Williams College has announced a new diversity requirement.
There’s nothing especially wrong with the long laundry list of intellectual skills or experiences that now potentially qualify a course to be designated as “exploring diversity”. Under the old system, it just had to be about a “minority group” or a “non-Western culture”. The problem with that, regardless of your political views on diversity, should be obvious: it implies that the students are all Western and not members of a minority group, e.g., that learning about diversity is a kind of liberal noblesse oblige.
Good for the Williams faculty for owning up to that problem. Why not just take the requirement off the books altogether, however? I’m sure that some critics will regard the unwillingness of the faculty to give up on the idea of a diversity requirement as political or ideological, and to some extent it is. However, if you look at the curriculum of almost any elite college or university, including this one, you’ll see a lot of ways that professors try to hedge against the curricular marketplace. Distribution requirements. Core curricula. Writing courses. Required introductory sequences. Fixed or required course sequences within majors. Culminating exercises. Junior colloquia.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways to feel confident that your students reliably have a known set of competencies, skills or experiences when they graduate. One is requirements, either of specific courses with fixed content or of types or categories of courses with slightly less fixed content. The other is to disseminate a particular kind of content or experience so widely throughout the curriculum that a student would have to deliberately go out of their way to avoid contact with that skill or concept.
Requirements of various kinds are not just a way of guaranteeing particular competencies or experiences, however. They’re also a kind of traffic control, of leading mules on a tether. Faculty tend to favor them whenever they perceive that students will not naturally distribute themselves to the subject areas and disciplines that the institution has chosen to invest in, to even out teaching workloads by managing the flow of students into classes.
In the latter case, I simply think that faculty usually are wrong in assessing likely student demand, or misattribute existing or possible student distributions to a desire to avoid a particular subject matter. I have seen departments here and elsewhere that have assumed a need for compulsion in order to direct enrollments in their direction discover that once the compulsion goes away, they get the same number of students as they always did. Sometimes professors also misattribute enrollments to their subject matter when it also has something to do with their pedagogy.
The “traffic control” reasons are weak justifications for requirements. They protect departments, disciplines and individuals from having to justify and continually improve their programs, and they keep institutions from investing resources where the resources are most needed. When tenure means that investing in a given area is more or less a 30-year investment, you don’t want to give up what little flexibility you do have by creating captive constituencies that are never allowed to participate in an intellectual or professional market.
These kinds of rationales are also a problem because increasingly they lead to requirements as a kind of prestige object, very distant from achieving particular or focused learning objectives. Having a requirement in this case becomes a symbolic and gestural communication of the seriousness with which an institution regards an idea, concept or discipline. There are cheaper ways to do that: give people little gold stars or medals or hearty handshakes from the president, if that kind of symbolic affirmation is what they’re seeking.
Even when it’s about learning outcomes, the vaguer or more expansive a requirement gets, the less useful it becomes. This pretty much describes Williams’ new diversity formulation to a T. As an outsider looking in, it seems to me that Williams is putting into its curriculum a requirement that is largely designed to produce amity between competing disciplinary and intellectual agendas, essentially using the curriculum as a way to manage and communicate the political and symbolic unity of the faculty, not as an attempt to direct the specific learning of students.
If a student can get through Williams without taking a course that could plausibly get an “asterix” for meeting one of those criteria, then that student is working very hard to avoid those courses. It might have been fair to think that in the early 1960s, your average white male student at Williams (or Swarthmore or Amherst or Princeton or Duke, etcetera) would have been largely disinterested in any or all of the possible meanings of diversity that Williams has designated as learning objectives. Today, I really think that a student with active antipathy towards those objectives would be unusual. In this case, the marketplace of courses at your average liberal arts college is more than adequate to ensure that most students will encounter questions of diversity in some fashion. I feel the same way about the requirement for a non-Western course within the history major here at Swarthmore. Within the major, we have a large number of courses on Latin America, China, Africa and occasionally courses on other non-Western societies: I feel pretty sure that a sufficiently large number of majors will end their time here with exposure to this kind of subject matter.
I think this is true for more than diversity. We have a writing requirement, for example, where certain courses get designated as “W” courses that focus particularly on writing. I think at this point that extensive attention to writing is central to many classes in the humanities and social sciences. I’m not sure we need the redundancy of “W” courses, and moreover, since most of them are also trying to accomplish coverage of some topic or subject, I strongly suspect that over time, the writing in a “W” class will end up subordinated to the subject matter, and the course will become a “normal” course in effect anyway. Then it will just be another instrument of traffic control.
I don’t entirely embrace the curricular marketplace. I think that some disciplines need to be taught more sequentially, though perhaps not quite so much as is conventionally thought. I think a limited and very precisely drawn core curriculum can be a very useful way to ensure that students share a common base of knowledge and experience. But mostly, I’m suspicious of discussions of requirements, because they’re often not what they seem. If you really want to ensure that students will have certain kinds of experiences, it’s better to look to managing the supply rather than mandating the demand.