To graduate, more schools require a class in diversity

Diversity is no longer just what roving college admission boards look for in applicants. More and more, it's the reality that greets freshmen in classrooms, dorms, and dining halls.

In an effort to make students more aware of their surroundings -as well as the rapidly shrinking universe beyond their cloistered campuses - many schools are requiring courses on diversity for graduation. A recent national survey by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that 62 percent of colleges and universities either have a diversity requirement or are on the way to implementing one.

We're not talking strictly Margaret Mead on adolescent mating patterns in Samoa - though experts agree it helps when schools take a broader approach toward culture and history. Many schools -83 percent of those with requirements, according to the survey - also offer courses that tackle pluralism in the US and foster understanding between different groups of people.

The requirements themselves come as varied as the students. At State University of New York at Buffalo, which has one of the oldest diversity requirements, all sophomores take a course called "American Pluralism and the Search for Equality." Other schools infuse diversity topics across disciplines and departments. Most participating schools, however, allow students to choose from several courses that satisfy a diversity requirement.

Even as classrooms grow to resemble patchworks of race, ethnicity, and economic backgrounds, there's resistance from those who think diversity can be boiled down to a kindergarten lesson on how to get along. This is a serious hurdle, according to Rudy Mattai, professor of educational foundations at SUNY. "People think [these types of courses] are watered down," he says, but adds that SUNY professors make sure their diversity courses are not for the intellectually meek. "We don't want students just to feel good," Professor Mattai says, "we want them to understand what's at stake."

Then there are some educators who think college is too late to find out what's at stake. A state-funded program that spins trips to the zoo and local museums into lessons in conflict, diversity, and discrimination is a requirement for all fifth-graders in San Diego.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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