Engaging Diversity in the Humanities Classroom
What does it mean to truly know something? And how can we humanities educators help our undergraduate students grow in their knowledge of themselves, others, and life? Many of us face classrooms embodying a wide range of backgrounds. This is true both in terms of students’ demographics and in terms of their levels of educational preparation. In some fields, the latter might be a liability, but in ours it is a potential asset, due to the nature of knowledge and the power of diversity. Our challenge is to harness that potential.
Those who know only the English language are at a disadvantage in thinking and speaking about knowledge. Some languages have different words to distinguish between different kinds of knowledge: for example, informational, factual, and practical knowledge (savoir in French, saber in Spanish, wissen in German), as opposed to experiential and relational knowledge, and general familiarity (Fr. connaître, Sp. conocer, Gr. kennen). While there is ample variation within these categories, the distinction between informational knowledge and experiential knowledge is at the heart of the present discussion. In English, it is perhaps clearest in the difference between to know about and to know.
Consider the difference between how well most of us know our friends and family members, on the one hand, and how well a medical doctor might know those same people. You know how your best friend and your mother have behaved in a variety of public and private situations. You know their history, for you have witnessed some of it first-hand and heard about much of the rest. You have some sense of what they must think and feel, perhaps in deeply intuitive ways beyond what you can articulate in words. It would be a mistake to assume that the primary care physician of your best friend or your mother knows them better than you do, even though the good doctor may know vastly more information about them, whether from x-rays or bloodwork, or other diagnostics. Informational knowledge is important, but it is neither the only kind of knowledge nor is it superior, depending on one’s purposes. To be a loyal friend, a loving family member, a compassionate neighbor, and a competent citizen requires knowledge beyond mere information.
Nonetheless, at present, informational knowledge risks edging out other varieties. Standardized testing has come to dominate public primary and secondary education in the U.S. This process ingrains certain ways of learning and of thinking about learning into students, with effects potentially lasting throughout their collegiate experience. The appeal of standardized tests is that they ask questions with clear, verifiable right answers and, thus, a plausible means for charting the progress of those learning and for providing accountability for those who train them. The danger is that, because such tests ask questions with unambiguously, explicitly right answers, those whose education has been dominated by them might think that such questions are the only kind worth asking.
This poses a significant hurdle for those of us who are humanities educators in higher education. What we offer may seem strange and impractical to students eager for job-training and “marketability.” (Given the current cost and tacit vocational function of a college education for many, the confusion is understandable.) Many of us, thus, find ourselves in the position of giving semester-long sales pitches for the joy of meditating on beauty, the utter necessity of reflecting on and seeking meaning, even in the midst of suffering, the cultivation of self-awareness, and the thrill of journeying, eyes open, into the adventure of life. One would hope that the value of such things would be self-evident for anyone who has ever paid any attention to the world around them. To know and to grow in these things requires a commitment to the dynamic interrelationship between thinking, feeling, and living: in short, a commitment to growing in experiential knowledge.
Many undergraduate students seem unaware that their educations can and should consist of this, at least in part. This is ignorance in the purest technical, non-pejorative sense. It represents an immense opportunity. Many of us find ourselves in classrooms with students with disparate levels of preparation. Some already possess significantly more informational knowledge than others. At the same time, many of those who are less prepared informationally have a wealth of experiential knowledge. Noteworthy possessors of both are often adult learners, a welcome source of potential wealth of perspective. By contrast, of traditional late teen and young adult undergraduates, neither the informationally gifted nor the experientially gifted tend to be accustomed to debating ideas and how they connect to the possibilities and difficulties of life. That debate can only truly, fully happen if there is a diverse range of perspectives involved.
Why Diversity Matters in the Classroom
Colleges and universities have a role to play in working to include traditionally under-represented groups as a means of rectifying injustice. That is a worthy end unto itself. But that is not the full extent of diversity’s benefits in the classroom. (For a recent reflection on the problematic nature of the label “diversity,” Ellen Berrey’s recent article offers helpful food for thought.)
