In the past few days, a renewed call for changes in how and what students learn at American colleges and universities about matters of racism has spread in the news and on social media. The public wants reform, and many higher education leaders have published statements of solidarity and new commitments to change.
Naturally, most of us feel highly emotional about the events of the past few weeks. The death of George Floyd is unbearable to watch, and no possible explanation of police procedures or the many real dangers police officers face every day can begin to account for the action -- and inaction -- of the four officers caught on camera. We are all deeply upset, and many of us are experiencing a profound despair, unchecked anger and visceral pain over the state of our society.
The immediate reaction is to express our feelings and to call for action, change and reform in the most idealized and ardent language. But I would suggest that those of us who are in the academy -- as professors, academic deans, institutional leaders and administrators -- refrain from knee-jerk affirmations and promises and instead address the complex realities that continue to baffle so many well-meaning and hopeful Americans. It is too easy to focus our anger only on the seemingly racist actions of some police officers, white supremacist agitators or President Trump as the arbiter of evil in our modern society.
Neither does the answer lie in mass mea culpas by all white Americans for the real or suggested benefits their ethnicity has provided them. Certainly, systems of privilege and power exist. Income, education, gender, race/ethnicity, religion, age and other factors have traditionally and often continue to disproportionally benefit certain members of society more than others. It is also true that the roots of professional law enforcement are intertwined with our nation’s awful legacy of slavery through slave catchers and the Fugitive Slave Act. And, as in any society, we have homegrown extremists of many varieties who peddle hate to distract themselves from their own impotence.
Yet none of this is new. It hasn’t expressed itself in violent action for the first time nor the last. And while many voices call for new and revised approaches to education and the need to have more raw and honest conversations about race, we may want to remind ourselves, as well as the public, that almost all higher education institutions already are actively engaged in offering a wide variety of courses and degree programs that aim to represent the experiences and goals of long-marginalized groups.
Since the late 1960s, Foucauldian deconstructionism has been the dominant school of thought for intellectual analysis, undergirding the design of many new courses. That has led to the now ubiquitous concept of white and male privilege, a concept that was present in every graduate school class in the late 1990s and early 2000s before it transitioned into the mainstream. The humanities and social sciences led the way with developing multiple history and literature classes, along with sociology, economics and psychology courses that have been addressing the intersection of race, class and gender discrimination and the complex power inequalities existing in a capitalist society. In fact, scholars in the late 19th century had already written widely on such ideas.
Today, undergraduate and graduate students alike at almost any institution, ranging from community colleges to Ivy League universities, have the opportunity to take a multitude of courses like Black History, Latinx Literature, Sociology of Power and Privilege, Queer Studies, and many similar examples. Also, especially in recent years, programs such as criminal justice, education/teacher preparation and public administration have been increasingly updated to include courses on multiculturalism, race relations, privilege, and diverse identity experiences.
In addition, any institution that has updated its strategic plan in the past decade -- which is about every college or university -- has included strengthened commitments to increasing diversity, hiring more diverse faculty and attracting and supporting diverse students. They’ve also adjusted admissions and hiring policies by employing diversity awareness experts on various administrative levels from assistant director to vice president of diversity and multiculturalism. And for years now, campuses have hosted events, held “talks on race” and established ever-stricter political correctness codes.
A More Holistic and Representative Narrative
That said, those among us who see education as the one true lever for societal change are called upon now to incorporate a more holistic and fully representative narrative in the degree programs offered at our colleges and universities. That would begin with fully acknowledging that not everyone embraces the discourse on privilege and systemic discrimination. Many Americans do not wholeheartedly subscribe to the dominant narrative of racism as the key determinant of all matters related to equality and justice, as it is repeated verbatim in every article and conference paper or social media post. There are other voices, and not just those who are attracted by white supremacist thought or who continue to hold fast to the idea of American exceptionalism. In and out of academe, many Americans want to grasp what it means to live in a pluralistic and equal society, one that also remains firmly based in capitalism and ideas of individual freedom.
Most of the public and, increasingly, college students gain their information from nonscholarly sources. While in some ways, the easy access to information can be seen as an asset, it also has led to limited narratives and out-of-context data being quickly accepted as the new truth merely by having them repeated by everyone over and over again.
To date, we are a highly divided and polarized society, further strained by the current pandemic and biased media coverage across the entire political spectrum. Identity politics and social media have pushed everyone further and further into siloed, seemingly insular “communities.” We have resorted to framing our culture and history through a lens of groupthink and remained entrenched in ideological and intellectual foxholes instead of reaching across barriers to seek commonalities and joint cause. We are bereft of an ideological and intellectual center.
It is there where higher education should step in and take the lead. We do not need more of the same. Rather, we must move beyond the present and rethink what and how we teach. It begins by acknowledging the many successes we have accomplished as a society as well as in higher education. We have increased the number of diverse students that enroll every year and established many support structures, diverse activities, clubs and programs to reflect the changes in student demographics. But we need to collectively take the progress we made much further.
It is no longer enough to create yet one more awareness-raising forum, class or even degree program, as interesting as they may be. Instead of offering yet another special-focus course, institutions must move away from the hyphenated curricula and fully integrate truly diverse and inclusive subject matter into all applicable survey courses as well as required course work in a major.
We need to design programs to include mandatory courses that discuss the various intersections of oppression in different societies rather than leave them as electives. As long as diversity-related courses largely remain as add-ons or electives that are plugged into existing curricula in order to meet the diversity requirement for accreditation purposes, we are only completing a small percentage of the required work. Mandatory courses, especially those usually taken in the first two years in college, as well as many liberal arts requirements, have to be fully intellectually representative, including diverse experiences into standard courses beyond the handful of notable representatives and events. We also have to address more strategically how academic programs are designed and what courses are required, and vastly limit the remaining electives.
Courses can no longer be tied to individual faculty. Departments should not have to compete with each other over student enrollment for funding. Colleges and universities should amend processes and policies for workload assignments, teaching schedules, departmental funding allocations, as well as requirements for tenure and promotion. For institutional senior leaders as well as academic deans, the challenge is to revise funding metrics and address program development and course scheduling from an increasingly holistic approach. Much of this has already begun, and we should acknowledge the successes we have accomplished. The next step is to build on it and expand these efforts.
Higher education professionals want to take the lead now and engage more deliberately and jointly in revising our programs so that they are intellectually inclusive, skills focused and fully transferable, thereby moving significantly forward to achieving true equity not only in access but also in outcome for all students. America remains an utterly unique experiment that continues to justify its claim of exceptionality. We need to see addressing injustice against one of us as an affirmation of freedom for all of us.