THE ETHICS QUESTION: AN ELUSIVE QUEST FOR EQUITY AND DIVERSITY IN AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION

Barbara Paige


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Only a country that's deeply conflicted over its multiple ethnic and diverse experiential roots could serious sustain an ideological commitment to the concept of a value-free education. Knowledge is socially constructed (Cortese, 1993);1 ideas and beliefs do not exists independently of the contexts that give birth to them. There is, of course, an essential difference between the indoctrinational force-feeding of either young or adult learners, and the open and critical discussion of different and sometimes oppositional points of view. The clarity of this essential difference notwithstanding, American educators continue to discuss the values question (i.e., the place of values in the classroom) as if only two alternatives are possible; that is, to force feed students or to adopt a completely "value free" approach to teaching and learning. It is my contention that both of these alternatives represent a distortion of the teaching and learning process as it should be structured. Value free teaching and learning is not possible; complete objectivity, in short, is an elusive quest. It is the pursuit of objectivity and not its acquisition that gives order and clarity to the knowledge construction process. This simple fact has been obscured by opponents of multicultural education for whom objectivity has become a tool of subterfuge, a mechanism for avoiding questions that might force them to acknowledge the value-based (i.e., Anglo- and male-centered) structure of higher education in the United States.

If the United States were to genuinely commit itself to a multicultural transformation of American education, at all levels of the process, the illusion of value neutrality could not be sustained. To introduce more voices from diverse experiential backgrounds into the knowledge construction process is to confront subjective realities which challenge the validity of the assumed "value free" structure of our dominant theoretical paradigms. It is not a coincidence, for example, that Ethnic Studies Departments and Programs as well as Women Studies Departments and Programs are comparative and interdisciplinary in structure. As American educators turned their attention to more indepth constructions and analyses of the racial minority and American female experience in the 1960s, they discovered that existing theoretical paradigms were simply not adequate lenses through which to explore the subtleties and complexities of American pluralism. It is also not surprising that American educators most consistently express their resistance to multicultural education in excellence terms. The belief that excellence and diversity cannot coexist in the same educational context, an assumption that clearly has a racial subtext, surfaced in the 1980s as an effective mechanism for shifting attention away from both the value and power implications of a system of higher education that is Anglocentrically structured.

A colleague of mine, Gale Auletta Young, and I recently had an article accepted for inclusion in a publication entitled Communications Ethnics in an Age of Diversity.2 The article, which focuses on language as a mechanism of subterfuge, explores the extent to which racial subtexts have historically been used in the United States to obscure the source of important social problems. What we emphasize is that while European-Americans of almost every generation, once they were at least one generation removed, were able to identify and critique the often most subtle and historical forms of white collective denial (e.g., the vilification of indigenous Americans as "wild and savage," or the vilification of blacks as "sambos"), they have become fully as much victims of "white collective denial." We point out that the readiness with which most white Americans have embraced the concepts of "reverse discrimination" and "political correctness" underscores the extent to which European- Americans are unwilling to accept responsibility for either institutionalized racism or its derivative, white privilege. The relative ease with which most contemporary European-Americans can reject any responsibility for an American past that's deeply mired in race and gender oppression indicates their unwillingness to acknowledge the extent to which this oppression has institutionalized itself, or the role that it continues to play as a structural barrier to mobility for racial minorities and women. Only a deeply repressed nation can assign victim status to white males, the group that is most in control of the United States' political and economic structure,3 or view those groups which are most marginal (e.g., women and racial minorities) as powerful enough to effectively censor the content of the university curriculum.

The struggle to maintain systems of oppression in the United States has historically been fought fully as much at the intellectual as the physical level. As Barbara Christian has perceptively observed, one of the most effective ways to disempower a group is to psychologically control them.4 Dr. Christian is referring to internalized oppression, the psychological process whereby racial minorities and women embrace the values that are encoded in the negative stereotypic constructions of the dominant group. I believe that it's important to understand that all Americans are disempowered through systems of psychological control. To the extent that white Americans in the post-1776 period allowed themselves to be manipulated through the construction and institutionalization of the "docile slave" and "wild Indian" stereotypes, they bought into systems of racial oppression that simultaneously benefitted plantation owners, railroad and oil barons, and disempowered themselves. Likewise, to the extent that contemporary white Americans view affirmative action and illegal immigration as the source of institutional downsizing, loss of jobs, and salary cutbacks, capitalistic greed (i.e., this nation's greater commitment to economic profit than human life), the primary source of the growing disparity in wealth between America's rich and poor, escapes them.