An in-depth, multidimensional conversation about beauty, justice, goodness, and truth is only possible if there are multiple perspectives contributing to the conversation. This is why Plato’s dialogues are dialogues, part of the philosophical heritage of Western civilization. Perspectival diversity is essential in the humanities classroom. Certainly, other forms of diversity matter. In fact, perspectival diversity is often an extension of diversity in the forms more commonly signified in contemporary discourse: religion, nationality, race, ethnicity, culture, gender, gender expression, sexuality, and socio-economic status. Perspectival diversity also builds on varieties of diversity less commonly touted: political, vocational, geographic, age, and cognitive/psychological (varying styles of thinking and of learning). One acquires experiential knowledge as part of one’s journey through life, shaped in part to demographic factors. This can provide grist for rich reflection and debate.
Diversity matters not because it looks good on paper or in an admissions brochure, and not because it feels good. In fact, true perspectival diversity can be profoundly uncomfortable. Diversity matters because it challenges us to become more aware and opens the possibility of us making our society more just, which we cannot do without awareness of the problems that beset us.
I vividly recall my most uncomfortable moment teaching thus far. On a bright autumn day during my first semester of full-time teaching, I gathered one section of my first-year students to face me on the broad steps of a classroom building on our quad. I paced the lower steps. Having class outside was a delight for us all. The lesson was on the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I proposed that attitudes against racially mixed marriages were self-evidently a thing of the past. As a person of mixed race, I thought of myself as living proof that mixing was not only possible but positive. When my students responded, I nearly toppled off of the steps in surprise. A number of them informed me that they limited who they dated and would consider marrying based on the prejudices of their birth families. Part of what surprised me was that these were non-white, immigrant students, who would have potentially been at the receiving end of such discrimination had they been part of my parents’ generation. But now, in the name of preserving their culture and being sensitive to the prejudices of their family members, they were the ones willing to exclude others from relationships with them. How naïve I had been.
I cannot assume that a student and I agree on anything. Any of us inclined to state on any matter “we hold these truths to be self-evident” should be prepared to engage with dissent. This is a good thing. Dialogue and debate provide opportunities for mutual growth and learning. My positions need to be intellectual rigorous if they are to face challenges.
No matter how formally well-prepared an incoming class of undergraduates may be, if they are experientially homogenous, they cannot help but establish an inferior learning environment for each other. Conversely, an experientially diverse student body is rich with potential for debate, individual growth, and mutual understanding.
How can we help our students live up to that potential? We need to ask the right kinds of questions, balancing the informational with the experiential. Indeed, our teaching must be driven by questions, rather than by certain answers. Our students deserve a role in discerning which questions matter the most. We must engage and encourage our students to engage with an awareness of who they are and where they are coming from, in all their diversity. Identity and perspective matter not merely as unspoken assumptions but as grist for critical reflection and open discussion. I imagine that most of us do most of these things already, but I know from my own experience the importance of doing them transparently, including students in the process overtly.
My starting point with each of my undergraduates every semester: “Who are you and why do you believe what you believe?” This is the topic of their first paper. I currently offer undergraduate seminars integrating introductory theology, philosophy, and comparative religion. In that context, the students’ answers to these questions defines their approach of all else we consider in our courses. Integral to our task are critical engagement with and comparison of perspectives, both others’ and our own.
No matter how much or little informational knowledge students have already acquired, all possess some significant degree of experiential knowledge, each from a unique perspective. However, that uniqueness is not absolute. We share significant similarities, providing hope for mutual intelligibility, empathy, and even sympathy. In order for a university to be truly universal, for a college to be collegial, or for the humanities to plausibly claim to study humanity, there must be an inclusive approach toward knowledge and knowers, in all their variety and ambiguity.
All have something to contribute to our discussion. In our journey together, some are seasoned cartographers and others have never seen a map, and although all have done some walking, few have done long distance navigation on rough terrain. Not all trips worth taking are on easily marked highways. The humanities are uncharted territory for many of our students. We who guide them have the delight of potentially witnessing moments of discovery and of making discoveries of our own, aided by the eyes around us.