Education and Human Flourishing: The Place of Diversity at the University

At a growing number of higher-education institutions in the United States, diversity has been elevated to the status of an incommensurable good, something to be treated with the same reverence and moral significance as knowledge itself. Extolling a quality with such vigor may very well lead one to the conclusion that it imparts intellectual standards that are invaluable to any campus conversation.

Such an inference would be flawed. Indeed, endowing diversity with such sanctity is a clear step in the wrong direction, especially given the goals to which a university pledges itself. At a greater number of schools, “diversity” and “inclusion” serve as tropes that halt serious intellectual inquiry, sow confusion in matters of central importance, and foster uncritical thinking.

What purpose, then, does diversity serve at the university? How can students, professors, and university administrators speak about diversity in a way that is more precise and intellectually honest? First, we must consider questions that are more primary and basic: what is diversity, and what role could it play in the cultivation of human flourishing?

Certain statements can be morally relevant, but to describe something as “diverse” says nothing about the inherent goodness or badness of the thing. As Michael Bradley points out, one cannot applaud a “diverse” person in the same way that one praises a “knowledgeable” professor, an “excellent” ballerina, or a “loyal” soldier.

Diversity, then, is not intrinsically good. No one can claim “diversity” as the ultimate reason for his or her actions. Like wealth, diversity is only an instrumental good. It is honorable only to the extent that it helps us achieve more fundamental goods, things that are worth pursuing simply because they are self-evident parts of what it means to live a good life. As Aristotle first taught, among these are knowledge, friendship, and aesthetic experience.

To describe a group as “diverse,” then, begs the question of what kind of diversity the group possesses. The sentence “It would be good to pursue diversity” is inadequate, and says nothing of whether a particular manifestation of diversity is good or bad. Therefore, it makes little sense for an academic community to promote itself as being “diverse” without any qualification, or to pursue “diversity” as necessary in and of itself.

Diversity has become a vague, catch-all trope to silence anyone who dares to challenge today’s academic elite and the status quo. To lack “diversity” automatically disqualifies someone’s opinion, no matter how well-reasoned it may be. Almost amusingly, those whose worldviews have been shaped by the equivocality of concepts like “diversity” and “tolerance” are inherently intolerant of those who try to clear a way through these rhetorical smokescreens.

In what sense, then, could diversity benefit the life of the mind at the modern-day university? Students ostensibly attend higher-education institutions for the purpose of learning. The decision to attend college includes the implicit assumption that one will discover how to engage in critical thinking, to converse with people who hold different opinions, and to defend one’s own beliefs with reason and argument. This is because schools are institutions dedicated to striving after the truth and teaching students to do the same. It thus follows that intellectual diversity is what should really matter in fostering a robust exchange of ideas. Regrettably, however, “diversity” has morphed into a trump card that allows one to bypass critical thinking and label ideological opponents as “intolerant.”

As liberal democrat Nicholas Kristof points out, academia is diverse in all the senses except the one that truly matters: the way people think. Time and time again, conservatives are written off because they are opponents of “diversity,” when in reality they make up an intellectual minority at the vast majority of colleges.

How, then, can a scholarly community possibly treat as a priority something that they fail to precisely define? Diversity, instead of being properly used as an instrumental good, is too often invoked as a means of avoiding the serious questions that a university should be devoted to pursuing. Nebulous values that are used to evade life’s important questions should not be the keystones of a university’s intellectual climate.

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