Overcoming the most basic fear
Matters of diversity are no ‘add-on’, but should form an essential part of the school organization and curriculum. Alma Clayton-Pedersen is a senior scholar at the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and has a long experience of integrating diversity in colleges and universities.
‘Critical reflection’ is at the core of her being. Claytons aim is not to ‘brainwash’ people into liking diversity, what she really wants is that students and staff start investigating their own ideas on differences. “We teach them to be explorative when it comes to history, to philosophy, to chemistry, why not apply that same attitude to questions of diversity?”
It boils down to fear
Diversity is such a difficult topic because it touches upon the most basic fears of people, explains Clayton. “People are incredibly fearful of things that are different from what they know. Underneath that lies the fear of being changed by the other. You can see that very clearly with the GLBT (Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender) issues.”
“Part of the fear of many straight people is that they will be changed if they embrace the GLBT community; that they themselves will become gay. This fear is far greater than the work it takes to understand the differences.”
Alma Clayton happily plays the role of provocateur. “My aim is to question. To ask: what is behind that comment you just made about black people?”
The wheels in your head
When Clayton recently visited The Hague University of Applied Science she did exactly that: questioning. The staff was asked whether or not every student at the university had the ability to learn. Some teachers answered no.
“Why not?”, responded Clayton, and swiftly exposed that different staff members used different standards for study success. “Your job as an educator is figure out how to move them from point A to point B not just about pouring knowledge into their heads. To move them to point B, you will first have to find out where A is for them.”
“Students will never have their aha-moment if you don’t figure out where they are now. Us deciding in advance where they are is discrimination.” The audience goes quiet. Clayton: “I’m seeing the wheels in your head turning, that is so cool.”
The meaning of excellence
Clayton projects the following definition on the screen: “Diversity: individual difference (personality, learning styles and life experiences) and group differences (race/ethnicity, gender sexual orientation, country of origin, ability as well as cultural political and other affiliations) that can be engaged in learning.”
Just as ‘study success’ defies any clear cut definition, so does ‘excellence’. Clayton: “Does it mean that you perform best on standardized tests? Or does it mean expressing your specific talent?”
It is Clayton’s mission to upgrade diversity from an ‘add-on’ to an essential dimension of 21st century learning. Every aspect of the higher education institution should be made diversity-proof: the honours classes (how en why do you select the students you select?), the curriculum (does it take into account the different backgrounds of students?), the organisation and follow-up of study success (do you know which students drop out and why?).
Take control of the curriculum
At The Hague University of Applied Sciences Clayton asked the staff ‘to take control of the curriculum’. “We need more liberal education, and by that I don’t mean ‘liberal’ in a political sense. It is about nimble-mindedness, open-mindedness. What does liberal education – that is education with a focus on broad knowledge, values, ethics and civic engagement – have to do with applied sciences universities?”
“Liberal education prepares the students for a world unknown. If we are not educating students in this way we are under-educating them, but often our organisations are not set up to do this”, Clayton thinks.
Fortunately, the times are slowly changing. Some universities have made progress in making their honours programmes inclusive. “The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire for example”, says Clayton who advised this particular institution. On the website it immediately becomes clear: the honours programme seeks students with high levels of ‘motivation and curiosity’, not just those with the highest grades.
Hit back statistically
One thing universities should start with now is disaggregating data on study success, Clayton urges. She then referred to statistics of the Dutch Association of Applied Sciences Universities. “You see that the success rate of students with foreign background is lagging behind significantly. Why is that? You will need specific data to tackle the problem.” And to the audience: “Can you do this? Can you take up this challenge?”
Some people think that disaggregating data may ‘help’ those that want to frame migrants negatively, but Clayton thinks otherwise. “You have to think of the danger of not disaggregating: being ignorant of the numbers doesn’t get you anywhere.”
“In the U.S. we have this criminal offense ‘driving while black’, as black people get pulled over much more than white people. Against this racial profiling there is only one solution: hit back statistically.”
Study success by ethnicity,
After 5 years