In this context, diversity means the cultivation and appreciation of intellectually fresh and often different viewpoints. This occurs as part of scholarly research and in classroom conversation. Such diversity may at times be adversarial in character, but it is warm to the notion of a competitive marketplace of ideas. It is also freewheeling in allowing potentially any idea or method, no matter how controversial or currently out of vogue, into the conversation. This view assumes nothing about social progress or about communal goals like liberation or political reform. It aims at truths that can be widely understood and approved by impartial observers, and then tries to test those truths against competing ones. This type of diversity may also foster a certain kind of intellectually modest character. A person who must remain open to refutation is likely to be aware of his or her own limits.

By contrast, diversity does much more substantial practical and political work in Social Justice University. In this context, diversity is not the expression of different viewpoints concerning issues and methods, but rather the equitable representation of women, blacks, Hispanics, and other designated groups in positions of institutional power. The aim is not necessarily to replicate the proportions of women and minorities in the population at large (though this is considered ideal) but to cultivate a critical mass of people whose race and sex distinguish them from the white, male majority. But the goal is not mere representation. The assumption is that members of these groups will substantively change institutions in a positive way and that the institutions will in turn improve the lives of the group members. Since the goal is reform, certain viewpoints may be deemed off-limits because they appear retrograde, old-fashioned, or simply hurtful.

These contrasting meanings of diversity presuppose different understandings of the essential character of a university and its students. In Truth University, students are invited to identify themselves as apprentices, working with senior scholars to acquire intellectual inheritances of various kinds so that they can begin to know what they might want to say and do. This requires postponement of political activism until one is more certain of what that activism is for. Such a university does not see itself as an institutional advocate for any political cause. Politics, of course, is one legitimate mode of inquiry, but so are art history, classics, history, literature, math, physics, and, in the modern day, business, engineering, and other pre-professional studies. Students are left free to seek their own intellectual and moral fortunes.

In Social Justice University, politics is at the center of a student's experience. The university itself is seen as a vehicle for the intellectual and moral transformation of society. Activism is encouraged early and often, and personal identity is at the center of the curriculum. Women and minorities are brought to see the full scope of their oppression, and white males are made to see their roles as oppressors. To some extent, apprenticeship exists here too, but in another sense it doesn't: Students arrive with identities that are predetermined. The goal is to know more about that identity and its relationship to structures of power.

What are the most important differences between these two ideas of diversity? First, truth diversity is potentially competitive, and it assumes all participants are more or less similarly situated — capable of both deploying and answering arguments. It also requires some separation between person and argument, meaning that if someone questions someone else's position it does not imply a personal attack. Further, it understands certain methods as suitable for certain subjects. Statistical analysis is important in studies of voting behavior, but irrelevant in political philosophy; personal story is important in social work, but not in math. Finally, rational evidence must be adduced to support or refute arguments, and findings are potentially verifiable by anyone.

In social-justice diversity, by contrast, identity plays a far more significant role. Scholarship is often deeply personal, to the point that a challenge to someone's view may be considered an attack on the person, and even on an entire race or gender. If, as in certain varieties of perspectivism, "epistemic privilege" is to be gained only by actually having the experiences that an oppressed person has had, then traditionally privileged persons (like white men) may be barred from entering the conversation at all. Diversity then appears not as a wide range of views, but as a long-awaited amplification of voices that have traditionally not been heard. Moreover, knowledge is not advanced by method, rational evidence, and verifiability, but by attending to an infinite variety of narratives. Personal identity and subjects studied are intricately linked, which is the reason for the proliferation of women's and gender studies, Queer studies, African-American studies, and the like.


Where did these two divergent understandings originate, and what do they presuppose? In Truth University, diversity depends on at least two characteristics in the inquirer. The first is an openness to criticism. As Haidt has explained, Mill stands as the foundational theorist for Truth University. In his essay entitled "Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion" in On Liberty, Mill makes a strong defense of vigorous and sometimes even antagonistic debate among viewpoints. Since people are fallible, they are capable of being wrong. Unwillingness to be corrected is dangerous both to the individual and to society as a whole, for uncorrected error may be perpetuated across multiple individuals, and even throughout entire generations. The fact of fallibility also has implications for individuals themselves. To suffer correction by others requires the cultivation of certain intellectual virtues: modesty, humility, and teachability, even as one must also summon the courage to express and vigorously debate one's views.

