Academe these days is full of code words. Diversity is one of the most popular, and has increasingly become an article of faith at American colleges. Its usefulness depends on ambiguity. While the public and media may believe it means openness to previously excluded students and studies, the reality is that “diversity” is a brazen attempt at thought control, rapidly moving toward the center of undergraduate education through the mechanism of General Education requirements.
At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, professors who want their courses approved for General Education diversity credit must meet new guidelines borrowed from the most ideological part of the university, the School of Education. At UMass, as at many other universities, Social Justice Education (SJE) has for years been a key part of the School of Ed, offering not only a concentration but also a Master’s and a Ph.D.
The language of SJE makes clear that it is driven by narrow political aims, which pervade all aspects of the program. With a constant emphasis on intervention and advocacy in schools and communities on behalf of social justice (never clearly defined), the SJE website makes plain its fundamental concerns, which include: “Prejudice and discrimination, the dynamics of power and privilege, and intersecting systems of oppression,” “Theories and practices of social change; resistance and empowerment; liberation and social justice movements,” and “Sociocultural and historical contexts for, and dynamics within and among the specific manifestations of oppression (adultism, religious oppression, ableism, classism, ethnocentrism, heterosexism, racism, sexism, transgender oppression) in educational and other social systems.”
In his book Diversity: The Invention of a Concept (2003), Peter Wood describes how “diversity arose as a countercultural critique of American society that depicted social relations as based on hierarchy and oppression of disprivileged groups.” This “diversity ideology,” rooted in a Marxist view of America as a system of oppression, had been brewing for generations but only gained real traction in the 1980s.
“For it was then,” he writes, “that the Left, at last, found a combination of political leverage, economic opportunity and cultural advantage to institutionalize much of its anti-American program. Diversity was the key to that three-part success” (his emphasis).”
But until recently, the emphasis on diversity as the chosen path to “social justice” was not built into the university’s “social and cultural diversity” Gen Ed requirement. Now it is. And as I argue here, it is an exercise in compelled speech, unworthy of higher education, and unconstitutional in a public institution.
A fairly loose definition of what diversity courses should entail had existed for about three decades. Designed to combat “ethnocentric stereotypes” and open students to the wider world of “pluralistic perspectives,” the old diversity requirements contained a single prescriptive phrase (my emphasis):
Courses satisfying this requirement shall reach beyond the perspectives of mainstream American culture and the Western tradition.
The old guidelines then shifted from shall to may:
They may focus on the peoples of Africa, Asia, Latin America, or the Middle East; the descendants of those peoples living in North America; other minorities in Western industrial societies; and Native Americans. Since a sensitivity to social and cultural diversity is advanced by an understanding of the dynamics of power in modern societies, courses that focus on the differential life experiences of women outside the mainstream of American culture, minorities outside the mainstream of American culture, and the poor also come within the scope of this requirement.
True, the phrase regarding “the dynamics of power,” hinting at the old Marxist framework with a touch of Foucault thrown in, seemed designed to predetermine the content of such courses to some extent. But the list of groups (women, minorities, and the poor) with “differential life experiences” was merely, as the last part of the above paragraph made clear, a possible focus–not a necessary one, and certainly nothing like the obligatory listing of numerous supposedly marginalized identities that abound today.
What, then, changed? In the spring of 2016, faculty began to realize that the General Education Council had proposed a little-publicized new delineation of the required diversity courses. As before, undergraduates would be required to take two courses carrying the Diversity designation, one national, the other international, but the details had passed through an ideological transformation.
Normally, significant changes to the curriculum would have to go through the Faculty Senate, but the Gen Ed Council had by-passed this step by claiming (when challenged) that the changes in the two required diversity courses involved “only language,” hence did not need Faculty Senate approval.
Most faculty, as usual, were busy with other things and did not react. Some people, however, were alarmed. Harvey Silverglate, civil liberties attorney and co-founder of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) and I wrote a piece about the new requirement, pointing out the ways in which it went well beyond the existing guidelines. We argued that not content with existing policies that restricted speech, the university was mounting an effort to compel certain kinds of speech and political attitudes in courses hoping to gain Gen Ed Council approval toward fulfilling the diversity requirement. As we wrote:
Using politically fashionable jargon, the three new gen-ed guidelines for diversity courses stipulate not merely, as before, geographic and cultural breadth but the specific attitudes and beliefs that must animate certain areas of teaching (or indoctrination, depending upon your point of view). Faculty members must embrace “knowledge, pluralistic perspectives and engagement beyond mainstream traditions,” by focusing on “unequal access to resources that derive from race and ethnicity, national origins, language, socioeconomic class, gender and sexual orientation, religion, age, and ability.”
The second mandated guideline encompasses “cultural, social and structural dynamics” that shape human experience and produce inequality, while the third specifies “exploration of self and others” so as to recognize inequalities and injustices. The clearly stated goal, not left to the imagination, is “to engage with others to create change toward social justice.”
This phrase encapsulates the shift from educating students to be able to think and analyze for themselves to the vastly different effort to indoctrinate students into administrators’ and professors’ belief system, which is assumed to be the only worthwhile, good and moral one from which, therefore, no one dares dissent.
