As faculty members at liberal arts colleges, we are responsible for determining whose voices will echo in students’ minds. What obligations do we have when we select which voices will be heard and which will be missing? Should we prioritize the voices that have been historically and/or are currently silenced? If so, how? What practices might we adopt that could contribute to or undermine efforts to make liberal arts colleges diverse and inclusive in meaningful ways?
Here, my focus will be on text selection and its role in fostering racially diverse and inclusive academic communities. In his paper, “The Storm Over the University,” John Searle dismisses diversity-based objections to the traditional canon, arguing that the canon serves to expose students to works of intellectual excellence rather than to advocate for social justice. In his case against the traditional canon, Cornel West argues, “The creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian epistemology, and classical ideals produced forms of rationality, scientificity, and objectivity which, though efficacious in the quest for truth and knowledge, prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of the idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity.”
The absence of particular voices is pervasive and too often goes unnoticed, even in contemporary society. (Consider, for example, how few children’s books feature protagonists of color.) As those responsible for designing course content, we have an opportunity and obligation to think seriously about what voices we ought to include and the impact our decisions have on individual students and society in general.
In what follows, I argue that we ought to include racially diverse perspectives when designing our course content, particularly (though not exclusively) in “core” classes that all students take; contrary to Searle’s claim, promoting social justice and ensuring that students are exposed to works of academic excellence are not mutually exclusive projects. I focus on racial diversity because I think a case can be made (although I will not make it here) that racial diversity is morally urgent and that improvements in racial diversity will likely coincide with or trigger improvements in other important types of diversity. Much of what I say here, however, will apply to other issues of diversity, as well.
First, I will briefly outline just a few of the challenges students of color face in academic settings. Next, I will consider the history of liberal arts education and how that might be contributing to rather than alleviating the problem. Finally, I will argue that course design is itself subject to ethical examination, and we can act wrongly or rightly. I will sketch an ethical principle that can guide us as we design courses, keeping in mind both academic and social goals.
As Michel Martin reported for NPR, “Asking minorities even to consider studying or teaching in rural and - let's face it - not very diverse environments can be challenging. And once those folks get there, there's a whole new set of challenges, including where do I get my hair done?” Of course, faculty and even entire administrations cannot correct community-wide problems that are both effects and contributing causes of systemic racism. However, it would be a mistake to conclude that individual faculty and administrators do not seriously affect the experience of students of color. The behaviors of individuals can impact students at every point in their academic career, from admissions, to advising, to letters of recommendation.
Let’s begin with the problem of admissions. Racial biases can surface in this process in sometimes surprisingly subtle ways. Beverly Daniel Tatum describes evaluator bias and its impact on candidates of color:
[In] a study in which White college students were asked to evaluate Black and White people on a simple “good-bad” basis, where choosing bad rather than good to describe Blacks might clearly indicate bias, the students consistently rated both Blacks and Whites positively. However, when the task was changed slightly to rating Blacks and Whites on a more subtle continuum of goodness, Whites were consistently rated better than Blacks. For instance, when the rating choice was “ambitious – not lazy,” Blacks were not rated as more lazy than Whites, but Whites were evaluated as more ambitious than Blacks. Repeated findings of this nature led these researchers to conclude that a subtle but important bias was operating. In the eyes of the aversive racists, Blacks are not worse, but Whites are better.
Interestingly, the most qualified candidates are those most likely to suffer from an evaluator’s racial biases. When college students were asked to rank candidates who had been described as strongly qualified, moderately qualified, or weakly qualified, they showed no discrimination when choosing among weakly qualified candidates and some (though not significant) discrimination among moderately qualified candidates. The strongly qualified candidates, however, encountered significant racial discrimination. Tatum offers the following explanation: because of racial biases and stereotypes, the qualified candidates of color violate expectations in a way that weakly or moderately qualified candidates do not, and evaluators seek explanations for this violation. Specifically,
When an evaluator expects a weak performance and sees a strong one, the strong performance is attributed to unstable causes such as luck or effort. Unlike ‘innate’ ability, luck or effort can change and are therefore unreliable. However, strong performances based on ability will probably be repeated. Strong performances attributed to ability (the explanation likely used for White male candidates) are viewed more positively and more often rewarded than performances assumed to be based on luck or an unusual effort.