The 20th-century German philosopher Karl Jaspers echoes Mill's idea that the search for truth is potentially adversarial, where adversarial (somewhat counterintuitively) implies scholars engaged in a mutual search for truth. In his book The Idea of the University, Jaspers points out that the marketplace of ideas is inherently competitive not because people desire to harm one another but because they share a common desire for truth. Scholars must be ready to receive any and all criticism, because "[f]or the thinking man...criticism is a necessary condition of life." The person who avoids it "essentially does not want to know."

The second crucial characteristic of the inquirer in Truth University is disinterest. Disinterest in this context obviously does not imply that the researcher is uninterested in his or her subject of study. Rather, the point is that such study does not directly bear on the researcher's life and personal interests. He is not essentially studying himself. This opens all subjects of inquiry to anyone who might wish to study them. A black woman could as legitimately study physics (traditionally a white and male discipline) as a white man could study black feminist thought.

This idea of disinterest is crucial to Truth University, because disinterested inquiry moves researchers away from extreme personal subjectivity. The point is obvious: If we are too personally interested in the subjects we study, then the possibility for self-interested bias is significant. As Haidt points out, scholarship "undertaken to support a political agenda almost always 'succeeds'" and a scholar "rarely believes she was biased." To the degree, therefore, that we study the things that matter most to us personally (i.e., our own identities), there are incentives to find exactly what we are looking for.

Jaspers has an answer to this problem of subjectivity: "The scholarly and scientific outlook is more than specialized knowledge and competence. It is the ability to suspend temporarily one's own values for the sake of objective knowledge, to set aside bias and special interests for the sake of an impartial analysis of data. In doing this we not only achieve essentially impartial knowledge, but also our personal bias is put in a new light" (emphasis added). Experiencing our own limitations "creates the basis for true objectivity"; the scientific outlook, he adds, "involves the transformation of our whole person in accordance with reason."

The scholar who is at home in Social Justice University possesses quite different characteristics. Whereas Truth University values the goods of mutual correction and refutation, Social Justice University prioritizes opposition and activism. Disinterest is replaced with intense personal interest in one's field of study. Diversity here is focused not on viewpoint, but on identity.

To take one representative example, a popular methodology in feminist studies is "standpoint theory." In standpoint theory, a researcher presents her research as emerging from a particular position in society — a standpoint at which she (and perhaps others) have arrived. By definition, the researcher judges that she herself is oppressed, as are other women, and that this must be overcome through political action. The "epistemic privilege" of being part of an oppressed group counters the unwillingness of the dominant group to recognize oppression, yielding perspectives that are otherwise invisible. By virtue of her position in society, the standpoint theorist therefore sees things that nobody else can. In this context, Mill's ideas about the virtues of refutation and correction make little sense.

Prominent feminist Sandra Harding points out that standpoint theory is "a way of empowering oppressed groups, of valuing their experiences, and of pointing toward a way to develop an 'oppositional consciousness.'" Feminist concerns "[cannot] be restricted to what are usually regarded as only social and political issues, but instead must be focused on every aspect of natural and social orders, including the very standards for what counts as knowledge, objectivity, rationality, and good scientific method" (emphasis added). It emerges in opposition to the disciplines of the traditional university, which are "complicitous with sexist and androcentric agendas of public institutions."

A canonical text for standpoint theory and other related methods of inquiry is Paulo Freire's 1968 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. His pedagogy has two distinct stages: first, an unveiling of the world of oppression and, second, a process of permanent liberation from oppression. The first stage opens the eyes of the blind, and the second reforms society. Certain classes of people — women, gays and lesbians, blacks, Hispanics — are placed in groups that define themselves through opposition to the dominant "other." That other is usually male, white, and in possession of power.

According to Freire, the only way to bridge the gap between oppressor and oppressed is to defer to the understanding of the oppressed class: "Solidarity requires that one enter into the situation of those with whom one is solidary; it is a radical posture. If what characterizes the oppressed is their subordination to the consciousness of the master...true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform...objective reality." Again, transformation is at the center of this view, and diversity is not about ideas but about persons. Within such a framework, the idea of disinterest makes no sense.


