Do Students Listen to Others' Views?

September 17, 2010

The world of academe is generally considered a marketplace of ideas. But its customers may do more one-stop shopping than browsing the aisles.

Campus constituencies across the country are skeptical of their institutions’ emphasis on -- and consideration of -- diverse viewpoints both in the classroom and on campus generally, according to a report released Thursday by the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The surveyed groups -- students, faculty, academic administrators and student affairs professionals -- reported a need for more institutional focus on taking other people’s perspectives seriously. There was also a general consensus that for the most part, individuals do not strive to encourage, and sometimes do not even consider, listening to diverse perspectives. (The groups were generally more forgiving to themselves than to each other, however.)

“Across all four groups surveyed, respondents strongly agree that engaging difference should be an essential -- not optional -- outcome of college,” the report says. “There is a troubling gap on campuses between aspiration and reality.”

The study's director, AAC&U Senior Vice President Caryn McTighe Musil, echoed that sentiment. “All learning, the ability to understand and be informed by different perspectives, is an invaluable resource for learning, for citizenship and for work,” she said. “The big picture that came out of this study was the good news that people think this is an absolutely essential goal of college.”

But, the report concludes, “fewer respondents strongly agreed that the campus climate currently supports perspective-taking or that student behaviors reflect the ability to consider and learn from diverse perspectives.”

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, said that may or may not be a bad thing. “The AACU is certainly articulating a valid principle that higher education very much depends on open debate between well-informed perspectives,” he said, “and the differences need to be argued out with reference to appropriate evidence and good standards of argument.”

But, Wood said, the nature of those perspectives must be considered as well. “If ‘diverse viewpoints’ is code language for the stereotyping of views according to identity group, then there is something there which I and others would dispute,” he said. “That’s really not part of the enterprise of genuine higher education.”

Wood said those perspectives must derive from hypotheses based on evidence and grounded in fact to be valid. Higher education isn’t about “flinging around opinions,” he said. “Is there educational profit in treating perspectives as valuable in their own right? My answer is no.”

McTighe Musil, however, said the thought that the authors seek from students is “not just an opinion, but it’s an opinion based on evidence, on thought, on having judged based on competing versions of things.”

But most of the survey respondents think students have some work to do. While 63 percent of students reported that they entered college respecting diverse viewpoints, only 7 percent of campus professionals agreed. Fewer students, just over half, believe they developed an increased ability to learn from different perspectives during college, but even fewer campus professionals, two-fifths, agreed with that.

The AAC&U posed all questions to freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. Generally, student optimism decreased with age.

Among the report’s key findings:

  • Relatively few respondents feel it is safe to hold unpopular opinions on campus. Twice as many students as campus professionals strongly agree it is safe.
  • Participation in community service, interacting with faculty outside of class, and spending more than six hours per week studying are associated with students’ beliefs that college promotes awareness of different perspectives.
  • Students’ and campus professionals’ perceptions regarding engaging difference vary by type of institution and demographic. Students attending secular institutions were more likely than those at religiously affiliated institutions to strongly agree that taking others’ perspectives seriously is or should be a major focus of their campuses. While more community college students said it was safe to hold unpopular positions on campus, and that their campuses have high expectations for students to take other perspectives seriously, fewer said taking other perspectives seriously should be a focus of the campus. Women and students of color were more likely to strongly agree that they valued different perspectives, developed during college, and attended an institution that encouraged taking other perspectives seriously.

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