Importantly, we have no good reason for thinking that individual faculty members are somehow immune from evaluator bias, and faculty continue to evaluate students well past the initial admissions decision. In fact, we have reason to think that faculty have (and act on) those biases.
Recently, Katharine Milkman, Modupe Akinola, and Dolly Chugh conducted a survey of over 6,000 faculty members across disciplines and universities in the United States to determine whether the same biases that operate at formal points of entry to academic organizations might impede access in less formal settings, as well. They concluded,
[When] considering requests from prospective students seeking mentoring in the future, faculty were significantly more responsive to Caucasian males than to all other categories of students, collectively, particularly in higher-paying disciplines and private institutions. Counterintuitively, the representation of women and minorities and discrimination were uncorrelated, a finding that suggests greater representation cannot be assumed to reduce discrimination.
Individual faculty members’ racial biases and stereotypes have subtle but nonetheless detrimental impacts on students’ access to resources and opportunities within academia. Furthermore, as noted earlier, faculty continue to engage with and evaluate students in both formal and informal settings throughout those students’ academic careers.
In addition to impact the behavior of faculty members, racial biases and stereotypes might actually cause students of color to perform less well than they otherwise would. In Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do, Claude Steele describes several psychological studies that point to the existence of what he calls stereotype threat. Stereotype threat refers to the contingent pressure an individual in a stigmatized group experiences that can affect how that individual performs in certain contexts. Using part of the GRE’s verbal reasoning section, Steele and his fellow researchers determined that Black students performed less well than White students. However, when test-takers were told that researchers were studying problem solving rather than intellectual ability, Black students performed as well as White students and “significantly higher” than Black students who believed the test was about their verbal skills. The researchers conducted a variety of manipulations on this single test, and each manipulation further confirmed the existence of stereotype threat. Explaining the harm stereotypes threaten, Steele says, “In critical testing situations, in this society and at this time, this pressure [is] a contingency of these groups’ identities . . . and it is a contingency with a serious toll – impaired performance on the kind of test on which one’s opportunities can depend.” Steele suggests the following mechanism by which stereotypes cause this harm:
The problem is that the pressure to disprove a stereotype changes what you are about in a situation. It gives you an additional task. In addition to learning new skills, knowledge, and ways of thinking in a schooling situation, or in addition to trying to perform well in a workplace . . . you are also trying to slay a ghost in the room, the negative stereotype and its allegation about you and your group. You are multitasking, and because the stakes involved are high – survival and success versus failure in an area that is important to you – this multitasking is stressful and distracting.
This stress and distraction can impair one’s performance in high-stakes contexts, and the resulting frustration can affect one’s motivation moving forward.
Steele offers several practical guidelines teachers might adopt to reduce stereotype threat in classrooms, ranging from the physical set-up of the room to feedback on papers. For example, research suggests that stereotype threat can be mitigated if feedback on papers begins with a statement about high standards. Steel notes, “It didn’t work to try to be neutral. Nor did it consistently work to preface the feedback with a generally assuring positive statement. Unlike white students, black students didn’t trust these forms of feedback, and, not trusting them, they weren’t motivated to improve their essays.” Subtly changing the wording of the feedback to focus on high standards and stressing the student’s ability to meet those standards, however, resulted in more motivation to improve the essay. Steele explains this result in terms of how the student interprets or experiences the feedback: “It told them they weren’t being seen in terms of the bad stereotype about their group’s intellectual abilities, since the feedback giver used high intellectual standards and believed they could meet them. They could feel less jeopardy.”