All of this should cause concern at a public university that is bound by constitutional norms. The First Amendment’s protection of free speech has two aspects. The more widely known one prohibits the law from censoring officially disfavored and unpopular speech. But the other equally important and complementary aspect of this liberty enjoins the government from compelling speech and belief.
In a society where students have long been granted the right to refuse, for example, to recite a biblical passage or even the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools, college students are now required to genuflect before the banner of diversity, inclusion and social justice. It’s insufficient for students to refrain from uttering offensive or “wrong” words and ideas. They must increasingly be trained to mimic their professors and affirmatively utter the “right” ones.
The new guidelines, in other words, explicitly spelled out a commitment to social justice, understood in a particular way, reflecting precisely the political vision already familiar to us from Social Justice Education programs, rooted in Left politics that have dominated academic circles for some time now.
But whereas these politics used to be confined to certain (mostly identity-based) academic programs, along with Schools of Ed and Social Work, the new requirements aim to subject the entire university and every student in it to current academic dogma. The revision names identity groups repeatedly, uses all the current code words, talks over and over again about inequality, marginalization, power dynamics, and the need to combat all these.
Hardly a minor revision, this is a complete delineation of the changes in academe in the past few decades. At a time when the university persistently reiterates its commitment to social justice, diversity, inclusion, and equity, the undergraduate curriculum is undergoing Gleichschaltung, i.e., everything is being brought into alignment with the prevailing political orthodoxy.
A further chapter in this story of ideological policing unfolded in late 2016. Not satisfied with the changes quietly incorporated into the Gen Ed diversity requirement earlier in 2016, the Gen Ed Council once again initiated a change that it evidently hoped most faculty would not notice. This time, it proposed a third required diversity course, mandated for all incoming students, who apparently needed this training in identity politics in order to proceed with their education.
Members of the Gen Ed Council were explicitly told to give a copy of the new proposal only to those who requested it. Thus, barely a week before the item was to come up at a Faculty Senate meeting on November 10, faculty members not on the council began to hear about the new proposal.
This time, however, a number of faculty members noticed. At the November 10th meeting of the Faculty Senate, about fifteen people rose to speak about the proposal, almost all of them first expressing their support for” diversity” before going on to criticize the new course in its particulars. However, it was not the obvious politicization of the requirement that troubled them but rather the practical consequences for individual majors and courses. Some parts of the university objected that by adding a third diversity requirement other courses would be crowded out, as students would have less time and fewer credits available for other purposes.
Some faculty members objected that space for this new course was to be created by eliminating the requirement for an interdisciplinary course. Still, others were unhappy at the way in which their own courses on foreign cultures would be excluded by the new focus on power differentials, marginalization, and so on. One professor, for example, objected that his course on medieval Japanese culture would no longer count for “diversity” credit, and argued that while it makes sense for the U.S. diversity requirement to stress race, class, and gender, the non-western courses should be held to a different standard. Another complained that his course on Kant, Marx, Weber, Nietzsche and Freud certainly should still be relevant for diversity credit, as it has been for thirty years.
A few people argued that the new requirement didn’t go far enough, since it assumed faculty and graduate students already knew how to teach to these concerns, whereas, it was argued, they would need special training in order to truly embrace the new anti-oppression pedagogy. No one, however, objected to the politicization of the curriculum in itself.
Most intriguing, however, was the apparently forgotten fact that the additional third diversity course proposal did not alter what had already become the obligatory language of diversity courses. Yes, the new proposal requires that this course is taken by all incoming undergraduates, and it intensifies the politicized language somewhat, but it is not different in kind from the rewritten diversity guidelines quietly introduced last spring.
The real difference in kind, in other words, was already a fait accompli, the result of the shift that was set in place in the spring of 2016. And by not having a discussion of the consequences of those changes last spring and just incorporating the new language de facto on the Gen Ed website, the Gen Ed Council had successfully precluded a critical discussion among the faculty of a substantive ideological shift.
People who complained in November 2016 because their old diversity courses would no longer count for diversity credits should have objected last spring, not six months later. But they were given no opportunity to do so. Whereas blatant social justice courses could have been included in the past (nothing excluded them), the assumption that diversity means “social justice” in a very particular way (based upon identity politics and the division of the world into powerful and powerless) is now mandatory, as the new guidelines make clear.
Thus, the Gen Ed Council was successful in bypassing faculty input and imposing explicit School of Ed social justice perspectives upon the entire university. Harvey Silverglate and I were absolutely right to call attention to this as a new requirement for faculty obeisance to essentially political perspectives, quite different from the vaguer older guidelines – which presumably is precisely why some of our colleagues were so adamant about promoting this change, and hoped most faculty wouldn’t notice.
My criticisms of the new proposal (distributed in early November 2016 to the 70 colleagues in my department, none of whom commented to me about it, as well as to the Faculty Senate) included these points:
A. The first three of the five aims listed in the proposal narrow the range of perspectives to be welcomed in such courses. The aims presuppose and also reinforce a particular political perspective that faculty must adopt if their courses are to be approved for Gen Ed diversity credit. The aims taken from the proposal are in italics, below. After each of these aims, my own comments appear in brackets.
