Monday, April 20, 2009

Culture – Top down or bottom up

One of the great problems of the diversity movement in academe is their model of culture. The fundamental assumed benefit of diversity is that we are all enriched by the exposure to and acceptance of a variety of different cultures and perspectives.

A second fundamental piece that gets pulled into the diversity movement is the need to overcome past and present discriminations. Since for example, African Americans are approximately 13% of the population, it would stand to reason that a fair non-discriminating school would have 13% African American students. If the school's demographics are too far off, then it looks as if they are discriminating.

In working towards diversity, many schools will look at these demographics and recognize that they do not match the country as a whole. This may not be a result of conscious or institutional discrimination, but it might at least be perceived as such. The next steps are to try and get diversity numbers up through applications and ultimately enrollment. Whether or not this is the correct way to proceed is not my concern here.

What does concern me here is the top-down model of cultural diversity. It is a model of diversity where the demographics are those of the nation's. 65-20-15 White-Other-Black. And this is the split that most colleges are aiming for. If it were successful, then every college in the country would be split 65-20-15, just like every other college in the country.

This would not be diversity at all. Individuals get their culture from their groups. The 2% American Indians would not maintain any unique culture if their 4.5 million (in all the groups together) were spread thinly and evenly across the land. As it is now, you can go to north Minnesota and meet some Chippewa, and their ethnic flavor makes the place a little more interesting – because there is a critical mass of them there.

Cultural diversity is a bottom up phenomena. The various cultures of the United States are a result of historically uneven settlement, distribution, and economic patterns. This should seem to be obvious to the point of not needing to be stated. The Delta Blues did not come from Norwegian Lutheran Farmers – but Garrison Keillor's dry wit did find purchase there.

The vast majority of institutions of higher learning in this country are not national – they are local, no matter what their recruiting brochures say. And this is a good thing for those who appreciate cultural diversity. It means that the kids at University of Southern Indiana have an almost southern accent and a religious perspective informed by the nearby bible belt. It means that the kids of University of Minnesota Duluth are the progeny of past and present miners and Great Lakes sailors. It means that Howard University is the proud result of the reconstruction, and that the French Notre Dame du Lac somehow filled up with working class Irish-American boys.

Does this mean that everything is hunky-dory for all the groups that diversity proponents would like to help? Not necessarily. There are still pockets of unmentionable ignorance and poverty around our country. What I am saying here is that colleges and universities need to take a good hard look at who they are, who their target constituency is, and who they are serving. It may be that in order to promote the better good, they need to focus on the farm kids in their areas, or perhaps the American Indians in their state, rather than diversity in general. It may mean that we need more and reinvigorated ethnic institutions to serve the under-served.

I do know however that true diversity happens at the macro level because cultures are built from the ground up, and that diversity within a school is not the same as real cultural variation. St. John's University in Minnesota is special because it is a Catholic college, attached to a Benedictine Abbey, in the heavily German farm-oriented Stearns county. This gives it a very specific cultural flavor, which is different than Norwegian Lutherans at St. Olaf down the road. And neither of them has the right 'numbers.'

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