In addition to practical guidance for feedback, Steele hints at another strategy for educators: text selection. In the rest of this paper, I will focus on text selection because although racial biases and stereotypes are deeply problematic and individuals likely have pressing obligations to combat them regardless of their profession, teachers are uniquely poised to contribute to or combat them both in themselves and in students. Reflecting on ways that individual teachers can reduce stereotype threat, Steele says, “For the sake of minority students in college, perhaps the curriculum considered “core” – and thus foundational for all students – could include in-depth material reflecting the history and perspective of multiple groups in American society.” The problem, of course, is that shifting what constitutes a core liberal arts education requires waging war with tradition, which almost always proves to be a formidable opponent.
Although there is – and has historically been – debate about the role of the liberal arts college, there can be no doubt that Robert Maynard Hutchins’ view still influences most liberal arts curricula today. His view of education is that it should be grounded in what he called “permanent studies.” Hutchins was troubled by the idea that the college served merely to get students jobs or to help them pursue graduate studies, as he felt that this made general education – a type of education he thought every college student should have – “the servant of any contemporary movements in society, no matter how superficial.” This was and remains a radical proposal, as it seems to eliminate any burden to justify particular courses of education by appeal to their utility in one’s life; that is to say, the value of this type of education has nothing to do with whether it will help one secure a job later in life. A few key passages from Hutchins’ book might help us to understand better his conception of the liberal arts education:
The scheme that I advance is based on the notion that general education is education for everybody, whether he goes on to the university [for graduate studies] or not. It will be useful to him in the university; it will be equally useful if he never goes there. I will admit that it will not be useful to him outside the university in the popular sense of utility. It may not assist him to make money or to get ahead. It may not in any obvious fashion adjust him to his environment or fit him for the contemporary scene. It will, however, have a deeper utility: it will cultivate the intellectual virtues.
The trouble with the popular notion of utility is that it confuses immediate and final ends. Material prosperity and adjustment to the environment are good more or less, but they are not good in themselves and there are other goods beyond them. The intellectual virtues, however, are good in themselves and good as means to happiness.
On this view, there is something intrinsically good about this type of education; that is, this education is valuable even if it never helps one land a job or excel in graduate studies. It is good because it just is.
Hutchins’ work offered a response to arguments (such as those offered by John Dewey) for more experiential learning and training for professions or graduate studies. According to Hutchins, this goes beyond the bounds of a college education:
A modern heresy is that all education is formal education and that formal education must assume the total responsibility for the full development of the individual . . . We are beginning to behave as though the home, the church, the state, the newspaper, the radio, the movies, the neighborhood club, and the boy next door did not exist. All the experience that is daily and hourly acquired from these sources is overlooked, and we set out to supply imitations of it in educational institutions. . . Today as yesterday we may leave experience to other institutions and influences and emphasize in education the contribution that it is supremely fitted to make, the intellectual training of the young. The life they lead when they are out of our hands will give them experience enough. We cannot try to give it to them and at the same time perform the task that is ours and ours alone.
In other words, colleges are uniquely capable of providing a specific type of education, but we cannot provide all of a student’s education. We must leave some things to the rest of the world. But, Hutchins says, that shouldn’t trouble those of us who teach at colleges too much because we can trust that the world is providing our students with plenty of experiential learning.
The natural question, then, is what type of education is the college supposed to provide? For Hutchins, the answer is that we are to teach students to “connect man to man, to connect the present with the past, and to advance the thinking of the [human] race.” If, however, this is the aim, then we must determine the content of that general education. If we are to take seriously Hutchins’ concerns that a) the college offer something beyond mere vocational training, b) the college cultivate the intellectual virtues, and c) the college connect man with man and the present with the past, then we must put together some sort of education that at least goes some way toward achieving those goals. This education is what he says is grounded in the permanent studies:
[T]hese studies draw out the elements of our common human nature, because they connect man with man, because they connect us with the best that man has thought, because they are basic to any further study and to any understanding of the world . . . They are in the first place those books which have through the centuries attained to the dimensions of classics. Many such books, I am afraid, are in the ancient and medieval period. But even these are contemporary. A classic is a book that is contemporary in every age. That is why it is a classic. The conversations of Socrates raise questions that are as urgent today as they were when Plato wrote. In fact, they are more so, because the society in which Plato lived did not need to have them raised as much as we do. We have forgotten how important they are. . . Of course, the student may have heard of these books, or at least of their authors. But this knowledge is gained in general through textbooks, and textbooks have probably done as much to degrade the American intelligence as any single force. If the student should know about Cicero, Milton, Galileo, or Adam Smith, why should he not read what they wrote? . . . In the second place these books are an essential part of general education because it is impossible to understand any subject or to comprehend the contemporary world without them. . . If every man were educated – and why should he not be? – our people would not fall so easily a prey to the latest nostrums in economics, in politics, and, I may add, in education. . . It will . . . develop habits of reading and standards of taste and criticism that will enable the adult, after his formal education is over, to think and act intelligently about the thought and movements of contemporary life. It will help him to share in the intellectual activity of his time.
