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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENCE : Can Tolerance Be Written Into Higher Education?

March 20, 1994|GEOFFREY MARTIN | Geoffrey Martin is a senior journalism student at the University of Southern California

When the Western Assn. of Schools and Colleges recently approved a revised "statement on diversity," it crossed over from its traditional role of evaluating a curriculum's minimum standards into one of mandating what should be taught in the classroom. In effect, the association wants to enforce a multicultural code.

In so doing, it is violating the autonomy of scholastic programs and infringing upon students' right to choose their courses.

Donald R. Gerth, president of Cal State Sacramento and a proponent of the policy shift, contends that an appreciation of diversity should be an "outcome of undergraduate education." The new policy would presumably achieve this by expanding studies beyond Western values.

But most universities are already diverse in their curricula and student bodies. At USC, for example, there is plenty of diversity.

Every undergraduate is required to take at least one class in non-Western cultures. They must take at least two semesters of a foreign language, unless they are already fluent in a language other than English. Composition classes now incorporate the teachings of Ghandi and Confucius. Literature classes are no longer confined to Western books. My empirical-approaches course, which fulfills a sociology/anthropology requirement, focuses on the traditions of the Bushmen and shaman in Africa, Nanook of the North and the urban struggle of first-generation Latinos.

On my way to class, I pass a group of black students near the entrance of the Commons cafeteria. The international students, mostly from the Far and Middle East, talk about their assignments outside the science and engineering complex. White friends gossip on the steps in front of Commons. And there is a cluster of Asian-Americans near Tommy Trojan.

Yet, despite the presence of great diversity in students and course selection, the integration of different ethnic groups on campus is far from being achieved. Imposing a uniform multicultural curriculum will not help.

A university can require certain classes. But for any course to be effective, individuals must want to learn about other cultures. Unfortunately, being forced to study other cultures' beliefs and practices simply because they are different is not conducive to learning, let alone a path toward greater tolerance.

I've taken courses about different ethnic groups out of choice, and because it was my choice, I've learned from exposure to these cultures.

There is no shortage of opportunities for students who desire to research the lives and artifacts of different cultures. With ethnic and gender studies expanding, this trend will undoubtedly continue. In addition, the growing ethnic and racial diversity of Los Angeles--and America--virtually guarantees that new ideas and different values will become part of the mainstream.

The goal for an educated America should not simply be an awareness of different skin colors and ideas, but rather the integration of a multiplicity of ideas and perspectives into a commonly shared belief. This is best achieved through an open marketplace of ideas and rigorous debate, not through the dictates of an ivory-tower elite.

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