Reconciling Pluralism and Liberationism in Education

As part of my writing project over a short holiday from work, Adam asked me to discuss a piece he wrote back in November on this site.
It’s helpful to return to Tamara’s piece where I think she best describes the tension Adam struggles with:

However, if part of a university’s responsibility is to reflect society as it should be, to not just boast diversity, but actively work to promote inclusivity, then it’s reasonable that students would expect their university to take measures to ensure all students feel welcome. This sentiment seems to be at the core of calls for trigger warnings, explicit racial quotas in admissions and employment, and other efforts to fulfill the university’s role as reflection of societal progress. Following this line of reasoning, college administrations have a duty to create a safe space for students, which either equals or exceeds its duty to cultivate an intellectual space. Looking at it this way, it’s less difficult see why some college campuses seem to be coming apart at the seams right now.

If I were to shorten Adam’s main points, they would be as follows:

When justified on the basis of discovery, there’s a natural link with the notion of pluralism in ideas as a tool for finding the best ideas. When justified on the basis of freedom, however, we get closer to the goal of greatest diversity in ideas and people as an end in itself. Pluralism in ideas, people, and governments for pluralism’s sake.

First, pluralism can be interpreted as similar to federalism, inasmuch as pluralism values diversity in itself in demography just like federalism values diversity in itself of political systems.

The tension that Tamara identifies in her piece is, I think, between federalists in the domain of ideas on the one hand, and liberationists in the domain of diversity on the other. For the latter, diversity in demography is a tool for liberating minorities from the chains of a white patriarchal normative system— but also for liberating whites of each sex from that very system, by exposing them to groups who have been marginalized by it.

Second, this interpretation of pluralism, which Adam finds particularly effecting, stands in contrast to other popular rationalizations of demographic diversity, namely a politics of liberation. Diversity should be enforced as a means of liberation itself for those who are oppressed.

Under this rationalization, the activity of introducing diversity in demographics is, itself, illiberal to pluralism of ideas because it is privileging a singular set of intellectual beliefs. Indeed, third, education itself, when conceptualized as a liberating activity:

[Precludes pluralism in education b]y imposing a single form of education on all, …forcing any tensions over competing visions into the scale of the nation, rather than the locality.

Ultimately, the problem lies with authority, without which a federalist/pluralist and liberationism are doomed. After all:

Pluralism of all stripes is often anti-authority, or at least an attempt to minimize the problem of authority. But the problem of authority is inescapable; even more so for those who take seriously the value of diversity. A serious understanding of such value must be connected to a serious understanding of its limits.

I would argue that diversity in the classroom is first and foremost a necessary condition for learning. In the ideal environment, students are provided with varying interpretations of the information they are being taught. More than that, students are asked to critically analyze the interpretations before them, and, eventually, to determine which is the most accurate or compelling. Fundamentally, this is what we expect learning (particularly in a higher education setting) to be. Each of these steps, providing multiple interpretations of information and critiquing these interpretations, is greatly dependent on diversity of both faculty and students.

What worth is inquiry in a classroom full of like-minded individuals? Without multiple views expressed, questions lose their power and purpose, and there can be no learning. We fail because students have arrived with one set of beliefs, and left with the same beliefs, unchallenged, no further developed, and given institutional approval without institutional critique.

Perhaps this argument is unconvincing. Why is diversity in demographics a requirement for diversity in ideas? Consider one of my favorite blog posts ever written, which succinctly describes privilege in the language of mathematics that I myself had always used to understand the meaning of privilege. In discussing say, income inequality, a homogeneous classroom filled with individuals who were raised with limitless opportunities could at best theoretically conceptualize alternative views to an argument that “equal opportunity for success exists in America.” Their entire life was surrounded with confirmatory evidence, where effort and caring were the only obvious prerequisites to success with high school academics and non-academic barriers to college attendance were non-existent. What occurs in a classroom like this is, at best, a sort of slum tourism without any real meaning.

We don’t need liberationism to justify diversity in education, we need diversity to ensure education.

