ETHNIC diversity and pluralism have always been part of the American equation. Herman Melville's ship the Pequod in ``Moby Dick'' was an early metaphor for this - with its crew of Polynesians, Europeans, Africans, and Yankees. Yet not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s - and the rise of Hispanic and Afro-American studies - have ethnic groups received attention in American colleges.
Now, growing minority populations in the United States, along with developments such as a serious black candidate for president, are causing more students and faculty to argue that education for the 21st century must include study of the history, character, contributions, and problems of major ethnic groups.
How - and to what degree - colleges should teach about ethnic diversity is the question. It has become the hottest issue among politically active students at the University of California, Berkeley.
A proposal now before the Berkeley faculty senate would require every student to take a course examining issues of ethnicity and racism. This ``ethnicity requirement'' would become, in effect, the school's only required course.
Some faculty members say the issue is as flammable as recent efforts at Stanford to reconstruct that school's Western civilization requirement. It foreshadows larger cultural debates in US society over the next decades, they say.
Supporters of the ethnicity requirement contend that the ethnic melting pot in America is a myth, and though racial groups live side by side, they are ignorant of one another. ``We agree with Allan Bloom and E.D. Hirsch that every educated person needs to know certain things,'' says Ronald Takaki, an Asian-American studies professor. ``We think diversity is one of them.''
``Ethnicity is not peripheral to the nature of American society,'' says William Banks, an Afro-American historian.
Beth Bernstein, a student council member, says her professors don't teach the scholarship and perspectives of nonwhites: ``They teach, implicitly, the values of white males.''
``There's been a lack of truthfulness in the way America has been represented,'' adds William Simmons, an anthropologist who chairs a special committee studying the proposal. ``The idea of what is better or worse in culture is decided by those who exercise power. It's the job of the university to see through that.''
Questions about the proposal are many. Some faculty who support the idea of better cultural understanding also worry about the political (often socialist) slant of those professors apt to teach the new courses. ``We need education, not indoctrination,'' one said.
History professor Robert Brentano says that requiring a course on ethnic issues might breed cynicism among students and faculty. The subject is too important to mandate in a public university, he says: ``It could end up as a good/bad view of the world, hurt racial understanding more than help.'' Students should get to know the history of a people that are other and different, he adds. ``Understanding the minds of those who persecute, for example, is the best way to avoid being like them.''
Others say the proposal panders to special interests - is democracy by demography. Why require a course in ethnicity at a school that does not require a single course in US history or English?
``Mathematicians argue that the world is mathematical in its structure and form - therefore math should be a compulsory subject,'' says history professor Sheldon Rothblatt. ``Everyone thinks their field is the one most essential.''
Berkeley, in the most ethnically diverse state in the nation, will itself become the nation's first ``majority minority'' university next fall. (This year's freshman class is 40 percent white, 25 percent Asian, 17 percent Hispanic, 12 percent black.)
With an eye to those facts, the administration at Berkeley, led by Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman, has shown increasing support for the proposal - and that puts pressure on the faculty to vote it in. Balloting is expected in May or September.
Students, particularly members of the United People of Color, a campus umbrella group for minorities, have been the driving force behind the proposal. They don't want the subject diluted by making it just one element of a broader course taught by faculty who don't care about ethnicity.
Within the faculty committee, the central tension has been: Should the course be about pluralism, or about racism and exclusion?
Hard-liners argue that students need to study the history of one particular group - Asian, Hispanic, black, or American Indian - to fully grasp the trials, oppression, and racism these groups have experienced.
Moderates hold that students need to think through the democratic roots of diversity - to acknowledge that the US was built by many groups, and that something new in world history emerged from that shared labor [see Page Smith excerpt on this page].
Hard-liners worry about ``a white-out of history,'' says Emeka Ezera, a Nigerian graduate student of political science: ``They worry about whites ignoring injustice and racism and just talking about how great diversity is.
``The second group doesn't want the course to turn into ethnic thumbsucking - sitting white kids down and preaching at them that `we've been oppressed, oppressed, oppressed,''' he says.
The faculty committee has been repeatedly thrown off balance by student boycotts. But a resolution of the disagreement has emerged, as of this writing: The proposed course must include study of two ethnic groups. It will have to show the relationship of these groups to the development of American society. It will have to look at the history of exclusion. The course can be taught through such subjects as the labor movement in the US, music, folklore, language, or art.
Dr. Simmons acknowledges that to treat ethnic issues fully, the university will have to train faculty, work out new research, perhaps even create a temporary, free-floating American civilization department. No faculty members specialize in something even as basic and pertinent as ethnic politics, professors say.
Barbara Christian, an Afro-American studies professor, says there may be resistance to the requirement: ``History tells us that people are afraid of a critique of that which they hold dear - and the school will be critiqued.'' Some faculty members say the requirement will be difficult to pass if the Berkeley faculty is strong-armed, insulted, or depicted as racist.
The University of Minnesota and Indiana University currently require study of cultural pluralism. Such requirements are pending at Brown, Ohio State, and the University of Wisconsin, among others.