The diverse spectrum of diversity

From decolonising curricula to ensuring right-wing viewpoints, calls for more representation and balance on campuses do not all share the same goals, says Tom Cutterham

September 22, 2016
Child's eyes in front of collage of white businessmen
Source: Rex/Getty

The discipline of economics has come in for a rough time since the 2008 crash. Not only did economists largely fail to predict what would happen, but many of their critics felt that the discipline shared some responsibility for the disaster. Economic orthodoxy, it was said, advanced a spurious set of models that had served particular interests. By cheerleading deregulation, and failing to provide alternative ways of seeing and interpreting economic systems, the discipline had led markets and policymakers blindfold off a cliff.

That failure sparked urgent calls for a dramatic realignment. Through pressure groups such as the Post-Crash Economics Society and Rethinking Economics, students agitated for diversity and pluralism in the classroom. They argued that it was the discipline’s responsibility to teach “heterodox” as well as standard ideas. Courses needed to be redesigned to give students access to conflicting perspectives. Only then could the next generation of economists begin to grapple with the weaknesses that the crash had brought into the open.

Fast-forward to the present, and the battle is still very much under way. In some cases, the orthodoxy may be striking back. As Times Higher Education reported in April, a high-profile pluralist module at the University of Glasgow was dropped after the department head described it as “too radical”. Nor do all those who question the existing methods embrace pluralism. In the newsletter of the Royal Economics Society last year, Margaret Stevens, professor of economics at the University of Oxford, wrote that “the solution to the problem of an established orthodoxy” is for students to be taught to be critical and independent, “not adherents of one or more schools of thought”.

The struggle over pluralism in economics is one facet of a larger shift in public discourse about the academy, one that has brought questions of diversity on to centre stage. Deployed by the government, media and business, the rhetoric of diversity has been a means of promoting inclusion, especially around race, ethnicity and gender. There’s an assumption embedded in this rhetoric that, like gene pools, human societies benefit from difference rather than homogeneity. We’re better off when we are more diverse. In the academy, that logic can be applied to all sorts of things – from methods, approaches, subject matter and sources to students and academics themselves.

Diversity seems to offer an organising principle for wide-ranging reform. Its influence is everywhere. But under its unifying banner, there are several political and intellectual projects. The intuitiveness and inclusiveness of diversity rhetoric are among its strengths, but these qualities can also mask the salient features of distinct struggles over ideas, space and power. Without taking a stance on diversity across the board, it’s worth asking exactly what different diversity campaigns are aiming at, and how their ideas might – or might not – fit together.

In May, two philosophers wrote an opinion article in The New York Times headlined “If philosophy won’t diversify, let’s call it what it really is”. They took aim at the near exclusive dominance of European and anglophone philosophy in courses across the US. The absence of non-European traditions from the philosophy curriculum was “astonishing”, the authors argued, because of both the important influence of those traditions and the “increasing numbers of students in our colleges and universities from non-European backgrounds”. The much-lauded diversity of student populations, they implied, was at odds with the homogeneity of what philosophy departments were teaching.

Unlike the heterodox economists, these philosophers could not hang their challenge on any perceived crisis in the field. As in other areas, success in philosophy is nigh impossible to quantify. But they did point out that philosophy as a discipline scores particularly poorly in measures of racial and gender diversity among its faculty and students. “Part of the problem”, they argued, “is the perception that philosophy departments are nothing but temples to the achievement of males of European descent.” To open itself up to other kinds of students, they said, philosophy should start to pay much more attention to other ideas, thinkers and traditions.

Similar arguments have been made in the UK, including at Oxford. Students and academics there are pursuing the redesign of curricula in politics, history and theology to offer “more diverse content”, in the words of a university spokesman. Like their counterparts in the US, advocates are partly motivated by low rates of inclusion and diversity among students. History is the third most unpopular subject among black undergraduates, according to the Royal Historical Society. Nationwide, there are fewer than 10 black PhD students in history. Some argue that these figures reflect black students’ alienation from an overwhelmingly white image of the past projected in existing school and university courses.

Reform inevitably involves trade-offs, especially where resources are scarce, and diversifying efforts have met resistance from those determined to protect existing teaching strengths. Meanwhile, some campaigners reject diversity as the organising principle behind reform. Oxford’s Rhodes Must Fall movement has emphasised that its demand “is not diversity, but decolonisation”. Rather than incorporating more diverse subjects and sources into Eurocentric and white-dominated curricula, they seek to challenge the core assumptions of existing canons and approaches. The diversity agenda, they argue, often amounts to tokenism, and without more fundamental change, diversified curricula will continue to reproduce colonial ways of thinking.

No educational project can be neutral. So even when alternative perspectives are introduced with the best intentions, they are understood as just that: alternative, heterodox, token. As in Thomas Kuhn’s model of scientific progress, most teaching in a discipline proceeds by elaborating a dominant paradigm, which will raise problems and objections to be analysed. The line between diversity and decolonisation is the point at which multiplying objections cause a paradigm shift and a realignment of the disciplinary core, displacing older standards from the canon just as Ptolemy was displaced by Copernicus. The demand for decolonisation, then, is a radical one. Not only ideas are at stake here but institutions, funding and careers.