Social Justice University is ascendant in the United States at the moment, but Truth University is the more traditional and longstanding of the two. Jonathan Haidt is right to point out that they are at odds; they presuppose different visions of the character of the scholar and the purpose of scholarship.

In Truth University, diversity does not concern race, gender, or sexuality per se, but is focused on viewpoint or "idea" diversity, which is not therapeutic, practical, or political. Diversity here assumes a general equality of all participants, a willingness to suffer correction, and an inclination to engage in conversation with others in a peer-review process. For Social Justice University, diversity is motivated by a desire for political change, and it aims at transformation. It emerges out of a pedagogy of the oppressed and prioritizes personal identity, focusing on categories like race, gender, and sexuality. Diversity here is not simple representation of formerly oppressed or marginalized groups on university faculties. For this would be to treat the members of these groups as equivalent to the "dominant" group and thus to effect no substantive political change at all. Instead, these groups must reimagine their fields as a whole, and also reimagine and change the university and its structures of power.

Taken as contrasting ideal types, these two ideas of diversity seem to have almost nothing in common. Both make certain assumptions that by definition exclude alternative views and exacerbate disagreement between people who approve one conception of diversity over against the other. Each viewpoint has its own significant deficiencies that should be addressed.

Truth diversity fails to see two points that are crucial for grasping the immense reach and power of the social-justice diversity movement. First, the idea that personal identity can be wholly divorced from scholarship is not only impossible but undesirable. Taken to an extreme, it would suggest that religious people should not study religion, or that Americans should not study American politics. Scholars are not disembodied intelligences battling it out over ideas that have no bearing on their lives. They are human beings who make judgments about the intellectual questions that they choose to pursue. Even the most empirically grounded researcher working in a lab or with a data set chooses his topics because they matter to him.

In many cases, what we choose to study is a quite direct reflection of our priorities in everyday life — the social worker who studies abused children, the virtue ethicist who wants to understand happiness, the scientist who tries to find a cure for the disease that afflicts his mother. To see this is to agree with what the social-justice diversity advocates say: Identities matter in scholarship, as they do in every other aspect of life. In other words, the viewpoint diversity prized by Truth University depends, in part but not wholly, on the identities of the people who teach and learn there. Disinterest, therefore, might better be understood not as a rigid absolute, but as a condition to which scholars should constantly aspire as a way of checking their own subjective inclinations.

Second, although I have argued against the one-dimensional neo-Marxist lens in which everything is seen as a battle between oppressor and oppressed, it is indisputably true that individuals and groups do suffer and have suffered varying degrees of oppression and harm. Investigation of these kinds of social relationships provides many fruitful topics for historical, sociological, and political inquiry, not to mention for the various kinds of identity-studies programs that now proliferate. Certain methods of inquiry are uniquely positioned to illuminate these kinds of problems. And although it can be pursued to an extreme, there is virtue in a method like standpoint theory, which prioritizes the "positionality" of an inquirer and argues that the marginalized are best suited to understand social relationships and the unequal distribution of power.

In Texas, for example, Hispanic immigrants trying to learn English must be "doubly conscious" of themselves and of their difference from the culture that they are trying to join. They comprehend the dynamics of a culture that the white, English-speaking Texan does not, and need not, comprehend. In the same way, a black professor at a largely white university is aware of himself both as a black man "representing" his race, and as part of an elite, "the professoriate." A white male professor usually has no intrinsic need for this double consciousness, and it will take him special effort to acquire it, if he can at all. Feminist scholars make similar points.

In short, a different and special mode of vision comes with particular positions in society, and the insights gained by the traditionally less privileged can be extremely valuable — both to the person who has the insight and to his or her audience, if a way can be found to broadcast those insights more widely and without alienating the listener. In practice, people who fall on the side of truth diversity tend to avoid the topics of race, gender, and sexuality altogether, precisely because they are told they cannot say anything relevant if they do not comprise part of the group being studied. It is possible that conservatives and progressives would have enormously fruitful collaborations on questions of race and gender, if only they could communicate civilly about such sensitive topics. Unfortunately, such conversations do not often take place.

