Cultural Diversity in Higher Education
As the 21st Century opens, it is a good time to consider how cultural diversity---which is viewed by this writer as being the collection of various cultures within a country---affects higher education in the United States today. Also, by looking at the current trends in the way higher education deals with cultural diversity, one may forecast where cultural diversity in higher education may be heading. Finally, one may consider what new innovations higher education may see in the years ahead in response to the nation’s cultural diversity. This country, more than any other, is blessed with cultural diversity. Traditional minority groups will be numerically elevated to ever increasing proportions of the population. For this reason it is beneficial to consider how host institutions view their diverse student populations. Educators are at a crucial time in this nation’s history---a time when national policies concerning cultural diversity can truly affect the stability of the country---and
colleges and universities should plan accordingly. There is a lot riding on how well the citizens of the United States handle the characteristic cultural diversity of the country.
The Culturally Diverse Nation
Historically, the United States has had a mixed (if not, poor) record
in embracing cultural diversity. The example provided below mentions
the shameful disregard for the Native Americans in 19th-Century
California. More recently, cultural diversity has been held in
greater esteem. A fine example of the "convergence power of cultural
diversity," as it might be called, is in the United State’s policy of
admitting many immigrants. In particular, the "open door" policies
at the time of World War I allowed this country to acquire many
powerful thinkers and scientists representing several cultures.
Institutions of higher learning in the United States will continue to
deal with the cultural diversity of their population. Indeed, the
country itself will have to reawaken to the necessity of embracing
cultural diversity. The citizenry of the United States cannot return
to a callous state in viewing cultural diversity and expect the
country to continue to prosper. Diversity has come to be embraced by
some as one of the country’s greatest strengths. While "diversity"
has a connotation of "division," the act of drawing people together
and attempting to unify their myriad cultures (as schools tend to do)
has created an American sense of "uni-versity." It is in this
positive light that diversity will be viewed here. Diversity will
further strengthen the United States as new minds with new views are
added to the society. This is true of the country’s universities and
colleges, as well. Strength through cultural diversity is now a part
of the country’s prosperity. The strength through cultural diversity
concept should be integrated into higher education’s ideal of
providing positive direction toward philosophic experimentation and
potential leadership of the society.
The best way to see where something is going is to take
at look back at where it has been. It is enlightening to consider
a student of education thought about the development of higher
education itself in the early days of junior college development. The
college historian Dr. R. P. Pedersen has kindly made several
interesting historical documents readily available. One of these is
a 1917 Master’s thesis written by Elizabeth Brooks, entitled "The
Junior College." Brooks asserts that the northern and southern
colonies addressed the issue of higher education differently in the
Colonial period of American history. She speaks of "geographical and
industrial factors" as having been the main agents of diversity
(not specifically "cultural," however at least some element
of "cultural diversity" is implicit) at this time. Factors of
geography and industrialization, as well as chronology---both the
South and the West were settled later than the North---led to the
slower development of educational systems in the West (which was
still the "new frontier") in the 19th Century (Brooks, Ch. I).
The tremendous growth of the United States during the
19th Century, bolstered by the legislative ideal of
"Manifest Destiny"---which served to open the West and "validate" the
taking of more Native American lands---should not be overlooked. The
expansionist philosophy of 20th-Century institutions of higher
learning was grounded in the "we must grow" ideology of the country.
The country’s growth was phenomenal: there has been no greater
combined growth of per capita income, population, and "territorial
holdings" for any country in the world before or since the 1800s
(McPherson, 1988, p. 49). While the country’s territorial growth
ended in the middle of the 20th Century, its population continued to
increase and is expected to increase further. Being the proverbial
"melting pot," this country of immigrants will now grow with an
ever-greater realization of the importance of its diversity of
cultures. Dr. Taber observes "the 'diversity issue' provoke[s] great
controversy among our citizenry today" (2001). The controversial
side of cultural diversity must lie largely in ignorance. As Orfield
mentions, "few studies on the benefits of diversity" have been
conducted (1999), implying that more studies examining cultural
diversity should be conducted.
How Much Cultural Diversity is there in College?
There are many cultures in the "melting pot," but one might ask,
"just what are the numbers?" While the National Center for Education
Statistics usually break cultures down into merely "race/ethnicity"
and include figures often only for "White," "Black," and "Hispanic;'
the breakdown is enough to get a rough idea of the numbers of
students in college who have a cultural heritage which might be deemed
"non-traditional" or "non-White." From the numbers extracted from
the table entitled "College enrollment rates of high school graduates,
by race/ethnicity: 1960 to 1999" one finds that in 1976, 1,291,000
Whites (or 48.9% of those graduating from high school) were enrolled
in college. By 1999, 1,822,000 (or 62.8% of the White students
graduating from high school) were enrolled in college. The majority
of the "non-traditional" cultures can be subsumed under the
(arguably demeaning) title of "Non-White." The figures provided in
the table for "Non-White" cultures---numerically significant are
"Black" and "Hispanic;" "Asian" and "Native American," for example,
are not separately enumerated---are as follows: in 1976 there were
214,000 Non-White students (representing about 44% of those
Non-Whites who graduated from high school); in 1999 there were
407,000 (then representing about 55% of those Non-Whites who
graduated from high school) (NCES).
