By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.
Associate Professor, Dr. Wallace E. Boston School of Business
Multicultural diversity maximizes the value of the teaching and learning experience for all stakeholders in the higher education process. Higher education professionals and administrators therefore have a duty to promote and protect diversity in these environments, in order to be good stewards of the institutions they serve.
Qualities and experiences can either help or hinder an individual’s ability to appreciate and foster diversity in higher education settings. Not everyone is equally equipped to do this work.
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Curiosity and an Eagerness to Learn
One quality that is particularly helpful for understanding and appreciating multicultural diversity and exchange is a thirst for learning. A person who remains inquisitive and who strives to continually better his understanding of people and circumstances around him will be more likely to appreciate the differences between people and how they can add value to the dynamic in any given situation.
This idea harkens back to one of the late Dr. Carl Sagan’s tenets for being a strong critical thinker: curiosity. Sagan, a hero of mine, explained in his book, “The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” that exceptional thinkers continuously question the world around them and strive to know more about their existence today than they did the day before.
The desire to learn and understand inspires a sense of wonder – and a propensity for asking questions rather than making assumptions. I’ve written at length about the importance of curiosity and the frightening implications for a lack of curiosity on exercises in critical thought, such as the phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
In the context of multicultural diversity, the desire to learn about and understand the different kinds of people around us enables us to investigate their unique stories, their views and perspectives, their strengths and weaknesses, and how we can all benefit from sharing in this way. This curiosity should extend to all dimensions of interpersonal identities, including histories, languages, arts, and other aspects of culture. Curiosity is the impetus through which we are driven to inquire and explore the ways in which human differences can add value to our lives.
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Humility and an Awareness of Bias
Another key strength in multicultural interactions and diversity initiatives is humility. This was another one of Dr. Sagan’s principles for competent critical thinking. I have also written about the importance of humility in modern public discourse.
A lack of appreciation for the value of humility can lead to arrogance and ignorance of a sort that can be counterproductive and even dangerous. The more one learns and refines one’s knowledge in different areas, the more tempting it can be to assume that one’s own views on any given subject are correct or appropriate by default. But we must always remember that we could be wrong – especially when interacting with concepts and people in the world with which we are not necessarily familiar.
I’ve written previously about how wariness of those who are different from us – however subtle those differences may be – is likely a partial product of evolutionary wiring. But aversion to superficial differences is obviously not an ethically defensible approach to our interactions with the world around us today.
The good news is that this faulty wiring is vulnerable to conscious correction. If we truly aim to grow and learn as individuals, then we must recognize that this endeavor requires challenging ourselves – seeking out new experiences, pursuing evidence that contradicts our assumptions, and being genuinely open to the possibility our preconceptions could be mistaken.
We must also do all we can to neutralize bias in its various forms. To be human is to be, to a certain extent, inescapably biased. We are each the products of our unique genes and experiences, from the moment we are conceived to the moment we make an observation of the world. So, it should be no surprise that our perspectives are different and skewed by the unique lens with which each of us views our environment.
However, this lens is susceptible to some correction as well – and the remedy here is recognizing that our biases exist so that we can make the necessary adjustments to counter them. This allows for healthier, more open-minded multicultural interactions, and a better general appreciation for multiculturalism and diversity in all contexts.
Understanding Our Historical Failure to Respect and Appreciate Diversity
Finally, a third critical component for optimal appreciation and promotion of multicultural diversity is a solid understanding of human history. It is said that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. And this is particularly true in the context of human interactions. Our species has a long and sordid history of conflict and bloodshed amongst its members over what have most often been immaterial differences. We have not, on the whole, been generally kind to one another.
Granted, we have seen some of the longest periods of relative global peace in recent times – and the present is likely the safest and most comfortable time in which a human being could exist – as compared with any other point in recorded history.
However, it should not be forgotten that less than 100 years ago, the Nazis killed six million Jews in an effort to exterminate them from the planet. Less than 50 years ago, Pol Pot slaughtered two million Cambodians in an effort to cleanse his country of perceived undesirables. And still today, deranged tyrants continue traditions of trying to persecute and vanquish others simply because of largely benign human differences.
Naturally, the culprits responsible for committing these atrocities did not believe themselves to be behaving improperly or immorally in their actions. Mankind is indeed vulnerable to being misled on the grandest of scales.
But students of history know better. It is only through education and understanding the mistakes made in the past that we can hope to recognize the errors of our former ways and move forward on better moral footing. So, college and university administrators that lead multicultural diversity initiatives must be keenly aware of the historical context in which these endeavors operate. They must make every effort to ensure our modern institutions cut a path that is wiser than those of the generations who came before us and those who still seek to spread intolerance and bigotry today.
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