Diversity in the Classroom: Beyond Resounding Gongs and Clanging Cymbals

By: Grace Vargas
March 10, 2016

I believe that in order for the diversity that is the empirical reality of our lives to manifest in our classrooms, a radical transformation must take place in the ethos of our pedagogy and curriculum.

You could call me the poster child for diversity. Now attending the third higher education institution of my academic career, many of you reading this will understand that I mean that both figuratively and literally. Aside from having my face used to ‘color’ campus brochures and websites, I actually believe in diversity enough to be a representative for change. For over 10 years, I have participated in diversity initiatives, associations, task-forces, committees, projects, and whatever other title you can come up with for the coalescing of mostly well-intentioned individuals who want to effect change and build peace. After all, with relatively few multiracial Latinas and second-generation immigrants in higher education it makes sense that I would be the spokesperson for diversity, right? See, I told you, poster child.

Looking back, I do believe that diversity initiatives, overall, have led to some substantive change in the academy. In the theological world, Yale recently pointed to an example when noting that the well-respected and prolific, Rev. Dr. Justo González, was no longer the only Latina/o professor in the U.S. Protestant theological academy. Many initiatives, such as FTE and HTI, should be lauded for the fruits of their arduous labor in motivating and supporting students, myself and others, to enter spaces that, traditionally, have not welcomed diverse voices.

However, when we consider the students we label ‘diverse’ (in all their flavors of diversity) and their experience in the classroom, I admit we cannot sing such a triumphant tune. The classroom, the space where the rubber meets the road in terms of diversity in the academy, continues to be a hostile place for many students. Whether encountering sacred cows in one’s academic discipline, curricular decisions, or the below the surface cultural iceberg collision of world-views, diversity is still perceived as a threat. It is no secret that to be a ‘diverse’ student in today’s institutions of higher learning is still a palpably challenging experience. I can testify to the fact that it is typically in the classroom when the ‘we celebrate diversity’ institutional propaganda emerges as a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor. 13:1)

As I reflect on what has and hasn’t made a difference, I can’t help but wonder if we have missed the point altogether? Does our constructed concept of ‘diversity’ betray our ability to see the project through? Or perhaps, we never understood what diversity means in the first place? I can’t say for sure but what I do know is that it is not the same thing to welcome the those who are different to sit down in a classroom, than to encourage the active and voluntary surrender of the world-views, values and beliefs that have traditionally held power, in service of a more integral discussion and the mutual transformation and learning that can come from it. I believe that classrooms that truly embrace diversity do so not just in appearance, but also in ethos.

If we’re honest, we’ll admit that diversity is not only about inclusion. Diversity is also about power. Power coordinates reality in such a way that it creates a false reality. The power that seeks to control diversity, by circumscribing it, emerges in world-views, values, beliefs, and policies. This power embeds itself into the ethos of our classrooms and curriculum, rendering all efforts of inclusion laughably irrelevant. I believe that in order for the diversity that is the empirical reality of our lives to manifest in our classrooms, a radical transformation must take place in the ethos of our pedagogy and curriculum. Sacred cows must be named and overcome. Assumptions must be challenged and tested against the actual evidence of our lived experiences.

We might begin by asking ourselves, what does diversity really mean to us? Does it mean we want to welcome more ‘diverse’ people to participate in our learning? Or, do we want to actively and voluntarily surrender our long-cemented power toward the goal of transformative learning for all involved? These may not appear mutually exclusive but I want to argue that the former without the latter is not enough. The former only results in superficial attempts at diversity that effect no real change in our life together. Without surrender, particularly on the part of the bodies and world-views which have for too long held power disproportionately, we have nothing more than ‘diverse’ faces on our brochures and websites that betray the reality of our classrooms.

Tags: Diverse Solutions, Thinking Out Loud


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