After failing three times in previous years, the faculty of the UCLA College of Letters and Science recently approved a proposal requiring future undergraduates to take a course on ethnic, cultural, religious, gender or other “diversity.” Critics immediately derided it as a “superficial” and “misguided” move that would merely paper over political and cultural differences in an effort to show that the university “cares.”
Who is right? Is this about teaching information, skills and critical thinking, or about inculcating students with politically correct beliefs? If one of the goals is to encourage tolerance, as it seems to be, is it realistic to think that a college student's beliefs and behavior toward others will really change after a single course taken for a mere academic quarter? The casual observer couldn't be blamed for raising an eyebrow.
To their credit, though, the authors of the proposal, which still requires the support of two more university panels, based it on rigorous academic evidence rather than on mushy social or political idealism. One of the studies they relied on found that students who were given questionnaires to fill out before and after a course on black studies evinced remarkably more understanding attitudes toward African Americans after the class. Other studies have confirmed the value of such courses — and have shown that the benefits persist for years.
Few would disagree that tolerance, in some broad sense, is a value that should be encouraged (although that doesn't mean we should tolerate everything others do). In a multicultural nation and a global economy, the ability to bridge gaps to work with others is highly valued by employers — not to mention that it makes for a more civil, more peaceful society. So if diversity courses might help, by all means let's try them.
An extensive list of classes that might fulfill the requirement includes Introduction to Archaeology, Korean Art, the American West, Biomedical Ethics and a course intriguingly titled Bodies. One concern, however, is that students might simply sort themselves into silos — with students of Japanese ancestry taking courses on modern Japanese history, Jewish students enrolling in Holocaust studies and so forth — in which case they might learn about themselves but little about anyone else.
Above all, it's crucial that UCLA not sacrifice academic rigor or intellectual openness in carrying out its plan. Tolerance is important, but so is critical thinking. Students' opinions on controversial subjects differ sharply — to take one small example, was actress Daniele Watts' outburst to an L.A. police officer a legitimate response to past racial profiling, as she seemed to say, or did it reflect a misplaced, exaggerated sense of victimization, as critics maintained? Diversity of opinion is among the forms of diversity that any new policy should honor.
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