The language duplicity that is so deeply rooted in contemporary American social thought is a function, ironically, of some genuine progress in race relations in the United States. One of the by-products of the social reform movements of the 1960s has been the emergence of a more racially open environment, one in which, as Omi and Winant observe, crude evolutionary appeals to white intellectual superiority simply no longer work.5 Therefore, groups which clearly have agendas that are rooted in either covert or overt racist substructures, have had to retreat behind more clever and sophisticated forms of language subterfuge. The use of disingenuous language to disguise racist intent is thus not so much new, as it is an ongoing response to the legacy of institutionalized racism. Through their appropriation of the moral language of social reform movements of the 60s (e.g., reverse discrimination instead of discrimination), conservative political forces effectively derailed the equity and diversity thrust in American higher education. Rightist and neo-Rightist forces, could not have so easily appropriated this moral language, however, if liberal educations had not relinquished it.

Robert Blauner has perhaps most effectively captured the source of the liberal educator's retreat from principle; the readiness with which s/he conceded so much ideological ground. Some of the same educators who supported the goals of the Civil Rights Movement found themselves at odds, Blauner points out, with the mandates and goals of affirmative action programs. The source of this seemingly inconsistent position on equity and diversity, he concludes, is a belief in democratic individualism and a failure to come to terms with the fundamentally flawed premises on which this philosophy rests.6

The reluctance of most American educators to acknowledge that the university curriculum is neither inclusive nor value- free is thus rooted in a flawed value system: the philosophy of democratic individualism. Take, for example, the "best candidate" argument, the primary institutional barrier to hiring more racial minority and women faculty. The argument that the principle of academic freedom can only be sustained if universities hire the best candidate, and the corresponding contention that women and, in particular, racial minority candidates remain marginal within the academy because of their less than competitive status, not only mirrors a very subtle and insidious form of racism, but fails to take into account that the best candidate does not exist in the abstract. Hiring decisions are made on the basis of department needs, and these needs mirror historical patterns of racial and gender exclusion. Structures are thus in place, within the academic hiring process, which place American minority groups at a decided disadvantage.


Difference, Power and Discrimination Program (OSU)

The central premise of this paper is that faculty development programs (i.e., Difference, Power and Discrimination)7 like the one that I direct at Oregon State University are not supported more fully because they represent an ideological threat to the conception of a morally- neutral knowledge base, a threat which (while it most often either goes unarticulated or surfaces in a disguised form) is the primary source of resistance to multicultural education. To acknowledge that a value structure is in place in the American academy, some educators fear (e.g., Alan Bloom) is to throw open the flood gates; to concede that all knowledge is relative and thus to relinquish the possibility of a belief in the greater good.8 There is, of course, an alternative to this fatalistic and flawed view of cultural relativism. An honest and more inclusive approach to knowledge construction has the potential to expand the parameters of existing theoretical paradigms and, as importantly, to expand our understanding of universal as well as context-specific value structures. This latter and more ethical stance, however, carries with it a responsibility for a redistribution of resources and more equitable sharing of power.


Difference, Power and Discrimination (OSU)

The Difference, Power and Discrimination Program at Oregon State University was a response to institutionalized curricula exclusion. And unfortunately, the demand for greater curricula inclusion (the pattern for most comparative diversity programs at American colleges and universities) came from racial minority students rather than white faculty. The group therefore that should have taken a leadership role in diversifying the university curriculum failed to do so, and when confronted with their inaction most often retreated behind the argument that external (e.g., students, administration, etc.) interference in the curriculum development process represented an infringement of academic freedom. The primary institutional barrier to the success of comparative diversity programs is thus that they do not have the full support of the university faculty and, in fact, are vehemently opposed by some faculty. This fact notwithstanding, programs with similar or the same structure as DPD at Oregon State, represent the most effective model for the cultural diversification of the American university curriculum.

