Diversity on Campus
reviewed by Ana M. Martinez Aleman - 2003
David Shuman’s second edition of Diversity on Campus provides American undergraduates with encapsulated information about the socio-political history of race, sex, gender, and religion and its relationship to college life. Probing questions related to these hotly contested issues abound in the text, inviting the reader to reflect and self-assess around such matters as same-sex relationships, racial distrust, and social class privilege. No clear, concise and categorical answers to these questions are given, however. The goal or “moral” of the book, according to the authors is to have students consider more closely and “think harder” about difference, deviance, and the unfamiliar. In short, Diversity on Campus is designed with a particular audience in mind: the traditional American undergraduate endeavoring, whether by inclination, empathy or more likely than not curricular distribution requirement, to learn about “difference,” about “identity,” about “ diversity” in the context of college life---the ultimate goal being, one suspects, to inform post-collegiate life in an American democracy. Thus, the intent of Diversity on Campus appears not to be heavy-handed or didactic but rather to enlighten undergraduates and instill in them an appreciation for thinking broadly, deeply, and historically about our sociality in multicultural America—or as the epigraph’s invocation of Hannah Arendt counsels, “to think what we are doing”.
At first, the tone of Diversity on Campus and its simplistic accounts disturb the experienced and scholarly reader. We know that race, sexuality, religion, and class aren’t the distilled and diluted phenomena that each chapter presents. After all, aren’t town-gown relationships far more complex than reflected in the movie, “Breaking Away”? The author would agree and throughout the text does remind the reader that all of the issues under the diversity umbrella are a complicated and complex web of politics, history, ideology, and belief. But the reader isn’t meant to be the scholar of diversity, nor the critical race theorist, nor the sophisticated and experienced student. Instead, the reader is assumed to be that traditional undergraduate who has not given focused and academic attention to the challenges brought to her sense of self and her worldviews by non-Christians, non-whites, non-straights, etc. This is a text that assumes the reader to have had no (or little) opportunity to consider formally the ways in which our society has and does privilege some over others, systematically discriminates against some and not others, and values some ways of being and legislates against those deemed deviant. If my twenty years in the diversity ‘business’ can serve as an empirical test of this assumption, David Shuman has correctly identified and assessed his intended readers. For though there are certainly those undergraduates for whom this book will read as elementary—a Cliff Note version of critical studies—most of their peers will need, learn and be served well by the text.
The strength of any text resides in its ability to deliver its message effectively to its intended audience. In the case of Diversity on Campus, the message is that life on America’s campuses reflects life lived in America’s towns and cities, experienced within families, among friends and co-workers, between strangers on the subway and commuters on its highways. The American campus is, according to Schuman, “as real as any other part of life. The things that happen off campus are just different versions of things that happen on campus. Each college is…subject to the problems found in the surrounding society” (p. 1). As a consequence, college students should endeavor to understand college living as not free or isolated from pluralistic tensions and demands but as one of America’s microcosms. Schuman attempts to deliver this message using historical and philosophical perspectives to view the diversity debates and tensions on campus, fortifying the examination with evidence accessible to today’s undergraduates: the case of Abner Louima, Barbie Dolls and G. I. Joe’s, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” and racial profiling. In particular, the author chooses “the traditional American tension between individualism and group identity” (p. x) as a means for framing issues, for example, political correctness and gender studies, hoping to bring to his readers the message that who we are and who we think ourselves to be on America’s campuses—our identity—matters greatly. The implication is that it matters for living in the America outside the campus grounds; that having a lesbian roommate may well require the same sensibility as having a lesbian co-worker or that proponents of a Western Canon may have much in common with supporters of English-Only ballot initiatives. Diversity on Campus, in my view, delivers this message well enough.
In my view, however, the text’s message gets a bit confused at times by two interdependent elements, choice of example and choice of language. At times, the author’s examples don’t clearly underscore the intended message to have students think deeply about complex social issues instead of resorting to unthinking stereotypes and undemocratic action. For example, in “Gender Issues” (Chapter 5) Schuman’s summary of educational gender equity for girls and women and sexual harassment on campus as social constructions is undermined by its chapter sub-heading, “Hormones on Campus” (p. 93). Does Shuman mean to suggest to the reader that it will be an uncontrollable biology that matters in the end? The discussion of sexual harassment is weakened further by the re-assertion of ‘biology-as-destiny’ when we read, “Hormones are active in all of us, and we know that both sexes have the capacity to act foolishly, inappropriately, or illegally” (p. 97). Is the author suggesting to the reader that in effect, he shouldn’t “Look closer” nor should he “think harder” (p. 286) about sexual harassment because in the end, his hormones ‘will make him do it’? There’s a mixed message here and one of important consequences for both college women and men.
Another and perhaps equally subtle mixed message appears at the end of Chapter 6, “Gender II: The Wider World.” Here, the chapter concludes with an example of women living in community. “A Community of Women” follows a discussion of the ways in which “the role of women on campus is a mirror of the role of women in society” (p. 99). This discussion is informed by a framing of gender that “invites us to see sexual roles as socially constructed rather than determined by biology” (p. 99). Schuman tackles gender inequality in the work place, progressive legislative change designed to protect women’s rights, and sexual assault as social phenomena reflective of women’s status as a subjugated and dependent class. We read that her history, past and present, is one in which her autonomy is questioned. And then we read about nuns.
The community of women that Schuman chooses as a model for gender/women in the “wider world,” a model that given what precedes it should illustrate the negotiation between the autonomous, rights-wielding, reasoning woman and the wider patriarchal world, is one whose qualities couldn’t be more contested and debated and thus not easily understood. As a model for women’s autonomy, the nunnery can be read as both stale stereotype and radicalized separation. It is both women’s life absent of the sexual negotiations with men and women’s life under men’s subjugation—they can’t, after all have the right to “provide the necessary sacraments by themselves” (p. 123), the greatest privilege the Catholic God gives to men. The use of the nunnery is “offered as a comparison” to the relations between men and women that according to Schuman “will always be subject to negotiation” (p. 123). Thus, the message to his readers is what? That women in society, like the sisters of St. Mary’s College, can freely determine most of their lives but they will still have to live by men’s rules? That women in America, like the good sisters, can certainly self-determine but only just so far? Schuman is right to tell his reader that the “world seems to be a different place for men and for women” (p. 122) but how is using the example of the nunnery as comparison a productive means to ‘looking closer’ and ‘thinking harder’ about that difference?
Despite my reservations, Diversity on Campus by David Schuman (with Tuesday L. Cooper and Carolyn M. Pillow) can be an effective introduction to the complexities of identity and their social consequences for undergraduates. The text can enable them to “begin to sort out what [they] think about [themselves] and others, and why” (p. 3).