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Carleton must expand diversity requirements

Carleton, like any self-respecting Liberal Arts college, pays lip service to diversity. That is true inside the classroom as well as outside it.

I remember that when I was applying to colleges, Carleton, again like peer institutions, made a big deal of describing its distribution requirements for graduation. They guarantee, admissions representatives said, a breadth of knowledge that you wouldn’t find otherwise, if you were forced to only follow the requirements of your major. Or so they said.

In practice, I have found Carleton’s distribution requirements more than lacking. They serve as a formality to hedge the school’s liberal arts curriculum bets rather than to make students actually engage with material they would not seek out on their own.

I know a handful of people who have struggled to check all the boxes for graduation. A handful. And of the ones who do, usually the offending class is some¬thing like PE or lab science. Hardly diversity-related material. This wouldn’t be a problem if students were taking courses related to diversity, but often the reality falls far short of the school’s label.

Even worse, only two requirements directly engage with anything that could reasonably be called “diversity”—a loaded word that carries its own baggage of tokenization and drastic oversimplification. “International studies” and “intercultural domestic studies” are the college’s two less-than-valiant attempts to make privileged students engage with issues of identity that they perhaps would not otherwise. Social inquiry, like¬wise, is such a nebulous term that it can apply to economics or political science courses and the like that have nothing to do with issues of identity.

We can, and should, quibble with the framing of these requirements. “Intercultural domestic studies” sounds like a stuffy euphemism for studying people of color and other minority groups in the United States, but even that would be too generous a description.

Many of the classes that count toward this description devote only a fraction of their reading list and class time to so-called “intercultural” issues. That they are “intercultural” means that they engage multiple perspectives within the United States, which one would expect any reasonable class to do.

In other words, this requirement is tokenizing, misapplied, and almost meaningless. If you take a class on the United States, you’ll probably fulfill it without trying. Much better would be a more specifically tailored requirement (or several!) devoted specifically to Ethnic Studies, Women’s and Gender Studies, and other identity-focused disciplines.

Likewise, “international studies” could mean basically anything that references a country outside of the United States, and that includes European studies, which is unfortunately one of the largest and most robust of the various area studies programs.

Europe is literally international, but studying Europe lies outside the spirit of the requirement. We study Europe in every class already. Most humanities methods classes are already based on a canon of European theorists. Most readings we do come from Europeans or other white people. Why should the College give students a free pass to study what they already would? It’s irresponsible.

Moreover, it doesn’t help that our area studies offerings are not departments of their own, but interdisciplinary programs with no funding or academic structure beyond what other departments and the occasional designated professor or course can bring. And we have disproportionately more professors devoted to the white, cishet, male, upper-class canon than to underrepresented groups in academia.

Students have to do extra digging to engage these issues. I find this ironic considering that (one would hope) the goal of a distribution requirement is to engage exactly these kinds of issues. To make sure students have a vocabulary to discuss racism, sexism, classism, and other forms of structural discrimination.

But Carleton in the end would rather have students fulfill their requirements with some¬thing they want to take than with something they should take if they want to be good citizens.

What we really need is a complete overhaul of these graduation requirements. Students shouldn’t get to graduate with¬out critically engaging all the is¬sues of our time. At such a white, wealthy school, it’s especially imperative that students have the vocabulary to discuss privilege and prejudice.

One and a half years ago, the Carls Talk Back movement made rethinking graduation requirements a central tenet of its campaign. Instead of, or in addition to, the current vague categories, students would need to take an ethnic studies class and a women’s and gender studies class before graduation. Carleton is a liberal arts college, and should prioritize as such: these topics are critical toward engaging humanistic issues not only here, but in the world at large.

This is a basic step, and in my opinion it does not go far enough toward correcting the biases in our classrooms and our world. But it is a step, and it would set us on a more responsible path. Other, smaller steps can go along with it, too.

Departmental review committees should know students want these kinds of classes. Give feedback wherever you can. And, of course, take classes in these areas. This is our school, our education, and we should get as much out of it as we can. As Carls Talk Back has noted, if extensive demand for certain classes exists, the College will have no choice but to oblige.

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