In short, Hutchins proposes a general education consisting of great works.
Although St. John’s College adopted a Great Books curriculum, other schools have moved toward the experiential learning that Dewey recommended while retaining some portion of their curriculum to serve as a nod to the truth in Hutchins’ point: liberal arts education is not mere vocational preparation but is instead much richer and (ideally) designed to help students live a fuller life in all respects, not merely professionally. Unfortunately, those permanent studies might themselves be problematic. After all, if Hutchins is right about the power of these works in the lives of students and society more broadly, then we must be careful that the impacts of these works are positive.
However, according to Cornel West, the negative impacts have been tragically overlooked. West offers a “Genealogy of Modern Racism,” in which he argues, “The creative fusion of scientific investigation, Cartesian epistemology, and classical ideals produced forms of rationality, scientificity, and objectivity which, though efficacious in the quest for truth and knowledge, prohibited the intelligibility and legitimacy of the idea of black equality in beauty, culture, and intellectual capacity.” According to West, these academic phenomena combined in a perfect storm to render White supremacy pervasive in academic discourse.
The scientific community’s focus on categorization coupled with Descartes’ treatment of observation as objective, unbiased access to truth meant that observations of people of color were treated as scientific fact, regardless of what biases the observer might have had or the contexts in which the observation might have taken place. West explains that far from unbiased, objective, and isolated, these observations were the result of what he calls the normative gaze, “an ideal from which to order and compare observations.” This gaze was itself shaped by classical aesthetics and cultural norms, both of which favor White qualities and customs over Black ones. The benchmark, so to speak, against which observers compared Black individuals and communities had itself been set by a culture that privileged White individuals and communities. Black individuals and cultures were sure to appear different and, because of the normative gaze, observers were very likely to describe those differences as inferior; because of the focus on observation as a path to truth, those descriptions were taken as objective, scientific fact.
West claims his conclusion offers a theory about the causal role that the scientific revolution, Cartesian epistemology, and the revival of classical aesthetics might have played in shaping the modern discourse, or “the controlling metaphors, notions, categories, and norms that shape the predominant conceptions of truth and knowledge in the modern West.” His claim is that the “initial structure of modern discourse in the West ‘secretes’ the idea of white supremacy.” However, we need not endorse any causal claim connecting these fields and modern racism to see the problem for contemporary liberal arts curricula. Even if what shaped modern discourse did not cause modern racism, teaching modern discourse can nonetheless reinforce modern racism. Can we avoid reinforcing racism while still offering a liberal arts education grounded in permanent studies, exposing students to the best that has been thought?
John Searle, a professor of philosophy, wrote about this very issue in 1990. Searle writes, “A good many books are telling us that the university is going to hell in several different directions at once.” At least two of those directions were that the general education had veered too far away from tradition, which included “the canon” of great works, and of course that we had stayed too attached to “the canon” of great works. Searle lays out the arguments for both sides and suggests that these arguments get to the heart of liberal arts education: what are we doing here?
