As universities continue to shift toward the endorsement of a social justice and equity-based agenda, academics are increasingly confronted with the need to be more inclusive and diverse in their teaching practice, module content, and modes of evaluation. We are told that this is desirable, typically without any real explanation or grounded argument for why it is so. But, irrespective of whether this value judgment is accurate or the pursuit worthwhile, it has become a part of the ethos of academic discourse—with little to no discussion of or critical engagement with the impact this has on education.
This morally, not pedagogically, motivated transition taking hold across academia has resulted in a new kind of non-diversity. Specifically, the uncritical acceptance of the social justice and inclusivity narrative has led to a reduction in the diversity of perspectives allowed to be taught in courses, the removal of academic challenge in the guise of accessibility, and the valuing of only one type of educator. All of these outcomes are ultimately counterproductive to the purported aims of the movement: to enable a more diverse set of students to access a transformative educational experience and achieve post-university success.
The Golden Rule of Silencing
The ideal of diversity as it has played out on campuses worldwide typically eschews diversity in its truest sense: the acceptance of different perspectives and coexistence of divergent ideas. Rather, in academic contexts, diversity is more often taken to mean the prioritization of certain voices, typically those of historical disadvantage, and the silencing of perspectives that do not conform to the social justice agenda within which much of the diversity and inclusion narrative is situated. This is problematic for a variety of reasons, but it is particularly damaging in an educational arena. Students cannot explore complex ideas in an environment that prohibits the development of and interchange between divergent viewpoints.
If there is no longer allowance for diversity of thought or alternative points of view, then the university has capitulated its role in education by failing to confront ideas and challenge popular assumptions and narratives. The university thus fails to offer students the level of critical intellectual engagement needed to navigate a world that is neither straightforward nor simple, least of all with respect to morality. Instead, a university “education” has now become more and more an exercise in indoctrination within an ideology that is neither confronting nor confrontational, but instead safe, familiar, and dogmatic.
While generally cloaked in philanthropic terms, the diversity, equity, and inclusion agenda has resulted in an overcorrection that imposes on certain perspectives the very censorship that it purports to overcome. As children, we learn that we should treat others as we wish to be treated, but this agenda instead retaliates in kind, privileging some over others, all the while working to undermine the success of the very individuals it proposes to lift up.
Where Are the Hurdles?
One area where this is becoming more and more evident is the messages educators receive about their practice through explicit instruction from administrators, feedback from student evaluations, and ultimately, the examples of those who win acclaim. The educators who are likely to be rated highly by students indoctrinated in the inclusivity mindset are the ones who make their courses increasingly “accessible,” which in practice typically translates to easier. These educators take out any challenging readings or assignments that they are told may prove too onerous or difficult for underprivileged students, and increasingly the younger generation more generally. In the name of inclusivity and equity, administrators encourage educators to remove the obstacles to success for the disadvantaged, often as a contingency of employment, rather than to determine better ways to assist such individuals to overcome obstacles.
Similarly, educators are encouraged to adjust lectures so that they no longer require sustained attention, because students today come to the university classroom not on their way to adulthood but instead with the attention span of young children, having been raised on YouTube and entertainment apps that allow them to avoid deeply processing material. Therefore, instead of expecting that students learn to adjust their information processing strategies and improve their ability to critically engage with ideas, educators are instead told to alter their material to allow students to languish in their bad habits.
Similar to the reduction in the types of ideas that are acceptable to teach, the pedagogical techniques that educators are permitted to utilize are becoming less diverse. Educators who don’t adjust their content and assessment strategies to fit with the inclusivity agenda risk pushback from students and their institutions. Because continued employment is increasingly tied to student evaluations, which assess satisfaction rather than learning, those who seek to challenge students to grow rather than stagnate are forced to adjust their practice or leave the university.
