Our current debates about societal diversity and multiculturalism are part of a continuing negotiation over the meaning and application of this nation's fundamental democratic principles.
The founders espoused equal dignity, liberty and justice for all. They laid a foundation for pluralism by accepting religious diversity and by a constitutional design that allowed states with disparate histories and cultures to live together in a federated republic. They challenged earlier views that a republic must be small and homogeneous to succeed. Instead, Americans with a vision for a new society opted for diversity.Today, similar debates about the small, homogeneous republic vs. the diverse, democratic society are being waged in higher education.
The college curriculum, which underwent revolutionary changes at the turn of the century, is changing again to provide students with the skills needed to lead this diverse American democracy in the future. Simultaneously, the curriculum is changing to foster knowledge of global cultures and of the connections between distant regions and new American communities sprouting up in all parts of the United States.
The question, then, is not whether we should address diversity and multiculturalism in the curriculum, but how to do it in ways that strengthen our democratic commitments. Drawing from myriad traditions, we must keep in mind always the founding commitments to liberty, equality, justice and voice, not only for individuals but for all the communities and cultures that are the nursery of our democracy.
In this spirit, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has released a set of recommendations for addressing diversity in the college curriculum. Economic realities have already answered the question whether students "ought" to learn about global cultures. We have warned that it would be a mistake to view courses on world cultures and U.S. diversity as interchangeable, or that giving attention to U.S. diversity can be optional.
"Education for United States democratic and cultural pluralism," we observed in a recent report titled "American Pluralism and the College Curriculum," "is just as important as global study and deserves its own space and time in the curriculum."
This study should include knowledge of diverse cultural traditions and histories, including one's own. The goal is to graduate students who are both prepared and inspired to take responsibility for the future of our diverse democracy.