I’ll get back to liberationism in a moment, but first it is important to recognize that this justification of diversity, that it ensures education, does not require a pluralism or federalism that values diversity in itself. Diversity is not a value based on freedom of ideas nor is it a value based on a mechanistic argument that suggests diversity is more likely to find the best ideas. Instead, diversity is of value because education as a process requires challenge and critique, whether they serve to change minds or deepen conviction (hopefully through further development). Whereas the pluralism/federalism Adam describes values diversity almost endlessly, the value of diversity to cause education is quite bounded. It is completely appropriate to discard views that are unable to pose serious intellectual threat. There is little value in considering say, conspiracy theories when discussing the Apollo missions.

That’s a loaded example. But there is also little value in teaching detailed theories that depend upon the existence of lumineforous aether, regardless of the fact that they represented cutting edge at one time.

Diversity of demographics, or even ideas, within institutional education can be justified on a far narrower set of beliefs that do not require the same anti-authoritarianism conflict of a broader pluralism.

So diversity is justified on a weak form of Adam’s pluralism/federalism case that does not rise to valuing diversity in itself, but instead values diversity that leads to a meaningful impact of conflicting view points that are necessities for learning. These views must be both experiential and intellectual for rich learning. In this weaker conceptualization, anti-authoritarianism is far less central. In fact, we have a highly individualized conception of knowledge construction that depends upon individual analysis and an individual determining which truth is the most compelling.

Does this absolve the university setting from actively seeking diversity as part of a liberationism framework? Actually, not at all. We can satisfy the pluralist needs of the classroom without liberationism, but we can also satisfy these needs through liberation. Rather than understanding liberation as a central embedded component of pedagogy or the learning process, we should understand liberation as the result of being educated.

Without debating signaling versus human and/or social capital accumulation, it is clear that formalized education provides positional benefits in the labor market and in “social markets” such as forming partnerships and nuclear families. Even when education does not directly empower, it certainly can serve as an obstacle to accessing fully participation with a whole class of society. If we believe there is a moral imperative similar to say, equality of opportunity, it’s quite obvious we can imply that there is a strong requirement that universities accept diverse student bodies and a diverse teaching force since education is a mediator of opportunity.

I don’t think this implies, by the way, that universities are compelled to generate “safe spaces” beyond enabling learning to happen. The process of education as it exists generates opportunity through complex mechanisms that are not entirely separable. There could be aspects of confronting a culture of power and authority that is critical to educations “opportunity generation”. Importantly, if we accept the argument for diversity as a process required for education to occur, we have to be vigilant about discarding the very conflict that allows learning to happen.

The challenge facing education is not accepting the notion that not all ideas are created equal or are worthy. I have ceded that in this very post and definitions of academic freedom already largely acknowledge this fact as a prime distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech. Instead, the challenge is the demand of the academic left that their ideas have already met a high burden of authority that necessitates the eradication of certain view points as worthy of consideration in the classroom.

The conflict is not between liberationism and federalism. It is not pluralism run amok. It is, in fact, a crisis of authority, but not in the existence of authority but instead of whether absolute authority belongs to the current strand of the academic left. They certainly seem to think so, but far from everyone is along for the ride.

† This may not satisfy Adam, who I think will read this conceptualization as falling pray to the same problems of authority. I disagree. The very insistence that views are critiqued and alternatives presented is a statement of authority on how we build knowledge and learn. We don’t have to remove individual involvement in identifying legitimate authority and authoritative claims by asserting authority. That’s too strong a form of this challenge much like his pluralism/federalism is too strong a conception of the value of diversity of thought. Some ideas *are* worth more than others, so much so that we can discard some from even being presented. That does not mean that authority implies a lack of conflict in the education process between people, ideas, experiences, etc. The existence of more than one conflicting authoritative claim practically defines areas of worthwhile study.

Author’s Note: It is rare that I can go back directly to a piece of writing I did for a weekly assignment for a college course from my sophomore year (almost a decade ago!) and find almost everything I want to say. So thank you to UC170 and the “weekly response” I wrote on Diversity on October 16, 2006.

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