Have diversity initiatives sabotaged higher education?

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Diversity initiatives in higher education, with the intent to foster harmony and understanding of others, seemed to have undermined some of the primary goals of higher education: leading students to critically self-reflect and hold justified true beliefs. Some diversity initiatives have reinforced the very harmful idea that disagreement is disrespectful and have also assented to indefensible epistemiological ideas including ‘all perspectives are equally valid’ and ‘people are justified in holding a belief because it is a product of their culture.’ Harmony can be had — and perhaps better so — as a result of critical discussion that should be encouraged and welcomed instead of discouraged and viewed as disrespectful. 

(This post follows a recent discussion I had with philosopher Peter Boghossian. We have very similar views on this matter! I was aiming to write a post like this for some time, but haven’t formulated my ideas in writing…so now is my chance.)

Readers who are familiar with my work should know that I value truth and critical discussion about beliefs. In many blog posts, podcasts, and speeches of mine, I argue for a reframing of the commonly assented to idea that disagreement is disrespectful…and the we just shouldn’t disagree with people. Instead of viewing disagreement as something that must be disrespectful and viewing disagreement as something that should be avoided we should view disagreement as an opportunity to learn something, challenge our own beliefs, and perhaps lead others to reconsider their beliefs. We all have blind spots, after all, and could learn something by speaking with people whom we disagree with.

Diversity initiatives, though, from my experience, seem to buy into the ‘disagreement is disrespect’ meme and have led many to commit intellectual suicide concerning the nature of truth while sabatoging one of the chief goals of higher education – namely that students, when exposed to different ideas, should modify their beliefs and hold only that which is justified and true…all in the sake of some sort of harmony not worth wanting by any in the intellectual realm because many, it seems, don’t believe that we can disagree about major issues and maintain harmony.

In my final year of high school — and even in many of my introductory college courses such as ‘first year experience’ — I was told time and time again that college was a time in which students would be exposed to people from all around the world with different worldviews, religious beliefs (or lack thereof), sexual orientations, political ideas, and so much more. Instead of being a member of a ‘small town insular community,’ college students are exposed to an entire different climate. While in college, the hope, I was told, was for students to consider others’ beliefs and self-reflect so as to learn something and better understand the world, other cultures, and so much more. Self-reflection, it seems, should be a byproduct of exposure to new ideas.

All of this, though, while it seemed great at the time, seemed to be only partially true. I was exposed to different ideas and persons, but the self-reflection aspect simply wasn’t something that was being promoted. Instead of critical discussion of ideas and self-examinations, faculty and students alike seemed to be brainwashed into accepting indefensible positions such as ‘all perspectives are equally valid,’ ‘everyone is justified in believing what they believe because that is their right,’ and ‘we should, instead of challenging others, celebrate differences.

All perspectives, though, as my philosophy classes have taught me, can’t be equally valid because we would be lead to accept contradictions and be forced to accept ideas which fly in the face of our moral intuitions and logical reasoning. In my “Ethics and the Good Life” class which probably was one of the most influential classes in my second year of my undergraduate career, I learned that ethical cultural relativism — the idea that a position is morally justified because a culture assents to it — is one of the most indefensible ideas in ethics because, for example, cultures can assent to the idea that wife burning is morally acceptable.

“Who are we to argue with that” some will say, “because you aren’t from that culture and people decide what’s true for them.” Unfortunately, this sentiment is all too common – and seemingly embraced by persons in the modern ‘diversity movement.’ Apparently, because I am not from a certain culture, some will contend, I am not qualified to share my ideas — and just should not — and truth just flies right out the window. In the name of not ‘criticizing’ ideas that are foreign to Americans, we’re apparently supposed to tolerate intolerance and just ‘leave ideas alone.’ What a catastrophe.