Student demonstrators holding 'Make Rhodes History' sign
Source: 
Rex/Getty

Curriculum reform is closely connected to diversity among academics themselves. Teaching more African history or Asian philosophy would mean hiring more historians of Africa or more philosophers trained in Asian traditions. And because of the way that knowledge tends to be racialised in the academy, that will often in practice mean hiring more people of African or Asian heritage. For those who argue that higher education should better reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of the country or the world at large, the link between curriculum and personnel can play a useful role. Diversifying courses could lead to more diverse faculty and student populations.

After protests and campaigns inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement rocked campuses in the US last year, elite universities including Yale and Brown promised extensive – and expensive – programmes to increase faculty diversity. Meanwhile, in the UK, Rhodes Must Fall and initiatives such as Why Is My Curriculum White? demand similar measures. “The failure of the academy to recognise certain subjects taught by BME academics as ‘core’ subjects, means [that such academics] are over-scrutinised compared to their peers, [and] more likely to suffer from casualisation,” wrote a member of the National Union of Students’ black students committee earlier this year. Decolonising the curriculum offers a way to help prevent these scholars being marginalised.

There is, however, a risk in assuming direct and exclusive relationships between certain groups of academics and specific fields of study. A situation where black lecturers could only get jobs teaching race would be deplorable, as would women only being hired to write about gender. Investing in marginalised areas of teaching and research may be a worthwhile goal in itself, but universities should not see it as a sufficient means of addressing shortcomings in faculty diversity. If we really want to tackle that problem, we have to think about affirmative action, especially at graduate and early career levels.

But racial, ethnic and gender diversity are not the only kinds of faculty diversity on the agenda for public debate. Because the concept of diversity is so capacious, it can also be adopted by campaigns that have little or nothing to do with racial justice, decolonisation or feminism. For decades, right-wing academics and public figures in the US have argued that higher education is a bastion of liberal and radical politics, rife with systemic bias against conservative views. Newly organised around a pressure group called Heterodox Academy, these overwhelmingly white male voices are calling attention to their own crisis of diversity.

Heterodox Academy, whose members include Harvard University professor Steven Pinker and New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, aims to increase what it calls “viewpoint diversity”. Invoking the biological metaphor embedded in diversity rhetoric, members claim that “there is overwhelming evidence that the academy’s ideological monoculture produces all sorts of dysfunctions”. Hiring more right-wing academics, they imply, would help to cultivate a more robust and productive scholarly ecosystem. It would protect students from blindly adopting their lecturers’ “leftist slant” and redress “distort[ion]” in research.

Lionised in The New York Times, the campaign has also begun to make itself heard in the UK. Under the headline “Political groupthink is bad for our universities”, the economist John Kay wrote in the Financial Times in February that today’s universities display a “reduced tolerance of…diversity of thought and opinion”. Turning the concept of diversity against its original proponents, conservatives and libertarians naturally seek their own advantages from its rhetorical effectiveness. In the process, they have placed the concept under growing pressure. More than ever, we need to ask the question: what is diversity for?

One answer is that diversity gives us more to choose from, and more to work with. In the case of ideas, this means a larger toolkit with which to address intellectual problems. As the Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane put it in his preface to the Post-Crash Economics Society’s 2014 report, pluralism in economics addresses the “methodological blindspot” that helped bring about the crash in the first place. By teaching the diversity of approaches and theories within their disciplines, lecturers expose students to ways of thinking that they would not otherwise have been able to access. That, in turn, helps students critically to understand the dominant paradigms.

This argument does not apply to conservative thought, because conservative ideas already dominate the environments of media and public discourse. A YouGov survey earlier this year showed that the British press is considered to be the most right-leaning in Europe. Recent research from the London School of Economics found that newspapers had demonstrated an “unhealthy” bias against the left-wing Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Conservatives seek to maintain rather than challenge the existing structures of society. Higher education in the humanities and social sciences, in contrast, gives students the tools to critique those structures.

Celebration of diversity in groups of people, including student bodies and the academic workforce, has been a means by which to challenge systemic misogyny and racism, as well as injustice towards disabled and LGBT+ people. Programmes that push for more diversity help to open opportunities to those most likely to suffer from exclusion and oppression. But the diversity agenda has its own problems, not least of tokenism and marginalisation – those brought in on diversity grounds can be made to feel like unwanted appendages, whose scholarship is not valid or adequate in its own right. We should pursue interventions aimed at dismantling systemic injustices, not merely at reproducing social diversity. It will be no good reaching gender parity in academic posts if there is still a gender pay gap. Nor can we simply expand African studies departments and declare the job done. Both moves are necessary but far from sufficient.

Taking on deep-rooted structures of oppression also involves questioning the ideas and ways of thinking with which they are entangled, including neoclassical economic orthodoxy and Eurocentric conceptions of history and philosophy. No one should be disadvantaged by their race, ethnicity or gender. But academics must be responsible for the ideas that they perpetuate in the lecture hall and the seminar room. Those ideas have real effects, whether in the regulation of financial markets, or in the ways we understand and relate to one another. Higher education should instil both the desire and the methods for critical scrutiny of every concept and proposition. As ubiquitous and unassailable as it can sometimes seem, that must include the concept of diversity itself.

Tom Cutterham is lecturer in United States history at the University of Birmingham.

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