Colleges and universities rethinking the curriculum changes of the 1980s that emphasized diversity

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In the 1980s, many colleges adopted diversity requirements, typically telling students that they had to take at least one course about a non-Western culture or about an American minority group. These requirements frequently set off heated debates, with proponents talking about the need for diversity, and critics shouting about political correctness.

Williams College is in the process of changing such a requirement — with far more civility than characterized many of those ’80s discussions. In the process, faculty members have managed to be quite critical of the old requirement — while coming up with a new way to require study of a broad range of groups.

The old system at Williams was pretty basic. Students had to take a course about a minority group or a non-Western group. Anything that met that basic criterion could count, and got a “people and cultures” asterisk. “It was a good idea. It grew from nice liberal white guilt,” but it stopped being effective some time ago, according to Christopher Waters, a history professor who is overseeing the new system. The requirement was so vague that it didn’t have any real meaning, he said. Further, the idea that students needed to study a non-white group to represent difference doesn’t make sense when the college has attracted a much larger share of non-white Americans and of international students.

“This requirement was seen as a joke,” Waters said. “We were sticking things with the asteriskwithout a solid intellectual justification. I think a lot of our international students wondered what on earth this was about, and many of our non-white students viewed it as tokenism. Why would our minority students need to take such a course?” (A series of articles and editorials in The Williams Record, the student newspaper, reflect widespread student frustration with the requirement — regardless of students’ ethnicity or politics.)

So after a year of deliberation, the Williams faculty voted to do away with all the asterisk designations and to instead require that the diversity requirement be about more than some “other” group. ...

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