Contrary to its intended aims, the inclusivity agenda works to disadvantage all students. Those who came to the classroom equipped to deal with educational hurdles become bored and disengage as their dissatisfaction with completing simple assignments develops into the realization that they have spent their time at university in vapid pursuits. And those who came to the classroom ill-equipped to mount these hurdles will leave still disadvantaged, gaining none of the experience necessary to develop that which they lacked.
In addition to abandoning the demanding experiences necessary to transform students, many educators choose to operate with little to no separation between work and home life, using platforms such as texting apps to make themselves continuously available to students. Rather than supporting students, their practice works—like so many others—to undermine educational objectives by providing a crutch that reduces students’ motivation to confront challenges and push themselves before reaching out for help.
Such behaviors also reinforce the perception that educators are responsible for student motivation, thus further perpetuating students’ disadvantage. Students must learn to bear this responsibility themselves, as they will need to self-motivate in their work lives, personal lives, and every aspect of adult life. It is irresponsible for educators and administrators to take away, under the guise of good intentions, the opportunity for students to learn how to cultivate the self-discipline and self-motivation they need to succeed outside of the university when the world will not offer these kinds of crutches. Providing crutches for students under the guise of empowerment is equally harmful; an individual who lacks self-efficacy, determination, resolve, discipline, and talent should not be empowered because empowerment without ability cultivates egoism and narcissism.
Finally, such practices work to undermine colleagues within university departments. Those who decide to maintain a healthy balance between work and non-work by setting appropriate boundaries are increasingly pressured to make themselves similarly available or risk student complaints. Educators are rewarded for being constantly available to students, largely to appease students’ worries and fears, in a way that blurs the line between the pastoral and the educational and puts amiability above expertise.
And the Award Goes to…the Non-Diverse
Educators who adopt practices that ultimately undermine true student success are often rewarded by their institutions and singled out for teaching awards, in large part because they typically receive very positive student evaluations and their practices fit the inclusion, equity, and diversity narrative. Often not recognized by the university are the instructors who challenge students using traditional methods such as asking them to read challenging papers, complete difficult exams, and write tough essays—techniques that have worked well, and continue to work well, for many students. Just as the inclusivity agenda increasingly limits the set of perspectives that can be promoted in classrooms, the diversity dialogue appears to value only a particular type of educator. Acceptance of a more diverse student body should entail acceptance of a more diverse set of educational practices and philosophies so as to reach the ever-broadening range of students filling our classrooms.
If diversity and inclusivity are truly our goals, then we must re-evaluate what achievement of those goals actually entails. If our classrooms hope to reach diverse students and to prepare those students for success post-graduation, then diversity in instructors and instructional techniques should be not only valued, but encouraged. Of course innovation in the classroom is warranted, but not all innovation is valuable. Educators can work to improve their courses by adding new readings, adjusting the prompts for assignments, and incorporating new technologies. But we must keep in mind that what seems on its face like a positive pedagogical shift is often accepted solely based on the expectation, grounded in the current moral order, that it should work. Many innovations are therefore never evaluated or critiqued. More and more, the marker of a “successful” pedagogical innovation is not whether students learned or improved but whether students were satisfied with and unoffended by the approach.
Diversity and inclusivity may be desirable aims at an institutional level, but the implementation of such aims has been largely hypocritical and self-undermining. Not only is the shift in valuing only social justice-laden perspectives inconsistent with the promotion of real diversity, but it leaves disadvantaged students even further at risk by removing obstacles instead of enabling them to overcome them. And rather than supporting and reinforcing inclusion and diversity through institutional practice, such as hiring and bestowing teaching awards on instructors with diverse approaches, educators are increasingly learning that universities only value instructors who work to promote student satisfaction and comfort over real educational outcomes. If universities have any hope of continuing to provide students with a transformative education, then we must facilitate critical discussions that incorporate divergent perspectives, including critiques of a social justice agenda. If not, we will achieve an odd sort of equity: one in which we all lose.
Image: geralt, Public Domain