This points to a major problem of Social Justice University. Although contemporary diversity advocates explicitly promote racial, gender, and sexual diversity, they are remarkably uniform in their approaches to academic life and to the types of diversity that are given priority. They are inspired by neo-Marxist systems of adversarial categories that structure all subsequent inquiry: Oppressor versus oppressed is the overarching model, within which one finds women versus men, black versus white, privileged versus non-privileged. Most of life is seen through these highly contestable lenses. We are never simply "human beings," but always essentially identified by our race, gender, privilege, sexuality, and so on, or by various "intersectional" combinations of characteristics that form a complicated web of privilege and oppression. The entirety of academic study is then conducted from within these categories, which are taken not as debatable premises but as first principles. One group oppresses, another group is oppressed; still another group points out the oppression to those who fail to see it, calling it false consciousness (unconscious bias) if they do not acquiesce.

This has created silos of people who are largely unable to communicate with each other about serious social and political ideas. According to the most extreme version of this view, a man cannot understand the experience of a woman; a white person cannot understand someone who is black; someone who is straight is unable to imagine the experience of being gay. Interestingly, though, the converse is not assumed: The special vision engendered by oppression carries with it an implicit understanding of the dominant majority. All of this leads not toward reconciliation but to increased polarization of the university and society at large. To base one's identity primarily on group characteristics is fundamentally to exclude others who do not share those characteristics, and moreover could not share them because they consist in unchangeable attributes like race and gender.

The second problem with the social-justice diversity movement is its desire to transform universities into new political institutions that exemplify its own vision of the good. This follows, of course, from understanding all of human life as essentially political, structured by categories of power and oppression. In large part, this has already been accomplished in the United States, where it is now increasingly difficult to find a school that sees itself as a place set apart for the study of ideas that have no immediate practical or political relevance. Instead, universities have become hotbeds of progressive (and at times also conservative, though much less so) political activism, where students arrive with views already formed, ready to get the diploma that will allow them to go out and act as agents of social change.

Add to this the indisputable fact that Social Justice University, despite its watchword of "inclusion," often does not welcome or respect the authentically diverse views of all comers. Conservatives, evangelicals, Catholics, Mormons, climate-change skeptics, traditional-marriage advocates, and Donald Trump supporters will find the going rather tough at Oberlin or Macalester. The situation is still worse for those who are considered traitors to their race or sex: the conservative black man or the "internally misogynist" woman who did not vote for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. These people have consciously chosen to reject the social and political scripts that social-justice diversity has created for them.

The final problem of Social Justice University is its abandonment of the idea that university education can provide liberation of a different type in allowing us (temporarily) to escape our own particularity. Of course, mainstream social-justice diversity purports to liberate by revealing the chains that have bound us to our positions in society. But this is categorically different from the kind of freedom that comes with imaginatively escaping the provincialism of one's own identity and one's social situation — even one's own sex and race. To see the world as Homer did, or Confucius, or Sappho, or Frederick Douglass, or any other great thinker or artist, is to leave behind one's own preoccupations for a time, acquiring a panoptic vision of what it means to be a human being. This kind of education provides training in the very important skill of imagining the moral worlds of people who differ from us.


A third, alternative way of thinking about diversity would avoid the extremes of both views — the unimodal, all-encompassing political view of the social world as consisting of oppression and privilege, and the disembodied intelligences whose identities do not matter. This third way will not satisfy committed constituents on the extreme right and left. But perhaps it more accurately reflects the way most people think about diversity. It requires, however, the capacity to "imagine" the experiences of those who see the world in ways we do not. The exercise of this capacity is sometimes uncomfortable, and may at times even move us toward changing our minds.

My own experience tells me that there is a very large (and very quiet) group of moderates within academic life, people who hold a more or less commonsense view of diversity. They know that a diverse seminar room — where diversity may be defined in terms of sex and race, but also and especially in terms of viewpoint — yields more fruitful conversations than one in which everyone has already arrived at an accepted orthodoxy. They see that in staff meetings, board meetings, and vestry meetings women contribute goods and ideas that an all-male conversation might not produce. It is not that all men are inclined to be rational and analytic, and all women thoughtful or emotionally sensitive, as the stereotypes assert. Yet there are fundamentally different dynamics at work in single-sex and co-ed settings.