The term this writer prefers to "Non-White" is "non-traditional."
Non-traditional is used here to mean any culture which may be
considered as being outside the mainstream ("mainstream" being
cultures generally of European extract); "traditional" is then taken
to mean mainstream. Interpreting the NCES figures as percentages of
the whole body of high school graduates in the years being considered,
one finds that in 1976 the non-traditional segment of the students
amounted to about 7.2%---by 1999 that figure had risen to
14.0%---clearly indicating a percentage increase in the
non-traditional cultures represented in the population of college
matriculates from the mid-1970s to the end of the 1990s. The need
for traditional college faculty to better understand non-traditional
cultures is at least numerically founded.
Teaching Culturally Diverse Students
There is much literature concerning methods of improving the schooling
success of "non-traditional" students. Rather than go into proposals
for improvement, one begins by realizing first that "traditional"
educators lack the ability to deal with classroom cultural diversity
effectively. Nelson (1996) tells of how he was totally unaware of
such a deficiency on his part until he looked closely at who among
his students were actually scholastically successful. Nelson found
that non-traditional students generally were unsuccessful. Cited in
his article are several findings in a similar vein by other
educators. The collective findings (his and those of his peers)
led Nelson (1996) to conclude "(almost) all traditionally taught
courses are unintentionally but nevertheless deeply biased in ways
that make substantial differences in performance for many students"
Once recognized, there are various ways to address our ability to
teach effectively in light of the cultural diversity of our students.
Nelson (1996) mentions how, by simply requiring students to write out
in English what they did to arrive at a solution to one of their
calculus problems, learning dramatically increased. Nelson (1996),
citing an example from Angelo and Cross, notes that the intent was not
actually to deal with cultural diversity, yet the success rate of
non-traditional students improved greatly from this simple exercise
(p. 3). As another example, there is the approach advocated by Wang
and Oates (1995) where "collaboration among family, school, and
community" is considered (p. 1). Their efforts are being applied at
the secondary level, but there is no reason not to extend this concept
to higher education as much as possible. As stated before,
recognition must precede correction, and it this recognition that
is examined here. It is important that the reader understand that
corrective approaches to the inability to deal with classroom cultural
diversity do exist, however.
Some educators have devised innovative approaches to teaching diverse
student populations. Ofori-Dankwa and Lane (2000), for instance,
suggest employing what they call the "diversimilarity" approach.
Diversimilarity involves exposing students to both similarities and
differences of cultures. Clark (2001) speaks of something as simple
as a cultural brochure project as being beneficial to students in the
study of cultural diversity. These examples demonstrate that while
some approaches might be rather difficult to implement, others are
Ethnocentricism Must be Quashed
A negative aspect in any society (which makes it difficult to embrace
and at times even tolerate, cultural diversity) is ethnocentricism.
Ethnocentricism is when people of a given culture view their
particular culture as being better, or even the only one truly
worthy of existence. As concerns this evil, one is right to remember
the plight of people who have been historically harmed by the
ethnocentric ideals of others. Two examples, ones that are
admittedly graphic, are mentioned. First, the open disregard for the
native people of this land will be touched. Secondly, the handling of
African-Americans who were forced to come to this country in bondage
is considered. It would be remiss to overlook the Native-American and
African-American populations, however these cultures are not the only
ones that have suffered from the ethnocentricism of others. There are
many cultures represented under the headings of both Native-American
and African-American people. Sadly, many of these cultures are now
extinct. Those that remain have been enculturated by ethnocentric
pressure from the European colonizers of North and South America,
Asia, and Africa. The purpose of providing these examples of
ethnocentricism is to shock readers into thinking about ones
personal thoughts concerning multiculturalism---"multiculturalism"
being antiethnocentricism, in a word. (To "multiculturalize" would
be to attempt to attain multiculturalism within a society.)
The cultures of the remaining Native-Americans are of particular
interest since these people have attempted to retain their traditional
cultures to some extent. There are innumerable accounts of how the
early policy in dealing with Native-Americans was one of genocide.
