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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Diversity needs diverse voices

Exploring colleges as a high school senior, Grinnell distinguished itself from similar liberal arts institutions, by its presentation of diversity. The College rightly prides itself on being a demographically diverse community including students of multiple nationalities, ethnicities, sexual orientations, political and cultural backgrounds. Yet there are limits to the open exchange of ideas within this community. Several important ideas behind the College’s presentation are key to understanding where these limits lie. Issues of diversity are assuredly treacherous to negotiate, but the college body has not fully realized the scope of its diversity or pioneered a path through which we can openly discuss the issues involving all of us. There is certainly a body of accepted liberal values and beliefs. This covers many globally controversial topics—opinions which provide standard rhetoric by Grinnell students in and outside the classroom. They make for positive and lively discussions, for the most part because in practice everyone generally agrees. But do we all agree or even fully understand the issues on which we are agreeing? Are we free to question the values, inquire about the positions or even to dissent? This leaves us to wonder whether some students are not speaking.

These issues concerning open discussion are not new. On the contrary, they have existed as Grinnell has become steadily more diverse. Acknowledging Grinnell’s hope that diversity would spur open discussion of important and challenging issues as part of the educational process, anthropologist Carol Trosset, the author of “Obstacles To Open Discussion And Critical Thinking: The Grinnell College Study” conducted a study of assumptions about the purpose of discussion among 200 of the College’s students, finding common trends of opinion that are as relevant today. Trosset found that a majority of students saw advocacy as the purpose of discussion. A majority expressed their willingness to speak only with others who agreed with them, believing that balanced discussion was “impossible.” Some even ventured “that there’s no point talking about something unless people can agree” (46). This presents its own limitations to open discussion, limiting what will be heard by students. Second, the comments reflected that students liked to share their opinions, but without being challenged. For example, one interviewee said she wanted to “say what I believe and not have anyone tell me I’m wrong” (48). This automatically creates an environment in which questioning one’s beliefs becomes a highly personal matter rather than the territory of intellectual discourse, limiting what can be said by anyone in response. Only five students suggested the importance of exploratory discussion in order to learn from new information and perspectives. In my experience, there are few occasions when students feel the opinions they voice are attacked when it comes to issues of multiplicity. That’s because generally no one “attacks” or questions their opinion.

But who gets to share opinions? Here too, trends in student responses in Trosset’s study make it clear who felt confident voicing their beliefs. Students with minority ethnic backgrounds seemed more confident speaking about race, women about gender and homosexuals on matters of sexual orientation. The few students from dominant groups who felt knowledgeable about these issues always backed their assertions by saying they had learned by hearing about other’s lives, but never claiming they knew from personal experience. In each case, members of less dominant groups felt more confident with the issues. Clearly, members of the socially dominant groups did not feel comfortable sharing their opinions. For example, on questions on gender, male students responded that “Not being a woman, I don’t feel my comments would be seen as valid” (47). These comments express dejection, that it is useless to bother involving themselves.

These boundaries are still real and present in academic and social settings today. Recently, in one class, I offered an interpretation of a passage relating to gender in another culture. Attempting to bring new light to what the class was condemning, I found the issue had a historical context completely separate from sexism. Much of the class was genuinely shocked and obviously dissatisfied at my proposed “marginalization” of the issue and made this clear immediately. While I was aware of the sensitivity, I realized quickly that stepping away from the majority opinion was overstepping my role in the discussion. At the time I was mortified that I had said something wrong, but viewing the incident later, I saw more clearly that there were boundaries to my involvement on gender issues. I had also possibly erred in being the only male student to add to the discussion. In my experience within these discussions on diversity, students are sensitive to these unspoken limitations and generally quickly come to a consensus. Normally class members reach agreement, and students are careful not to pose questions in ways which could be mistaken as biased. Another typical response on campus identifies that we cannot really understand each other’s experiences because we have not lived them and thus cannot comment on or learn from them. We are, in effect, trapped in the filters of our own experiences and unable learn from anyone else. I heard this stated in a discussion about another’s religious beliefs and I can’t help but feel that it is more of a means to avoid controversy. Because of the nature of the topic, they felt uncomfortable asking further questions lest their inquiry be interpreted as condescending.

It would be predictable that such a “complaint,” as it might be taken, is from dominant group member who feels no right to speak on any issues of diversity. Questioning barriers to open discussion within such a diverse community are vital. Consider that Grinnell’s mission statement stresses that it “set forth a mission to educate its students ‘for the different professions and for the honorable discharge of the duties of life.’… through free inquiry and the open exchange of ideas.” I have strong faith that students want to pursue more open discussion.

There is no clear path to opening discussion and breaking the barriers limiting discourse and the understanding of diversity at Grinnell. Such practice could have unforeseen consequences. It may create controversy and even lead to personal conflicts among students. However, a liberal arts education is about exploring new ideas and even being persuaded in our own opinions by truths we find in those of others. Open discussion is a necessary part of this process. Further, as Trosset herself concludes, remaining trapped in our own assumptions denies the methodologies behind most disciplines. We cannot properly teach social sciences if we see obvious flaws in our practice. On an institutional level, we can begin to discuss these limits, even question their purpose in Grinnell’s community and the biases they create. We can even mandate that students and faculty take a course of the effects on the effects of group decisions and biases so we might begin to find and address the presence of bias when it appears in class settings. We cannot necessarily eliminate obstacles immediately, but we can take steps to pioneer a more open discussion in our environment, on issues the rest of the world is facing with the same limitations.

-Brent Soloway ’14

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  • C

    conservative_afroAug 26, 2011 at 8:42 pm

    Diversity – you know what diversity is? It’s growing up where I did when you saw black men defending flying the confederate flag. When you are open to that, write your article again.

    On a numbers note, your opening line where you talk about Grinnell setting itself apart by being diverse – do you get they are robbing from Peter to pay Paul? If there are only X qualified minority candidates, and you have more than your fair share of course other institutes will not have as much diversity. Grinnell is “the rich” in diversity, and they need to be willing to let other institutes take some of their faculty so that all institutes of higher education have their fair share of diversity.

  • M

    MickeyMay 7, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Ask the staff about feeling silenced at this institution…marginalization is real.