Don’t abandon diversity issues

Two years ago, Northwestern began requiring freshmanto fulfill a “diversity” requirement by attending one of several seminars during New Student Week. This year, citing the difficulty in finding appropriate events, the school dropped the requirement. Given the uneven and sometimes clumsy programming choices, dropping the requirement as it was, makes sense.

Last year, for instance, one of the speeches thatfulfilled the requirement lamented “our failed Middle East policy.” Whatever the merit of that policy, the speech was politically polarizing; some students even found it anti-Semitic. It would be an unwelcome irony for a requirement meant to teach tolerance to actually offend segments of the student body. The university’s selection of Candace Bushnell, the author of “Sex and the City,” as a diversity speaker seemed distracting and underscored how desperate the university was to make the requirement more appealing.

But just because NU failed to find consistent and good programming does not mean that efforts at teaching tolerance should be abandoned. Preparing students to deal with people unlike themselves is not simply a noble objective, it’s a necessary one. Life at NU requires that students be comfortable with a diversity of races, sexual orientations and religious beliefs. New Student Week gives the school the opportunity to prepare freshman for what could be the most diverse environment they have ever experienced.

One thing is certain: If we’re going to be serious about dealing with tolerance at NU, impersonal and perfunctory diversity lectures are hardly the way to go about it. The lectures were superficial and had the effect of making people feel that the school was tackling a serious issue without actually making a difference.

One of the problems with the diversity seminars was that by merely requiring student attendance, they were passive and uninvolving. Students need to be actively engaged if they are to be made aware of their own pre-existing biases and stereotypes.

Teaching tolerance and multicultural understanding, after all, is quite different from teaching Introduction to Sociology.

We think that small group discussions and activities are a promising alternative to the misguided programs of the past. Group leaders could present a variety of scenarios – having a gay roommate, for instance – where tolerance would be required and students can discuss how they might react.

These discussions would encourage students to freely and openly discuss exploring the roots of their own preconceptions or biases. A natural way to organize this would be for the peer advising groups to conduct these discussions. Peer advisors could be trained before tackling the difficult and thorny issues that might be raised during the discussion.

Another alternative would be for other colleges to follow the Medill School of Journalism’s lead and incorporate a cross-cultural requirement into its curriculum. While the focus of Medill’s Diverse Culture Requirement is on giving future journalists the tools to function in the increasingly global world of journalism, a Weinberg equivalent could help students further their understanding of cultures alien to their own or correct misconceptions they may already harbor.

This curriculum change differs from the previously mentioned small group discussions by exposing students to cultures and experiences existing outside the NU bubble. Of course every school has a variety of requirements already, but we think that one or two mandatory courses emphasizing contemporary world affairs or culture studies could be a valuable addition.

Whatever the precise solution may be, NU has a responsibility to continue educating its students on diversity, thereby fostering greater cultural understanding.

It’s about as valuable of a lesson as a student could

get.City Editor Breanne Gilpatrick is a Medill senior. She can be reached at [email protected]