Diversity – why it’s important and why it’s not easy
I am currently writing a paper on gender and the Court of Justice of the EU. In preparation for that paper and as part of my research I spent quite a bit of time reading material about why a more diverse judiciary might be a good thing. This got me thinking about diversity more generally and as usual my thoughts eventually turned to law schools and legal education. The more I think about this, the more I am convinced that diversity in law schools is really important for all sorts of reasons. So firstly what do I mean by diversity and secondly why do I think it is important?
Working at Bradford University Law School gives an interesting but skewed picture of diversity. The University as a whole scores very highly on diversity indicators but the experience in the classroom is very different. Our cohort is not particularly diverse. Most of our students are from an asian background and most live at home very close to campus. So yes, I am including ethnic/racial/religious diversity in my thinking as well as things like gender, sexual orientation, disability etc. However I am also thinking about questions of class, education, background, relationship status and, perhaps importantly position, in relation to the purpose of legal education, differences in aims and ambitions and career goals and reaosn for being at university. I am thinking about both students and academics here.
I, as most of you will know, am a firm believer in a liberal legal education. I don’t care much about the needs of the profession or at least not that they should impact on what we do at degree level. I don’t care whether students want to go into legal practice or do something else. I care about learning for learning’s sake and wanting to learn/know/find out just because… Not so long ago I would probably have argued that we should all take that stance. However, the more I think and read about diversity the more I think I was probably wrong there. Diversity of views is really important and it is crucial that students are exposed to a variety of views. It is part of learning to make up your own mind, to work out which views you find convincing and why and to form your own views which you can justify in a reasoned (if passionate!) way.
So diversity is important because it brings different views, experiences, stances and understandings to the table which will continuously challenge our own and force us to think deeply about why we think what we think and why we do what we do in the way that we do it. It may lead us to change our minds but even where it does not, or perhaps particularly where it does not, it helps us to formualte our point of view more clearly, to engage with critiques and to further the arguments in the ongoing debates about the purpose of legal education as well as substantive areas of law etc. Engaging with different views and experiences is a good thing. It helps us drive knowledge and understanding forward. It also of course is important for students (and academics) to have role models and people they can identify and feel comfortable with.
In a law school such as the one I work with, this is really important because our student cohort is not very diverse. Students come from similar backgrounds with similar aspirations and expectations. They are not really exposed to differing views from their peers so it is important for us to share our thoughts, our perspectives with them to give them alternative visions as to what law degrees can be about, what can be achieved with them and what the future may hold. We need to make them think. I don’t want students to think I’m right. I’d like students to think about why I might be right, or why my vision of legal education might work for them – or indeed why it might not.
And that leads me on to why diversity is hard. Genuine diversity only works if you have people who are genuinely diverse. As academics though some of the things that might have made us diverse have been eroded by the education etc that has brought us to where we are. It might be that as legal academics and law teachers we have more in common than not. Some of us will of course hang on to our identity as LGBTQ or feminists or working class or whatever more strongly than others but even then it is likely to have been influenced by also being a legal academic. Diversity is also difficult because it means we have to engage with what we think and why rather than just taking it for granted and then we have to go one step further and engage with what others think and why. And that engagement has to be genuine. A simple ‘well that’s just rubbish’ won’t do. We all like to be right, we all like to think that our view is the best, the most logical and the most convincing and if only people would listen they would see that. However to really benefit from diversity ourselves and help our students do so we need to accept that we might all be wrong but hopefully will all be right and that we can all learn something from each other – even if that is just to defend our views in a more considered and holistic way.
I am still thinking about this and I am sure there are flaws in my argument here but I thought it was worth posting and if you have any thoughts on this please do share!
Reading this it struck me there appeared to be some echoes with the conversation Paul Maharg highlights at http://paulmaharg.com/2014/04/02/parables-climbing-king-lear/ – personal opinions in teaching and learning. If we try to be too dispassionate then there could be a lack of diversity…
While I have thought about sex, race, religion, age, disability and social class, education and background, I hadn’t really thought of liberal/practical education quite in those terms. However, it does seem best to cater for the diverse views/intents of students – as the law degree is both a first stage to a law career and a general degree with valuable transferable skills with a sizeable proportion studying for either – to have a diversity of approach within depts rather than saying X is a practical school and Z a theoretical one.
“However to really benefit from diversity ourselves and help our students do so we need to accept that we might all be wrong but hopefully will all be right and that we can all learn something from each other – even if that is just to defend our views in a more considered and holistic way.”
Wow, this would be a great point of view, if it were that life was without absolute truth. Which brings to my mind Francis A. Schaeffer and his How Should We Then Live? (quick notes I found online):
“Without external absolute, majority vote is absolute. But this justifies a Hitler.
A. If there is no absolute by which to judge society, then society is absolute.”
If there is absolute truth, and some man or woman might be right, but then someone else’s (or mostly everyone elses) differentiating beliefs and assertions on life must be wrong. I understand/sympathize with the touchy-feely approach, but the un-changing and un-fading truth is better for all if it ultimately saves people from harm, and from harming others.That is, if there is absolute truth. Yes, I do tend to wax philosophically.This is just what was at the forefront of my mind after reading your insightful post.
Thanks for your comment. I don’t agree that there is such as thing as absolute thruth and there would be little in Schaeffer’s writings which I wouldn’t take issue with but that’s a discussion for another day.