My philosophy classes have also taught me that, when evaluating the merit of a belief, it’s important to realize that not all opinions or beliefs are equal in weight; many opinions are uninformed, flawed, ill-formed, do not cohere with reality, and are outright fallacious. The simple fact that someone holds a belief does not lead to the belief being warranted. Persons ought to consider objections to their beliefs, whether a belief coheres with reality, whether the assumptions that lead to the belief are warranted, and so much more. While persons may have a legal right to hold a belief (and certainly won’t be arrested for thinking about something), a moral right and whether the belief is a justified true belief or not is an entirely different matter. In the name of harmony, perhaps, and ‘respect for beliefs,’ diversity initiatives and other considerations have undermined higher education and have convinced so many that people are moral monsters to challenge others’ beliefs.

Perhaps, as I mentioned, a major motivation people have to object to disagreement is to preserve harmony (as if the only way to do so is for people to sit down and shut up). Can’t we just all live together and keep our beliefs to ourselves? Why can’t we just live and let live? Why do people like me continue to write and do what I do? Aren’t beliefs just private matters? People ask these questions quite frequently. It’s quite difficult, I would respond to contend that many or most of our beliefs are solely private matters when it’s quite clear that our beliefs inform our actions and have the ability to harm others and ourselves. Persons like me are concerned with what others believe because their beliefs impact others’ quality of life. I care about whether or not people hold justified true beliefs when certain matters are of paramount concern.

Refraining from disagreement with others and assenting to the idea that all perspectives are equally valid seems to be quite an easy and attractive way to deal with disagreement, but it’s an incredibly intellectually dishonest position and something that higher education should never maintain. What progress is had when people lack self-reflection? If all perspectives are equally valid, what is the point of challenging our own beliefs? Why should we even attend school and be concerned about holding justified true beliefs if this is the case?

Open-mindedness is a term that often gets thrown around by persons in diversity initiatives, but this term is largely misconstrued and quite relevant to this discussion. I am told, after I voice objections to people who hold untenable beliefs (often after they start a discussion with me and reveal that they haven’t critically examined their own ideas and/or understand very little about epistemology and admit that they aren’t concerned with truth), that I am closed-minded and that I should “accept others.” Excuse me? Since when is asking questions about someone’s belief a horrible thing [in the realm of higher education]? Do not teachers do this in almost every class and encourage students to self-reflect? True open-mindedness is a willingness to admit that you can be wrong about something and a willingness to change any and all ideas provided new evidence, reason, and argument comes in…and this ‘being wrong’ isn’t a bad thing; admitting one is mistaken about something is a sign of progress and intellectual courage – and this is really something to respect and admire.

One thing that leaders of diversity initiatives and I can agree on is that it it more important that we live together than we all agree. Diversity initiatives, though, seem to take a drastically different approach to this matter and work from many flawed ideas about epistemology and a harmony ‘worth wanting.’ It is quite possible to be respectful toward persons while having a conversation about important and often contentious matters. A primary problem, though, is that people view ‘attacks on ideas’ as ‘attacks on persons’ even when said ‘attacking’ is done in a very civil and calm manner with regard to the person who holds the belief. Perhaps diversity initiatives should change the focus and maintain that critical disagreement is something that we should strive for and work on becoming better at. If we can ‘step back’ from our beliefs and understand others’ perspectives, it seems that society will be a better place and that a true harmony can be had in which people — instead of viewing disagreement as disrespect — can have the intellectual courage to understand others instead of demonizing them…and an ‘everyone is right and no one should disagree’ attitude isn’t going to get us there. This is not the goal of higher education and should not be the goal of diversity initiatives.

Leaders of diversity initiatives, instead of maintaining that all perspectives people hold are equally valid and that we just shouldn’t assert that people are mistaken (or otherwise engage in critical discussion), should start to focus on how to respectfully disagree and prioritize justified true beliefs. We can ‘bring our differences to the table’ and consider meetings between differing individuals to be great opportunities for challenging our own beliefs and the beliefs of others rather than missing this great opportunity and hopelessly and dishonestly maintaining that all perspectives are equally valid and disagreement is just disrespectful. Critical discussion should bring about more understanding than does sitting back at a table and refraining from asking questions. If this is not the case — and diversity programs continue to convince others that all perspectives are equally valid and discourage critical discussion — it seems that diversity programs have sabotaged the aim of higher education and they are harming us more than they are helping us.

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