For example, McPherson (1988) describes how "in California alone
disease, malnutrition, firewater, and homicide reduced the Indian
population from an estimated 150,000 in 1845 to 35,000 by 1860." The
manifest destiny that represented hope for white Americans thus
spelled doom for red Americans" (p. 46). Their cultures were not
appreciated even 100 years ago, but now it is understood that, as
David Whitehorse (1996, p.336) puts it, multi-cultural studies "may
provide important understanding of underlying value orientation,
cultural beliefs, and patterns of thought." All of this is valuable
"especially as teachers attempt to multiculturalize learning
environments to match the multicultural aspects of the student
In a recent article by Kidwell (1999), one is reminded of the
Native American studies programs that were instituted in the 1960s
and 1970s largely through student protest. Kidwell notes that
political activism spawned by U. S. involvement in the Vietnam War
increased sensitivity to racism. Not without reason, activists
compared the massacres of Cheyenne families at Sand Creek, Colorado,
in 1864 and Big Foot's band of Lakota (Sioux) at Wounded Knee, South
Dakota, in 1890 [to civilian massacres of Vietnamese in the 1960s]
It is curious to note that activists connected the "cultural
ignorance" in the 19th Century with the disgraceful acts of "war"
witnessed only 30 short years ago. It was ethnocentricism that
allowed these acts of violence to occur. The connection is that
ethnocentricism rears its ugly head and somehow always "justifies"
acts that are terrible hate crimes in disguise. By attempting to
embrace other cultures, one is less likely to try and destroy them.
Thus, ethnocentricism must go and fuller understanding of the cultures
one is to live with should be the proper humanitarian goals taught by
(and acted on by) educators.
Historical accounts, such as those described in Harriet Beecher
Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin or Dee Brown's Bury My Heart
at Wounded Knee, are graphic reminders of how people can be
completely ethnocentric. While the actions of our ancestral white
settlers are somehow often "historically justified," it should be
remembered that Stowe wrote her book in 1853 and the events at Wounded
Knee took place in the very late 19th Century. The point is that
only a few generations ago there were predominant feelings of
distaste for non-Europeans. This gross ethnocentricism is something
the country cannot tolerate. There are opposing views on how much
(and even what) remains to be done to improve the conditions of Native
Americans, African Americans, and minorities overall, but there is at
least some positive aspect to our being at least aware of the
condition of "multiculturalism deferred," which appears to exist
today. Again, multiculturalism should be taught and emulated by
educators. Education is the best defense for bigotry. Studies might
furthermore educate the educators.
A second example of ethnocentricism is well documented in works by
Stowe. There is little reason to go into particular detail about how
African Americans were originally treated. One has no regard for a
culture that one forcibly enslaves. It is sufficient to remember
that the very act of educating African Americans was considered
punishable. In banning African education the message is clear that
the people were not respected and were meant to be forever subordinate
to their white masters. The whole matter is just as unpalatable as
that of the ethnocentricism visited upon Native Americans.
Ethnocentricism should be abolished just as certainly as education
should be provided to all people.
Orfield (1999) argues, for example, that renewed attention must be
given to multi-culturalism. He warns that recent efforts to reverse
affirmative action policies are wrong. Part of his argument is that
there will be a loss of diversity.
To many researchers, the benefits of diversity seemed self-evident, so they focused on examining how best to encourage it. [Affirmative action was overturned in California and Texas in 1996, and the resulting] … anti-affirmative-action lawsuits and referenda proliferating throughout the country have roused educational leaders into clear awareness of the importance of research [into the benefits of cultural diversity] (p. 2).
On the other hand, that two states would overturn affirmative action
policies implies that the majority of the voters in these states feel
that this policy no longer works. According to Williams (1997) (using
data from a Lipset survey), over "70 percent of the respondents
opposed preferential treatment while only 24 percent supported it.
Among blacks, 66 percent opposed preferential treatment and 32
percent supported it" (p. 1). If these are true sentiments of the
majority (and minority), then perhaps affirmative action should indeed
be overturned. Admittedly, affirmative action may function
differently today than it did when it was originally established.
Whether it should even be mentioned here may be questioned, but since
the intent is to "expose" and "shock," this writer feels that
affirmative action is worthy of note. It might be remembered that
affirmative action was originally applied to Women and African
Americans, alike. There might herein lie some thought as to how
women were treated in earlier times. Still, it seems appropriate not
to say more than simply "ethnocentricism must be quashed," and leave
the matter of affirmative action to the voters and legislators.
Racism and bigotry have not been alleviated in our society. At best,
ethnocentricism has been tempered through exposure for the evil that
it is. The need exists to further educate students and educators
alike about the requisite understanding of our diverse cultures. It
is shortsighted to merely ignore cultural differences and expect that
anything good a culture has to offer will be integrated into our
mainstream values. Few educators would deny that steps should
continue to be taken to encourage multiculturalism. It is safe to
conclude that multiculturalism will have ever-increasing importance
to education and the nation in the years to come. In the end (or
even the beginning---thinking of this century) ethnocentricism must
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Special thanks goes out to Dr. Lynn Taber at the University of South
Florida for her assistance
in preparing this paper.
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