First, consider what Searle says for the canon:
There is a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature, and it is essential to the liberal education of young men and women in the United States that they should receive some exposure to at least some of the great works in this intellectual tradition; they should, in Matthew Arnold’s overquoted words, “know the best that is known and thought in the world.” The arguments given for this view – on the rare occasions when it was felt that arguments were even needed – were that knowledge of the tradition was essential to the self-understanding of educated Americans since the country, in an important sense, is the product of that tradition; that many of these works are historically important because of their influence; and that most of them, for example several works by Plato and Shakespeare, are of very high intellectual and artistic quality, to the point of being of universal human interest.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., however, explains why identifying and focusing on canonical works is not only academically challenging but morally problematic, as well:
The teaching of literature [has become] the teaching of an aesthetic and political order, in which no women and people of color were ever able to discover the reflection or representation of their images, or hear the resonance of their cultural voices. The return of “the” canon, the high canon of Western masterpieces, represents the return of an order in which my people were the subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented, and the unrepresentable. Who would return us to that medieval never-never land?
However, Searle notes that the challenge here is not nearly as simple as it might appear. After all, the natural response to the challenge Gates and West present so powerfully is that we throw open the canon doors, in a sense. There are now and have been representations of different cultural voices, so let’s include those in the new canon. In fact, many individual faculty members likely struggle with exactly this problem: to what extent should I focus on the traditional canon, and to what extent should I develop a more inclusive course?
According to Searle, the reason that this question is so difficult to settle is that we are discussing something that is in fact far bigger than simply what texts should be in the canon. Instead, we’re discussing the extent to which the classroom should be an arena for social transformation. Searle makes this point in the following way:
The history of “Western Civilization” is in large part a history of oppression. Internally, Western civilization oppressed women, various slave and serf populations, and ethnic and cultural minorities generally. In foreign affairs, the history of Western civilization is one of imperialism and colonialism. The so-called canon of Western civilization consists in the official publications of this system of oppression, and it is no accident that the authors in the “canon” are almost exclusively Western white males, because the civilization itself is ruled by a caste consisting almost entirely of Western white males. So you cannot reform education by admitting new members to the club, by opening up the canon; the whole idea of “the canon” has to be abolished. It has to be abolished in favor of something that is “multicultural” and “nonhierarchical” . . . Even if the canon is opened up, even if membership in the club is thrown open to all comers, even after you have admitted every first-rate woman writer from Sappho to Elizabeth Bishop, the various groups that feel they have been excluded are still going to feel excluded, or marginalized. At present there are still going to be too many Western white males . . . Those who think that the traditional canon should be abandoned believe that Western civilization in general, and the United States in particular, are in large part oppressive, imperialist, patriarchal, hegemonic, and in need of replacement, or at least of transformation. So the passionate objections . . . [are] intended to make a political point about the nature of American society.
Ultimately, Searle finds these criticisms of society compelling but their implication for general education to be non-existent. He argues that if our primary concern were with fairness or representativeness rather than what he calls “intellectual excellence,” then we should be similarly bothered by the fact that most voices we teach in math, science, and philosophy are European white males, but we are not similarly concerned. That, Searle claims, is because although the humanities are in a sense political, the purpose of teaching the humanities is not. The purpose is not social transformation or fairness but to give students “access to works of high quality.”
There are three things worth noting about Searle’s ultimate conclusion. First, those who find the canon troubling, at least in its current form, do so precisely because they think our systematic failure to represent the voices of women and minorities has blinded us to the intellectual excellence of those voices. Those voices have produced works of high quality, but Searle speaks as though we would include them only as a nod to fairness in representation rather than as recognition of that quality. Searle notes that when we choose to include some works in the canon but exclude others, that does not mean that excluded works are somehow less great or worthy of consideration – since, after all, we must always exclude something if we are to have time to eat and sleep – but he fails to appreciate how this undermines his view. His assumption that minority voices would be included in the canon merely for social transformation – and not because those voices have rightfully earned their place in the canon – is itself the product of our historical failure to include those voices, with the unsurprising consequence that those voices are considered less worth the listen. Of course, that we have failed to listen does not mean that those voices had nothing of value to say.
