Next Generation Diversity

Williams College rethinks how students should learn about different groups and cultures -- seeking a different kind of requirement.
October 27, 2006

In the 1980s, many colleges adopted diversity requirements, typically telling students that they had to take at least one course about a non-Western culture or about an American minority group. These requirements frequently set off heated debates, with proponents talking about the need for diversity, and critics shouting about political correctness.

Williams College is in the process of changing such a requirement -- with far more civility than characterized many of those '80s discussions. In the process, faculty members have managed to be quite critical of the old requirement -- while coming up with a new way to require study of a broad range of groups.

The old system at Williams was pretty basic. Students had to take a course about a minority group or a non-Western group. Anything that met that basic criterion could count, and got a "people and cultures" asterisk. "It was a good idea. It grew from nice liberal white guilt," but it stopped being effective some time ago, according to Christopher Waters, a history professor who is overseeing the new system. The requirement was so vague that it didn't have any real meaning, he said. Further, the idea that students needed to study a non-white group to represent difference doesn't make sense when the college has attracted a much larger share of non-white Americans and of international students.

"This requirement was seen as a joke," Waters said. "We were sticking things with the asterisk  without a solid intellectual justification. I think a lot of our international students wondered what on earth this was about, and many of our non-white students viewed it as tokenism. Why would our minority students need to take such a course?" (A series of articles and editorials in The Williams Record, the student newspaper, reflect widespread student frustration with the requirement -- regardless of students' ethnicity or politics.)

So after a year of deliberation, the Williams faculty voted to do away with all the asterisk designations and to instead require that the diversity requirement be about more than some "other" group. The "exploring diversity" courses can't just be about another group or culture, but must "include an explicit and critical self-reflection on and immersion in a culture or people," according to the college's new policy.

Courses could do that in several ways:

  • Through comparative study of cultures and societies.
  • Through curriculums that encourage "empathetic understanding" of diverse groups by "recreating the social, political, cultural, and historical context of a group to imagine why within that context, those beliefs, experiences, and actions of the group have emerged."
  • Through study of "power and privilege."
  • Through "critical theorization" in which students explore the ways scholars analyze cross-cultural interaction.
  • Through "cultural immersion," which could involve study abroad or through foreign language courses that "explicitly engage in the self-conscious awareness of cultural and societal differences, traditions, and customs."

The new approach is at once more demanding (a course can't just be about a group) and much more broad. Courses about gender and sexuality could qualify. Courses about various Western societies could qualify. Courses that are critical of the groups they explore could qualify.

Edward Burger, a professor of mathematics who was chair of the Committee on Education Policy, the faculty body that led discussion of the changes, said that the old system was premised on the idea that Williams students were white. "It identified us. It said, 'we're white guys who are now taking courses to learn about people of other colors.' At its core, that's very racist if you think about it."

Burger said that he is particularly pleased with the way the change shifts the goal away from learning some facts about another group to learning to understand other people's ideas and approach to life. He said, for example, that a course might qualify that explored the antebellum South in which students would learn, among other things, why white farmers might have backed the Confederate cause. "We'd want students to actively engage that mindset -- suppose you were a farmer in Georgia. How would you feel about people in the North telling you about slaves?"

These courses aren't going to focus on agreeing with groups, but understanding them, and that's why it's possible to give an example of a group of ideas (pro-slavery) that students and professors certainly wouldn't endorse, Burger said. He said that the "empathy" component was especially important in light of the way the world is changing.

"When we hear that halfway around the world, people are burning down stores because of cartoons of Muhammad, we need to be able to do more than think that these people are wacky," Burger said. That doesn't mean students need to agree with those views, but they need to have some basis for understanding, he said.

William G. Wagner, dean of the faculty at Williams, said that he thought some of the good that would come from the change would arise from faculty members' explicitly thinking about how their courses would fill the requirement, as opposed to just having the designation added. "Under the new requirement, not only will courses need to include a more self-conscious and rigorous examination of the concept and methods of studying diversity, but faculty teaching the courses will need to demonstrate how they satisfy the objectives of the requirement," he said.

Many of the courses that used to qualify may still qualify, of course, and professors stressed that many of the underlying values that led to the original requirement were still valid.

In part as a result, the changes have won support from faculty who teach ethnic studies, who also see value in the new approach.

Carmen Whelan, co-chair of Latina/o studies at Williams and an associate professor of history, said she was "very supportive" of the new approach. Many diversity requirements were created in part as a counter to "institutional racism in the curriculum" that resulted in many parts of history and culture being ignored or denigrated, she said. Courses that meet the new requirement will still provide a balance to traditional offerings, she said.

"But I think diversity comes in many forms, and the new initiative here is to really broaden those definitions of diversity," she said. "And in this way, diversity requirements can continue."


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top