The DPD Faculty Development Program has such tremendous potential as a curricula transforming agent because of its "across-the-university" structure. The primary resistance to greater ethnicity and gender inclusion is at the departmental level, so the problem must be confronted at this level, and on a university-wide basis. For example, while Ethnic and Women Studies Departments and Programs represent an important institutional response to curricula exclusion, particularly given the American academy's continuing commitment to a "western civilization" driven curriculum, the infusion and integration of multicultural materials throughout the university curriculum represents the only adequate response to the current state of curricula apartheid.

What is most innovative about the Oregon State DPD Program is its diversity across-the-curriculum structure. Rather than developing one comparative diversity course and institutionalizing it as a requirement, Oregon State established a structure whereby any course that's comparative and interdisciplinary in structure, and which focuses on the power dynamics of at least two groups who are victims of institutionalized exclusion, can fulfill the DPD baccalaureate core requirement (as of Fall, 1995). As importantly, Oregon State provides a context for the retooling and training of faculty (i.e., the DPD Faculty Development Seminary), as well as incentives for developing DPD courses (e.g., a modest stipend). At least one faculty member has defined Oregon State's support of participating DPD faculty as a bribe; suggesting, of course, that faculty would not participate in the DPD Seminar if they were not paid to do so. This presumptive stance, when stripped of its academic pretense, mirrors simply another form of disguised resistance to curriculum change. University faculty are faced with enormous demands on their time and energy; it is thus unrealistic to ask them to assume additional responsibilities without some form of minimal compensation. There is, in fact, a general consensus within the university culture that "additional" creative and critical learning activities should be rewarded either through internal or external grant support. The implicit assumption that cultural diversity activities should take place, without this level of support, suggests that these activities are not important or, worse, are not academically meritorious.


Conclusion

At the 1995 Affirmation Action Conference, which was held in Portland, Oregon, Ronald Takaki, who was the keynote speaker, raised the following question: how can American colleges and universities continue to recruit students of color and exclude them from the curriculum? This essentially moral question has not been seriously addressed, because most university administrators and faculty are unwilling to acknowledge that the university curriculum is neither totally objective nor value free. When white students find themselves in Ethnic Studies classes and in the minority, often for the first time in their lives, they face what most students of color confront their entire academic careers: adjusting to the psychological problems that come with minority status. White students have greater control over the university curriculum, because it is more likely to mirror their contemporary present as well as their collective past. And they have greater psychological control in the classroom because of the confidence that comes with cultural dominance and majority status. If, in fact, the university curriculum was value free, its content would not influence student performance, in either a positive or negative sense. And if, of course, the university curriculum was value free, the current debate over equity and diversity in American Higher Education would not be taking place. The values questions is thus at the root of a debate that will not be resolved until American educators acknowledge the current Anglocentric value structure of higher education in the United States, and the necessity of addressing its limitations.


Citations

1. See Anthony Cortese's Ethnic Ethics: The Restructuring of Moral Theory, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1990. Cortese states: "One cannot be moral in an immoral social role, whatever one's childhood socialization, psychological predispositions, or commitment to abstract principles. Morality is to be found in the structure of society, not in the structure of human cognition. The key to morality is in social relations, not abstract rational principles" (p. 2).

2. The title of the article is "Language as a Mechanism of Sabotage: Derailing the Equity Process." The book is scheduled for publication Summer of 1996.

3. See Billy Wright Dziech's "Coping With the Alienation of White Male Students," Chronicle of Higher Education, January 13, 1996. Dziech states: "He [the white male] sees no academic departments equivalent to women's or African-American studies that address his history. He receives no special admissions consideration and no special support services. Justifiably or not, the most authentic, the most vivid lesson that he may draw from his experience is that he is expected to pay for the transgressions of his ancestors and that the truly disadvantaged are people like himself, not those whose stories of victimization dominate the headlines (italics are mine)."

4. See Marlon Riggs' "Ethnic Notions," (1987) an excellent analysis of the distorted African-American image as a mechanism of social control. Dr. Barbara Christian, a literary scholar who teaches in the Ethnic Studies Department at U.C. Berkeley, is one of the commentators.

5. Omi, Michael & Winant, Howard (1994). Racial Formations in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s (second edition). Routledge: New York.

6. Blauner, Robert (1972). "Race and the White Professor," Racial Oppression in America. New York: Harper and Row.

7. Became a baccalaureate core requirement for all entering OSU freshmen Fall, 1995.

8. See Alan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987.


Copyright Barbara Paige

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