Addressing Cultural Diversity Issues in Higher Education

Instructor: David White
Cultural diversity can be an asset in education, but it can also create conflict. Through this lesson, you will explore the ways that cultural diversity affects higher education and learn some ways to address the issue and use it to students' benefit.

What Is Cultural Diversity?

Among the many beneficial experiences one has in college, one of the most important is the opportunity to engage with people from cultures around the country or around the world. This coming together of different cultures within one larger culture is known as cultural diversity, and it can be one of the most educational experiences one has in an academic environment. Yet for all its positive aspects, cultural diversity can also present students and faculty with certain challenges that can disrupt the learning process.

Cultural diversity is not at all unique to college campuses; rather, it is an increasingly important aspect of many societies that affects almost every social sphere. For that reason, exposing young people to such diversity early on in their lives can enhance their ability to appreciate and respectfully engage with people from various cultural backgrounds, thus mitigating the potential for conflict.

Challenges of Diversity in the Classroom

In general, this early experience with diversity helps people to see things from different perspectives and in different ways, making students more creative and improving critical thinking. However, just because diversity benefits us doesn't mean that it's always welcome or will be an easy transition.

One of the more common challenges brought about by diversity is overcoming personal biases, which is the inclination to prefer one thing over another, often with negative consequences. In discussions of race, for example, students may strongly defend the historical behavior or treatment of their own race, while rejecting or minimizing other perspectives. In this case, the negative consequences are that students fail to see the larger picture and miss the opportunity to expand their knowledge or develop a more robust understanding of the subject.

The structural diversity of our earlier years will influence how well we acclimate to culturally diverse environments.

Whether or not cultural diversity will be a challenge has quite a bit to do with the structural diversity in our early lives, or the number of minority groups present in students' prior environments. A student raised in a relatively small homogeneous community may find a more diverse student body more challenging than those from a racially and ethnically diverse community. Fortunately, there are certain approaches and steps that can be taken to make the environment more open and positive for all students.

The Course Material

There is no guarantee that cultural diversity won't be challenging in the classroom, but the best way to get off to a good start is to include diverse perspectives in course content, or materials and subjects for discussion. For instance, if you're teaching a class on race and race relations in 19th-century America, consider adding some texts from Indigenous, African-American, and Chinese scholars. Not only will this provide students with various perspectives on the subject, it also places an equal value on narratives from other cultures and, by extension, their people. Failure to do this may reinforce cultural stereotypes and support a dominant narrative that minimizes alternative or conflicting voices.

Including culturally diverse perspectives in the materials also opens up an important opportunity for enhanced classroom participation. When minority students see that they are being reflected in the course content, they will likely feel more included and more willing to participate in the discussions. Moreover, if in your discussions of race and race relations in 19th-century America you come across a particular aspect of a culture that is unfamiliar to many students, offer students from that background the opportunity to provide a cultural translation for the rest of the class. This not only fosters active participation, but also provides a frame of reference for other students and helps them to make a connection to a person from a different culture.

Diversify Cultural References

Each of us has a base of knowledge and perspective that has been informed by our experiences. For better or worse, it is from that position that we operate and it is a position that can be skewed towards things with which we are familiar. If you came of age in the 1970s or 1980s, for example, you might make references to things like Knott's Landing or Farrah Fawcett. This is fine for you, but for people that were born much later or in another culture, these things will likely have little, if any, meaning.

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