A Different Kind of Classroom Diversity

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) has become the new “god” of the university, including many prestigious Catholic universities.  Some of us privileged to teach in less prestigious universities find this humorous, since we have been teaching diverse student populations for years. At elite institutions, they brag when they’ve reached their “benchmark” of fifteen to eighteen percent “minority” and those from “traditionally disadvantaged groups.” At my own institution, we have been “majority-minority” for years.

My students’ families come from across Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and the Caribbean. In my time at the university, I think I’ve had maybe one “Smith.”  But I have at least one or two Gonzalez’s, Perez’s, and Nguyens – in every class.

As for teaching those from “traditionally disadvantaged groups,” well, we are a Catholic university, so we have plenty of them, people from a group that some still think it’s acceptable to paint with negative stereotypes: Catholics. When it comes to “equity,” Orwell’s dictum apples: “Some are more equal than others.”  For many, Catholics just don’t “measure up”; they just “don’t belong”; they “make trouble” and too often oppose the views of their more sophisticated “betters.”  But no, that’s not being an ignorant bigot, or anything.

Which brings me to two other forms of “diversity” too often forgotten.  The first sort of diversity lacking in many universities has been clear for many years now: viewpoint diversity.  Whatever their racial and ethnic make-up, students in modern elite institutions generally come from the same backgrounds educationally – special high schools or elite prep schools – so they are generally expected to have the same “progressive” views.

Write something that challenges the current “progressive” narrative in your college entrance essay, and you might just as well trash it and save yourself the postage. Students who have had the right “preparatory” background and counseling know this, so they hide their true opinions and learn to shake their heads meaningfully when they hear progressive cant coming from their professors – much the way citizens in Eastern Europe learned to shake their heads meaningfully when they heard Marxist gibberish coming from the apparatchiks whose approval they needed in order to survive.

But there is another important form of diversity that almost no one notices: age diversity.  We call them “non-traditional students.”  These are students past the usual 18- to 23-year-old window who have come back to get their college degree after some years out in the world of work or having served their country in the military.  These students tend to care more about their education because they understand its value.  And having had real life experience, they often bring that wisdom to the classroom.

I was a Teaching Assistant for a philosophy class one year in graduate school, and one of the topics that we examined was evil.  Most of my students in this highly-ranked university admitted that they hadn’t experienced much evil. At the time, I had been on a few dates with a female police officer in town. She told me stories. She knew evil.  I told her the university should pay her to come to my class.

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I had a class several years ago in which we were discussing Virgil’s Aeneid. I asked, “If you were Dido’s father or mother, would you want her getting involved with Aeneas?”

I had the Jamaican mother of two daughters, and a firefighter who had done several tours in Iraq, and there was the father of nine in that class, so I turned to the Jamaican mother and asked her what she thought.

“You don’t want to hear what I think,” she said.  “Of course I do,” I replied.  And then she just opened up on Aeneas.  It was delightful.  “Oh no, I would not let my daughters anywhere near him.”  “But he’s a hero,” I said playfully.  “Oh, I know these heroes.  They can just go their way.”

When I turned to the father of nine and asked him, he just sat there quietly with his hands across his chest and shook his head: “Not going to happen.”   The other students see this, and they understand.

And you will rarely have more fun in your life than if you can get a middle-aged black woman in your class.  They laugh a lot and are not in the slightest unwilling to lecture the students about how to behave: “You don’t want to go out with a boy like that!”

Any institution that really wanted the diversity they profess to want could get it if they made it more possible for non-traditional students to attend.  Nearly all of my non-traditional students were minorities.

Why don’t we have more of these wonderful students? They are a gift to the classroom, and they tend to be more grateful for the education they are receiving. Answer: financial aid is directed solely to those in the 18 to 23-year old demographic.  And what person with any real wisdom of the world and a family to care for would take on thousands and thousands of dollars of student debt?

You need a naive eighteen-year-old for that.

So perhaps it’s time to shift the paradigm.  Why are we focusing our educational efforts on kids in adolescence, a time – at least in our current culture – when they are often least capable of benefiting from it (and wasting billions to boot)?  Why not allow young people a few years to get some experience of life, maybe even to start a family, and thengive them the benefits of a Catholic liberal arts education.

Some of the most dedicated alumni at many institutions were those who came back from the Second World War and went to college often with a wife and child.

So, to my non-traditional students, I say:  It is a pleasure and an honor to have you in my class.  The university should pay you to be there.  But alas, such things are not up to me.


You may also enjoy:

Daniel Guernsey’s The Remedy for “Canceling” and Division: Catholic Education

+James V. Schall, S.J.’s On an Illiberal Education

Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.