Second, there is, in fact, a movement to throw open the doors in math, science, and philosophy. There is a great deal of momentum behind curricula that are more representative, as throughout the history of each field, there have been significant contributions made by people other than White, male Europeans. Although the point of teaching a particular math class may not itself be political, the question of why women are not pursuing math in the same numbers as men are pursuing it is political, and it is one to which we are now devoting a good bit of political energy. Lego recently introduced the “Female Scientists” set, which is unquestionably the result of a movement to send the message that science is not only for men. Philosophy now has its own movement to try to encourage women to pursue graduate studies and careers in philosophy, and part of that movement has been an effort to ensure that students see women doing philosophy. Searle’s claim – though it might have been true in 1990 – is no longer true: there is concern about the lack of representativeness in other disciplines precisely because we now realize we have ignored works of high quality, and the cost for this mistake has been a troubling lack of diverse perspectives in those fields. Although these movements have largely focused on gender gaps, similar movements are emerging to address racial disparities in these fields. The AACU’s Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future, for example, focuses on professional development opportunities for women of color in STEM fields. It is not the case, then, that we are generally unconcerned about the lack of diverse perspectives. Focusing this concern on text selection, particularly in core classes, is merely an extension of a broader concern.
The third point worth noting is that despite whatever commitment to Hutchins’ view of liberal education we may have, most faculty members recognize some obligation to prepare students for the world in which they will live and work. A racially homogeneous range of perspectives does not do this well. As Nancy Larrick notes about the pervasive Whiteness in children’s literature, “Although his light skin makes him one of the world’s minorities, the White child learns from his books that he is the kingfish. There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books.” One could easily argue the same about, say, a philosophy class in a liberal arts college. Insofar as the writers are (almost) all White men of European descent, the values proposed, defended, or simply assumed are likely to be western values. When other perspectives are represented, they are likely outnumbered and perhaps even treated as outliers. This fails to prepare students for the world they will need to navigate when they leave college.
Of course, the combination of tradition and social transformation would be ideal, but there are obstacles to striking the right balance, the least of which is how little time any individual faculty member spends with a student. We often have to cut material we wish we did not need to cut, and we fail to include voices we think students should hear. As Searle notes, the nature of designing a class is that we must omit some voices. Moreover, many of the works students read were themselves influenced by other works in the old canon. To provide context for one work, we often need to provide another. Of course, repeating that step too many times serves only to replicate the old canon (or at least some subset of it).
So where does this leave us? Selecting texts is itself an ethical issue. We can behave rightly or wrongly in this case. Should we simply say, “Look, these are the works that have generally been thought to be classics?” Doing so of course does not preclude the possibility of criticizing their status as classics, or the exclusionary nature of “classics” as a category. Or, should we select readings to make a broader point about the voices we have heard (or ignored) over history? If we should intentionally set out to represent underrepresented works, should we do that to the exclusion of the old canon? How much of the old canon should students be required to read? And how much should we push students to explore works beyond the old canon’s narrow walls? These are the questions with which we struggle, and given the formative role these works play in the lives of our students, they are ethical questions.
I propose the following principle: we ought to select academically excellent works, but our selection must be constrained by considerations of social justice. On this view, the academic role of the work is primary; the social role is secondary. Nonetheless, both are important and a class that sacrifices one to the other is likely failing to realize important educational goals. To say that social justice considerations constrain our action is not merely to say that we do well to think about the broader implications of our selections; rather, it is to say that we are morally required to factor these considerations into our decisions, and we act wrongly when we fail to do so. Before discussing how this principle might satisfy the concerns of Hutchins, West, Searle, and Gates, a disclaimer: what constitutes academic excellence will depend on the subject matter and the role the work plays in the course. This need not (and in many cases should not) be restricted to works that are peer-reviewed in scholarly journals. Furthermore, it would be question-begging to restrict this to works that are considered “classics” or canonical; after all, the ethical issue arises because of the nature of the canon itself.
Treating the academic qualities of the work as primary satisfies multiple concerns. First, it will help to avoid charges of “reverse racism” that would surely follow the removal of some voices to represent racially diverse perspectives. Second, it is in keeping with Hutchins’ goal of exposing students to the best that has been thought. Third, it captures the grain of truth in Searle’s criticism of diversity-based objections to the canon: the goal of the class is likely not political but rather academic. However, treating social justice concerns as constraints on our efforts to pursue academic goals addresses many of the concerns raised by West and Gates. To see why, I will say a bit about what it means for some consideration to constrain our action.