- Appreciate, value, and respect diverse social, cultural, and political perspectives. [This aim hints at a postmodernist relativism, one that has been the subject of much debate and is far from a generally accepted truth. In fact, however, the subsequent aims make clear that only particular political and cultural perspectives are sought. Viewpoint diversity is definitely not on the agenda.]
- Demonstrate an understanding of and critically analyze how the legacies of marginalization, prejudice, and discrimination impact current power relations and the life circumstances of people often marginalized by society because of race, ethnicity, language, religion, class, ability, sexuality, and gender. [Presupposes a particular view of the origins of marginalization, its continuing force, and the causes of social problems. This aim is rooted in current identity politics, which is often used as a shield or a bludgeon, depending on who is speaking to whom and with what objective.]
- Critically analyze their own perspectives and identities, develop an awareness of implicit biases, and understand how these perspectives and biases have been shaped by power relations within social and institutional contexts. [Is it only one’s own perspectives, identities, and biases that are to be critically examined, not those of others? Is it necessarily “power” relations – mentioned also in aim # 2–that explain everything? Again, this highly contentious perspective with its very specific conceptual framework is being presented as the necessarily correct one, to be reflected in these courses.]
B. The academic year at Umass has already been reduced to 26 weeks of actual classes, 3-credit Gen Ed courses have become 4-credit courses without an increase in class time, and in many instances work requirements have decreased as professors adapt to students’ sense of what preparation (ever less) they are willing to do outside of class.
Students still need 120 credits to graduate with a Bachelor’s degree and, of these, two courses are already part of the new diversity requirement, circulated last spring and containing much the same language as the new proposal. This third required diversity course would mean that a total of 12 credits out of 120 (i.e., 10% of the students’ overall credit hours) will be devoted to “diversity” issues understood in the narrow way the proposal makes clear. This is a disservice to our students who have only a few precious years as undergraduates and entire worlds to explore.
C. For those who specifically teach foreign languages, literature, and cultures, the proposal tells us we must stress oppression, marginalization, and power relations as if studying other cultures and languages is of little value unless it is primarily about those issues. This seems like an odd marginalization (to use that very term) of entire areas of expertise.
The themes named, while of interest, hardly tell us all we need to know about the world. Furthermore, they undermine the work that many of us do and that is not subsumed by these particular political preoccupations. It is a serious redesigning of the university’s role and mission to impose such a narrow perspective on what is understood by “diversity.” If “diversity” indeed now means a ceaseless focus on oppression, marginalization, and power, it is being used as a code word.
And it is demeaning to those of us who have labored long and hard to actually acquire some expertise in a “diverse” culture – and who see the study of cultures around the world as something other than an opportunity for political posturing. It is far harder to actually learn a foreign language and its cultural contexts than to acquire or pass on to students a few attitudes about particular groups (divided into such broad categories as the powerful and powerless), the very thing we supposedly were trying to overcome.
D. For those wishing to see where in the university these ideas are already institutionalized, the School of Education’s Social Justice Education agenda, which offer a concentration, a Master’s, and a Ph.D, provides a complete articulation of a political program using the precise language found in our new Gen Ed diversity proposals. Nationwide, in Schools of Education and in certain identity-based programs, these aims have predominated for some time. What is happening now, with the reconceptualization of the Gen Ed diversity requirement, is the spread of these avowed commitments to the entire university.
E. The narrow perspective envisioned is made clear again on p. 5 of the proposal, which states as a goal: “Diminish the perpetuation of discrimination and oppression.” Hubris, or political passions, should not lead us to think that if we can just regulate the content of education thoroughly, we will bring about “social justice.”
I conclude that we hardly know what “social justice” is, let alone how it may best be attained. Indeed, the very term has been used in ways that might alarm today’s social justice warriors (if only they knew some history, such as that of the populist priest Father Coughlin, the anti-capitalist, anti-communist, anti-Semitic founder of the National Union for Social Justice in 1934 and of the paper Social Justice two years later, who became an apologist for Nazism and an Axis propagandist). The entire history of the twentieth century, to stick just with recent times, tells us how dangerous a path the belief in the single-minded pursuit of “social justice” is.
The university may have a social mission to enhance diversity, equity, and inclusion, even in the name of “social justice” (which Jonah Goldberg notes is currently merely a stand-in for “goodness”), but that is quite different from adopting these words as an educational mission. In addition, these terms have by now become an orthodoxy, constantly reiterated by administrators whose numbers and dedication to these issues keep expanding while the quality of liberal arts education—and above all its “diversity” — has patently declined.
Even if the new required Gen Ed course does not get adopted, by not contesting the redefinition of “diversity” that is now an avowed goal, faculty have abdicated their responsibilities, contributing to the further debasement of higher education.
Times change; orthodoxies shift. The intentional embrace of political activism in education is a dangerous precedent. Has everyone forgotten the East German professors who were first obliged to adhere to Marxism-Leninism and then, when the Wall fell, were fired for having done so?
We should be wary of turning our courses into vehicles for propagandizing particular political views, however popular those views may be at this moment.