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Viewpoint Diversity: Why Plurality of Perspectives is Vital to the University

December 3, 2018

Generally speaking, we all value—or ought to value—diversity.  Be it ethnic, racial, linguistic, aesthetic, methodological, culinary, or human developmental (i.e., age), we know—or should know—that human diversity is a good thing for a community and a good thing for us as individuals to experience.  On this much, hopefully, we can agree.  And it is appropriate for any school, business, or organization to cherish and pursue diversity.  But why this is a reasonable value is seldom explained or defended.  What is it exactly that makes diversity a human good?  Why, in particular, is diversity a valuable thing at a university?  And why is this especially true for a Christian university?

 

As cognitive creatures, humans are inherently doxastic beings, naturally forming beliefs all day every day about all sorts of things.  And for beliefs to be rational they must be adequately informed.  Humans are also social animals, as Aristotle famously noted.  Human societies are inherently plural, so our operation within communal atmospheres is fundamental to our existence.  As doxastic social beings, then, we rely on others within our communities to instruct, challenge, and correct us as we form beliefs about a whole range of subjects.  And if all members within a given community believe the same things about all issues, then there may be instruction, but there won’t be challenges or corrections to our beliefs.  Given that all of us hold some false beliefs that need correction, a lack of doxastic plurality would leave us with little hope for escape from the grip of these falsehoods.  Any further enlightenment would be limited by the confines of the already agreed upon set of beliefs that everyone in our midst already affirms.

 

If this is true for any community, then it is especially the case in an academic community. Diversity of views is inherent to the original and on-going purpose of the university, as a place where many different perspectives and belief commitments co-exist and integrate in creative, cooperative, and innovative ways.  Of course, it is not enough to have the “versity” without the “uni” of “university.”  Something must unify us in the midst of the plurality of perspectives and convictions.  And this is what distinguishes the Christian university, which regards Christ as the star of the academic solar system.  As the Apostle Paul says, “in Christ all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  So in the Christian university, Christ is the hub and focal point of everything we learn, teach, and practically implement.  At least that is our goal, even if we constantly fall short of attaining this ideal.  This conviction is rooted even in the creative order itself.  God is the maker of all things, and the universe is inherently diverse, so if we are to properly worship and understand God, we must appreciate the diversity within his creation.  So the good of diversity for the Christian university is grounded both in Christology and divine creation.

 

But notice that this diversity good is essentially doxastic—it has to do with the variety of beliefs, viewpoints, and perspectives.  Yet when diversity is promoted and celebrated in academic communities these days, it is not the first thing many people think of.  Rather, we often think of racial or gender diversity (and, perhaps, to a lesser extent, diversity of age or physical ability).  This is not to say that these forms of diversity are not themselves valuable, but these biological differences have no communal value in themselves any more than other biological factors, such as eye color, height, or the shape of one’s bicuspids.  We properly value racial and gender diversity only because they are somewhat reliable indicators of the deeper essential value of viewpoint diversity.  But they are not infallible indicators of diverse perspectives.  Biological diversity (plurality of races, genders, etc.) does not guarantee viewpoint diversity.  Nor does the lack of such diversity within an academic community guarantee a lack of viewpoint diversity. 

 

So is the current obsession with biological diversity in the American academy misguided?  To the extent that it ignores or fails to appreciate the deeper value of viewpoint diversity, I think it is.  After all, if the end in view is plurality of perspectives, then racial and gender diversity are, as just noted, not infallible indicators of the achievement of that end.  Of course, one might point out that biological diversity within a community is important for another reason, specifically as an indicator of fair hiring procedures.  But, important as that is, it is a separate issue.  And here, too, biological diversity or lack thereof is not by itself an infallible indicator of fairness in hiring or the lack thereof.

 

So, again, diversity of biological attributes such as race and gender within an academic community is valuable, but only secondarily or derivatively.  My contention is that they are not valuable in themselves but valuable because of a deeper good, namely viewpoint diversity, the plurality of perspectives which is so crucial to the advancement and enhancement of learning, which of course is the ultimate good of any academic community.

 

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