Let’s say that I need to find a really good sandwich for lunch. However, I think that concerns for animal treatment constrain my options. What will this mean? It will mean that I am morally required to find a sandwich that does not involve the mistreatment of animals. If the first sandwich I see looks delicious but clearly includes factory-farmed chicken, then I cannot satisfy my obligations by reflecting on the ethical issue but eating the sandwich anyway. Instead, I am morally obligated not to purchase the sandwich. I cannot sacrifice my concern for animal mistreatment in my pursuit of a delicious lunch. This might very well mean that it is more difficult for me to find a tasty sandwich for lunch; however, the constraint on permissible behavior means that I am morally obligated to continue searching rather than eat the delicious chicken sandwich. If I ultimately find several sandwiches that are within the constraint in question, then I need not worry about the treatment of the animals in choosing among those sandwiches. Thus, the constraint gives me a range of options; within that range, I am free to use other criteria in making my selection.
Returning to the case at hand, we can better see how constraints on text selection might operate. We cannot simply satisfy our obligation here by constructing a class featuring all-White authors but reflecting on – and perhaps even discussing with students – the implications of such a reading list. Rather, we are constrained by social justice considerations in the selection of our texts; considerations of social justice will limit the range of options from which we can select our course content. Moreover, to say that social justice considerations constrain our selections is not simply to say that it would be ideal for us to develop a class featuring racially diverse authors. Instead, the constraint means that failure constitutes moral wrongdoing.
This constraint seems to satisfy Gates’ concern because it is unlikely that the traditional canon will, in any meaningful sense, stand if we operationalize social justice constraints. It also seems to address some – though certainly not all – of West’s concerns. Whereas the modern discourse is still (perhaps inevitably) shaped by the very phenomena whose combination West finds so problematic, offering racially diverse perspectives can contribute to an alternative discourse, one that might engage with the traditional canon or stand wholly apart from it.
Importantly, contrary to Searle’s claim that diversity-based objections ask us to pursue social justice rather than teaching works of the highest academic quality, a selection of academically excellent works that also offers racially diverse perspectives helps to realize Hutchins’ educational goal of connecting man with man and the present with the past. If the goal is something like connection across space and throughout time, then surely we would not want to limit that connection to only certain people in certain times, occupying certain spaces. A thoughtfully designed course with excellent work representing a variety of perspectives can produce greater connection. Although this is a concern of social justice, it is also an academic goal. We would not be pursuing social justice at the expense of high-quality education; we would be realizing the former by pursuing the latter.
Of course, questions remain about how much of any particular class or set of classes must feature racially diverse authors, how many different races are required to judge the text selection racially diverse, etc. These are difficult questions that require serious attention, and I think it unlikely that one general rule will apply equally well to all cases. Nonetheless, this principle might help us keep in mind our broader educational goals as we design classes. Designing courses to expose students to racially diverse perspectives will not alleviate all (or even most) of the challenges that students of color face at liberal arts colleges. And, individuals throughout college communities (and beyond) have moral obligations to reflect on and combat their own racial biases and stereotypes. Nonetheless, faculty members at liberal arts colleges are uniquely positioned to help foster genuinely diverse and inclusive learning communities. Designing courses – particularly though not exclusively core courses – is an opportunity for faculty members to identify and take steps toward realizing their educational goals, many of which likely extend well beyond the specific class in question.
Dr. Brynn Welch
Dr. Welch received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison (2012) and her B.A. in Philosophy (with honors) from Davidson College (2005). Currently an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Emory & Henry College, Dr. Welch specializes in ethics and social/political philosophy with an emphasis on the intersection of family ethics with larger social issues, such as education and the provision of health care. Her current work examines the relationship between state welfare and filial obligations to provide care to elderly citizens. She is also interested in the ethical implications of the DIY movement in science.