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Dealing with Difference

Originally published, Winter 2011

I was nine years old when I first heard about Hell – from my neighbor and playmate Johnny Lumpkin who told me I was going there because I wasn’t a Baptist. It didn’t trouble me too much. First, the Lumpkins (and therefore, I assumed, all Baptists) put chopped nuts in their brownies – to my mind a revolting habit. Second, I was an Episcopalian and even at nine knew that God was too.

Human beings don’t deal well with diversity. Suspicion of those who are different seem to be hardwired into our brains. From the beginning of recorded history mankind has noted the differences among tribes, villages, and nations – and inevitably found something to despise about other groups. The historian John Balsdon collected Roman ethnic slurs directed at Sardinians, Pannonians, Thracians, Phrygians, Carians, Cappadocians, Paphlagonians, Syrians, Jews, Arabs, and Egyptians. The Roman officer and writer Velleius Paterculus, who served on the Rhine around 9 A.D., opined that Germans were not really human beings at all.

Research by anthropologists, behavioral and developmental psychologists, and other scientists has demonstrated that human beings are quick to form groups and that groups, once formed, are inclined to be exclusionary (if not openly hostile) toward non-group-members. Some researchers have cited linguistic evidence from various tribes whose word for “human being” is synonymous with members of the tribe, while the word for non-tribe members is synonymous with the words for “prey” or “food.”

Inevitably each of us has grown up thinking of ourselves as a member of one or more large groups. Some of these groups we chose consciously and these affiliations may change as our tastes and interests evolve. But some of them – particularly those linked to our gender, culture, ethnicity, and family background –shape us profoundly, molding our perceptions of what is beautiful, disgusting, profane, sacred, flattering, insulting, logical, irrational, delicious, inedible, normal, and perverse. These perceptions have been fundamental coping mechanisms, enabling us to live within the norms of our “tribes.”

But just because prejudice is human nature doesn’t make it helpful. Perhaps several hundred thousand years ago natural selection favored those who could detect (and eliminate) “others.” (Some say that our Homo sapiens ancestors exterminated Neanderthal man). Today? When global communications constantly thrust us into contact with other cultures and belief systems, an interdependent global economy binds us all together, and we have weapons that can deliver lethal payloads around the world? In these circumstances an inability to accommodate our differences seems likely to result in catastrophe.

American society has probably struggled harder to accept diversity than any other modern culture – probably because we have welcomed more diverse groups and are more ethnically and racially complex than most other countries. And while we can congratulate ourselves that we espouse tolerance as a virtue (unlike, say, those perpetrating genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, and elsewhere), we also have a fairly dismal record in achieving equality and a long way to go before we can say, in the words of the old hymn “Earth shall be fair and all her people one.”

Colleges and universities play a crucial role in teaching the next generation how to engage constructively with difference. The issues are more complex than most people imagine. “Teaching diversity” goes far beyond exposing students to the ethnic cuisines and music of other cultures. Such multicultural “festivals” are harmless, but are about as sophisticated an introduction to the issue of ethnic differences as “Chopsticks” is to a Chopin Polonaise. To grapple successfully with ethnic tensions requires us to understand uncomfortable and non-obvious concepts like, for example, “stereotype threat,” and “white privilege,” and the revelations of Implicit Association Tests (IATs) discussed by Malcolm Gladwell in Blink.

Why should colleges care at all? Isn’t this “obsession” with diversity simply a politically correct fad distracting us from the real business of higher education? I don’t think so. Here are three good reasons why it’s important for our colleges and universities both to be diverse and to thrive with diversity:

  1. Keeping the American Promise. Our democracy promises equal opportunity to those who have talent and are willing to work. Today, opportunity means access to higher education. If we fail to recruit and educate students who are representative of the diversity of our society, we are breaking this promise. Our society will squander human capital and become even more polarized by race and class - a formula for economic and political instability.

  1. Appreciating the Richness of the Human Experience. When I served as President of Muhlenberg, one of the things that I valued most about teaching and learning at a Lutheran College was the conviction that none of us has a monopoly on wisdom. Each of us can glimpse a piece of the truth, but we accept that others also have valuable insights to share. Our students learned important truths from Spanish courses where they served as hospital translators; from study trips to China and Bangladesh; from ecological field work in Central America where they worked with coffee farmers or documented the lives of miners, from studying the traditions of African dance, or from worshipping at Union Baptist Church (Allentown’s oldest African American congregation). They learned equally important truths from interactions in the classroom, in student clubs, and on athletic teams with students whose backgrounds were different from their own.

  1. Preparing Students for Success. Does anybody really believe that the next generation can succeed as leaders without knowing how to work with people of different ethnicities, religions, nationalities, and genders? Whatever the field, the ability to negotiate a diverse world successfully will be crucial to success. Our colleges and universities will provide our students with a poor education indeed if we did not equip them with such skills.

The road to diversity, like the road to Dublin in the old Irish folk song, is likely to be a rocky one. need to remember that we may not reach the destination in our lifetime, but that the journey itself is worth the effort.