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The multicultural university

November 18, 2008

It is now pretty universally recognized that universities need to be “multicultural”, in several separate senses. They need to be open and welcoming to students coming from many different cultures. They need to create an academic and social environment where students from many cultures can learn together in a harmonious way. And they need to find ways of incorporating the knowledge and perspectives of many cultures into their courses of study and academic programs.

Why are each of these components necessary? One could imagine a university that invited attendance by all students but then worked to extinguish the cultural differences that exist among admitted students. Or we could imagine a university with diverse groups of admitted students that also attempted to create a multicultural social environment — but that insisted nonetheless on a curriculum based on a narrow, “non-cultural”, “neutral” set of topics and pedagogies. So why is it important to incorporate multicultural diversity into all three aspects of the university environment — recruitment, climate, and curriculum?

There are multiple overlapping reasons for deep multiculturalism in universities that ultimately derive from the changing nature of our society and the fundamental mission of facilitating students’ learning.

First, our society. American society may be a relatively extreme case by international comparison, but it is a fact that American culture and society encompasses a remarkable degree of diversity — in race, age, gender, nationality, and religion, to name several important dimensions of difference. And our commitment to the principles of fundamental human equality and the necessity of equality of treatment establish the moral necessity of making the opportunities of university attendance available to everyone across all of these lines of difference. This is one of the basic justifications that have been offered in support of affirmative action.

The importance of creating a multicultural university environment follows from two things: the necessity of treating cultural differences with respect, and the recognition that all students can learn important things when they are induced to interact with people with very different values and beliefs. Moreover, there is the practical point that virtually everyone in our society will be called upon to work with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds — and to do this successfully requires the acquiring of a large set of intercultural skills and competencies. (This is one of the reasons that corporations like GM intervened on behalf of the University of Michigan’s defense of affirmative action.)

Finally, the need for creating a multicultural curriculum derives from the learning mission of the university. More diverse learning is better learning; it gives students a broader set of perspectives through which to frame the problems we confront, it nurtures the concrete skills needed in order to have productive collaborations with a diverse group of potential partners, and it provides a crucial antidote to the parochialism that goes along with a curriculum designed entirely out of a single cultural tradition. Monoculturalism is as stultifying in problem-solving as monocropping is harmful to agriculture.

In fact, it seems that universities may represent the best opportunity we have as a society to work through the challenge of creating a genuinely multiple-racial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic society. We can experiment with different approaches to the fundamental values of pluralism and respect that the twenty-first century will demand. From this point of view, the truly successful multicultural university will point the way to a more fully democratic society in the future.

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