Common sense and diversity: why are cultural differences disguised as ‘maladjustments’?a - Higher Education

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Common sense and diversity: why are cultural differences disguised as ‘maladjustments’?a

by Charles Terrell

Why are Cultural Differences Disguised as `Maladjustments’?

Ethnic underrepresentation creates a host of problems for the American higher education community. One of the most serious is whether or not cultural diversity is alive, well or even possible. Educators acknowledge their ineffectiveness complying with legal, social and demographic mandates to increase minority participation in higher education; hence, the field remains racially polarized. The higher educational community must change; it must find a way to welcome the minority group presence on campus to promote and ensure peace, prosperity and an educated workforce for the future.

Creating and nurturing cultural diversity is problematic if for no other reason than the many definitions extant. The anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Taylor suggests that culture is a complex mix of patterns of behavior of a given group of people that include standards, laws and beliefs. Because culture involves every component of one’s life, Taylor speculates that conflict arises between groups when they are unaware of different cultural expectations.

Has the American higher education community created an environment conducive to shared cultural expectations? Seemingly, it has not. It is massive — fully able to accommodate nearly half of all high school graduates. Unfortunately, however, it is a highly stratified system with a disproportionate number of minority and disadvantaged students in two-year institutions and majority students in four-year and so-called “elite” institutions.

Many minority students, consequently, do not come into contact with majority students in four-year institutions, and those who do often find inhospitable or uncomfortable environments. This results from the mistaken assumption of a common cultural bond between different cultural groups. Hence, there is an invalid assumption of equality. African-American students, for example, are particularly vulnerable to assumptions of equality because the college and university community seems to view their problems and differences as “maladjustments” rather than valid cultural differences.

In order to celebrate diversity, institutions must realize that educating a pluralistic population is a serious, complex and multi-dimensional exercise. Success mandates challenging all — and changing many — aspects of institutional life. Creating diversity must be viewed as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.

Proven Methods

There are, fortunately, proven methods for generating success. The number of minority students on the campus makes a substantial difference. When minority student enrollments approach 20 percent of the total population, the campus environment shifts from accommodationist to inclusiveness. Faculty must be re-educated to work effectively with students for whom they share relatively little cultural affinity; they should accept the possibility that they have as much to learn as to teach. Moreover, minority recruitment is not enough. Currently, too much attention is placed on bending minority students into existing college cultures and forms. Minority students should not have to make all of the adjustments to institutional cultures to foster mutual respect, understanding and a valid learning environment.

After all, W.E.B. Du Bois stated long ago that [minorities] need neither mixed nor separate [colleges]; they need education. Carter G. Woodson furthered this thought with the observation that separate systems are not necessary; common sense is necessary — schools and teachers who understand and are in sympathy with those whom they teach are necessary.

Approaching a collective majority, African American, Asian American, Hispanic, Native American and other minority groups are still expected to adjust to existing Cultural environments in American higher education. Consequently, there must be a realization of the need for a cultural shift broad enough to level the playing field between existing and emerging cultural environments. Only then will cultural diversity become alive, well or even possible on the American college campus.

Dr. Charles Terrell Associate Dean for Student Affairs, Boston University Medical Center

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