Similar observations may be made about racial diversity, and particularly with respect to certain kinds of courses. While we might agree that race has little bearing on math, computer science, and engineering, it has a great deal to do with American politics, literature, and law. It is likely that people of different races could contribute something from a fundamentally different "standpoint" than their white peers. This, after all, was the origin of the argument for diversity in the first place. In the landmark 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court did not approve a variety of alternative justifications for affirmative action, but it did emphatically say that cultivation of diversity was a legitimate goal for such policies in higher education. The Court has followed this line of argument in all subsequent affirmative-action cases involving higher education, including Gratz, Grutter, and both Fisher cases.

Something is also intuitively right about the "role model" argument for diversity. Although empirical studies of the impact of having professors who mirror students in terms of race or gender yield mixed results, many students say it matters that their professors look like them. Is it meaningful for a young woman to have a woman professor as a model she might emulate? Or a black student a black professor? We can debate the degree to which these kinds of role models should be engineered through diversity programs, but in principle there seems nothing wrong with them, and perhaps much right. In sum, I would argue for a commonsense model of diversity on campus, as most people believe that the institutions of elite culture ought to be open to everyone, regardless of sex or skin color. Seeing people who are "like us" satisfies this desire, especially if we happen to be women or members of minority groups.

I am not prepared to lay out a blueprint for achieving this more moderate view of diversity, but I can make one suggestion based on my own college-teaching experience. In the fall of 2016, I taught a course at Baylor called "Diversity and Affirmative Action," which was an exploration of race in America, focusing on the ways in which affirmative-action and diversity policies have helped and hurt minorities. We considered thinkers on both left and right — from Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ira Katznelson to Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas, and even writers with no explicit ideological agenda at all, like Garnette Cadogan, whose evocative essay "Walking While Black" should be required reading for all Americans. What my students and I learned was a basic lesson of democratic citizenship: Difficult and controversial issues like race and affirmative action usually presuppose legitimate arguments on both sides. In Mill's terms, we were forced to confront our opponent's position (if we thought we already had a position) in its strongest and most convincing form. Many of us were changed by it. And we also came to see that political indoctrination — from the right or left — is illegitimate and a betrayal of education itself. Perhaps, then, it might even be the obligation of conservatives to teach classes in race and gender, as a corrective to the overwhelming lack of diversity in these courses at present.

A more moderate view of diversity has few, if any, public advocates. This is because Social Justice University has set the tone and terms of the debate, and Truth University reacts but does not construct an alternative. Is there any hope of bringing these radically opposed visions together in a way that satisfies both sides? If we consider the political polarization of the American public, and imagine that the American university is probably far more polarized still, then it looks unlikely. For coming together on the issue would require compromises on both sides, which many are unwilling to make.

People who are committed to social-justice diversity tend to act out of a deep sense of injustice and, often, personal hurt. For such people, diversity is not an academic question but a profoundly existential one. Questioning such a person's commitments is seen not as a Millian purification of view but as a personal attack. These exchanges quickly move from civility to anger and embarrassment — and finally to silence. And to the extent that one must be of an oppressed class to say anything about the experience of oppression, an entire class of people is more or less prevented from speaking to this debate in the first place: white men, in general, but also men on women's issues, non-blacks on black issues, non-Hispanics on Hispanic issues, and so on. The situation becomes the one of silos that I mentioned earlier, and this destroys any hopes we might have of understanding across demographic categories, or of eventual reconciliation.

Yet perhaps this is too pessimistic. If a moderate middle does exist, then I think that setting out clearly the fundamental presuppositions of the different sides is a service in itself. For, to the degree that we can begin to see the commitments of each, we might be inspired to craft solutions that better take into account both sides. In this vein, I would point out the deficiencies of the totalizing oppressor/oppressed worldview as well as the problems of the atomistic vision of the totally self-made individual, whose historical background has no bearing on present circumstances. Conservatives might be invited to see the real perspective that certain "standpoints" can offer, while liberals must admit that academic standpoint theory cannot stand unchallenged but must be subject to criticism, too. Only if we are willing to approach the diversity issue with humility and charity can there be hope for moving forward, together.

Elizabeth Corey is an associate professor of political science at Baylor University and a 2016-17 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. 


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