Building Better Scholarly Environments

One Faculty Member's Perspective on the The Value of Diversity

By Roxane Harvey Gudeman

I had a limited education, as I have only gradually come to understand. In the 1940s and 1950s I attended respected urban public schools, then studied at Radcliffe, Harvard, and the University of Minnesota. None was formally segregated, but none offered a diverse faculty or student body, and all had curricula focused on European and European-American intellectual traditions and history. Today's students at these same institutions and at Macalester College where I teach are more fortunate, for they can benefit from the diverse perspectives that have been introduced to curricula and academic communities since my student days.

An example of diversity's contribution to the educational enterprise occurred this past spring when I taught a cultural psychology senior seminar at Macalester. The planets were in harmonious orbit, and the classroom experience came closer than usual to the ideal. A few enthusiastic students even suggested that the class become a required course, a rare recommendation among this individualistic cadre! But it was the unique blend of students who illuminated and energized the class, not me nor the curriculum, for they brought multiple perspectives and expertise to a shared intellectual venture. This group of twelve majors, engaged in a "capstone" experience, came together to explore the place of culture in psychology's theories and methods and to think creatively about the future of cultural psychology. They were final semester seniors who had spent four years at our small Midwestern liberal arts college. All had faced the complexities of diversity on campus in class and out and had become skilled at building constructive multicultural encounters. To their readings, assignments, and discussions, each brought a unique range of special interests and life experiences. The twelve students came from nine U.S. states and two countries; the Americans ranged from the first through the sixteenth generation since arrival. They included African-Americans (2), Asian-Americans (3 -- of Japanese, Korean and East Indian heritage), Hispanic-Americans (2), multi-ethnic Americans (2), and European-Americans (5). There was one international student, and a wide variation by religion, social class, international experience, and urban/rural upbringing.

In this class the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. It was the collectivity of students that exponentially enhanced class discussion and contributed to better research for every member of the class. For example, the U.S. students of color helped us interpret and analyze readings pertaining to biculturalism. The Latino students helped a European-American design a study of learning at a Spanish immersion school in St. Paul. A Turkish international student made valuable contributions when we discussed another student's research on the significance of gendered features of the Japanese language. (Turkish lacks the kinds of grammatical gender marking found in Japanese and other languages spoken by class members.) Students with multiple cultures or origin introduced challenging perspectives on issues of cultural identity in the United States and on the process of cultural acquisition and enactment. All students were able to contribute cogent original ideas and interpretations because their rich variety of experiences in varying geographical and (multi-)cultural contexts created opportunities for nuanced comparative analyses. Classroom encounters of these kinds did not occur at "quality" educational institutions when I was a student of social science. Even when occasional non-European-Americans were in my classes, they were there to learn Western models and methods, not to teach and collaborate. What a lost opportunity for everyone -- students, faculty, and researchers!

If challenges to affirmative action continue, and if the academy is forced to retreat from its commitment to diversity, I picture my college and classes once again peopled by European-American Minnesotans in place of the catalyzing mix among faculty and students we are working to achieve. All of the students in last spring's senior seminar comfortably met the college's criteria for admission academically and in other ways. But many would not have been at that table had Macalester College not included domestic diversity and internationalism as two pillars of its educational mission (the other two are academic excellence and community service).

Macalester has put its resources behind those commitments and recruited students of all social classes and ethnicities from throughout the United States and the world. It also has been able to offer need-blind admissions; over 70% of our students receive financial aid. Of course, the college additionally has sought a balance of students interested in a variety of disciplines and extracurricular activities in order to create the rich academic and social environment that it believes is essential to fulfilling its mission. As a private college, Macalester should be able to continue determining how it can best achieve its institutional goals, unless government intervention and regulation force a retreat. But all of us who believe in the many educational values of diversity must find ways to demonstrate this value to others in the academy, and in political and legal arenas.

Roxane Harvey Gudeman teaches psychology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota and is a member of Committee L on Historically Black Institutions and the Status of Minorities in the Profession.