A Call for Diversity in Higher Education

Commentator Siddhartha Mitter calls for more multicultural enlightenment in higher education. Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

ED GORDON, host:

When it comes to higher education, the European classics are still favored by many experts. But Siddhartha Mitter wonders about the idea of multicultural enlightenment?


The online magazine Slate recently ran a big portfolio of articles on the state of higher education. The centerpiece was a set of 11 essays by professors on what students learn and how to make higher education better. It made interesting reading, though not in the way the editors intended. Their proposals don't exactly brim with innovation: morality-based education, Greek and Roman culture, great books. "Moby Dick" earned several mentions. Homer, Jesus and St. Augustine make appearances.

Judging from the text, you'd think the so-called culture wars never happened. The idea of education for a diverse multicultural society doesn't come up, even to criticize it. It's as if all the fights over women's studies, ethnic studies, the advancement of minority and female professors, had disappeared into a black hole. Of course, the 11 members of what Slate calls `an array of prominent academics' don't exactly cover the whole spectrum of university life. Here's where they come from: Berkeley, Boston College, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, Illinois at Chicago, Kenyon, Penn State, Princeton twice, and a New York philanthropy. Can anyone say `elite'? And of the 11, exactly one is a person of color. He is Kwame Anthony Appiah, a Princeton philosopher who is highly respected, but whose aristocratic Ghanaian background doesn't quite make him a spokesperson for the masses.

The composition of the panel, its selection bias, as a scientist would say, might not matter if they had at least acknowledged the needs of the vast majority of consumers of higher education at public universities, community colleges, city schools with an adult and commuter student base, but neither they, nor the accompanying articles by Slate's own writers, address those concerns. Nor did they deal with universities as employers, real estate developers, recipients of government contracts or sports and television empires.

When you think about it, fretting over curricula and which courses should be required is probably the least productive way to address higher education reform. Students vote with their feet. The classes that are offered will be the ones the customers want to pay for. And with the rise of distance learning, for-profit universities, research over the Internet and more, the idea that universities can tell students what's good for them, in loco parentis, in place of a parent, is pretty much obsolete. The value of teaching "Moby Dick" may be a good topic for sherry hour. Does it do anything to improve higher education for all Americans? The question, as they way, is academic.

GORDON: Siddhartha Mitter is a Boston-based independent writer on politics and culture.

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