Engaging Differences — Or Imposing Conformity?


In its March board meeting, the University of Virginia Board of Visitors addressed the topic of intellectual diversity. The unspoken assumption among some board members was that there is precious little diversity in the philosophical outlook of UVa’s faculty, which skews heavily to the left, or the courses they teach. But Provost Ian Baucom made the case that it is possible to foster a diversity of viewpoints by structuring the curriculum to allow for open dialogue.

As an example, Baucom pointed to the “Engaging Differences” courses for first-year students, which the university website describes as “the cornerstone of the liberal arts experience at UVA.” These courses are designed to “equip our students to articulate provisional analyses that reflect an openness to debate and differing values.”

The aim, Baucom elaborated for the board, is to encourage students “to think about how you argue for or against a position.”

The University lists 15 Engaging Differences courses. You can see the course descriptions here. The overwhelming majority struck me as employing leftist vocabulary, assumptions and frames of reference. The question arises whether the discussion that arises within such ideological frameworks can allow for much genuine diversity of thought.

I will detail my concerns in just a moment. But first I want to give fair time to UVa spokesman Brian Coy. Here is how he responded to my questions:

The most important point to keep in mind is that these courses are about examining human difference and how we have dealt with it in the past and can continue to deal with it moving forward. Our students will—of course—live their lives surrounded by people who are different from themselves in various ways. The objective is to help students acquire the skills that will allow them to engage productively with different perspectives, backgrounds, and points of view.

I’m not sure what criteria you used to decide that one course or another is left- or right-wing or, for that matter, what criteria we would use to do the same. The main idea is opening a topic that is relevant to the world around us and encouraging students to have a dialogue—to debate their perspectives on those topics in a civil and productive manner. Looking at each of the courses listed on the site you reference, I hope you can agree that there is a lot of opportunity for people to share differing points of view along many different axes, including their political perspective.

No, I don’t agree. Here follow the titles of the 15 courses and excerpts from the descriptions.

“Hateinnany: Fascism, Antifascism, and the Global Far Right”

In this course we will explore the development and growth of the far right around the world in the 20th and 21st centuries, with a particular emphasis on how dynamics of power shape differences in the world and how social inequities are produced and patterned along lines of difference. [The class] will pay close attention to the concept of “empire,” its importance in the right-wing imagination in imperial states, and the impact of decolonization on far-right politics and what develops into the self-described “white power” movement at the end of the century.

Africa Imagined

The primary goals of this course are for students to 1) recognize tropes of “Africa” 2) understand and deconstruct these tropes as historical inventions 3) and to begin to understand “Africa” in more nuanced and intricate ways. Topics we will focus on include the intellectual legacies of colonialism, poverty and international aid, “ethnic” and “religious” conflict, portrayals of “Africa” in American and European film and media, the looting and marketing of African art, and counter-discourses of Afrocentricity.

Depictions of Difference

Nothing in the course description is overtly leftist.

Encounter the World Through Collected Objects

How do museums handle objects that were stolen or looted? How do displays confront or enforce racial stereotypes? What aspects of a society are being highlighted or hidden and how does this change the story being told about them and our engagement with them? How do those in power represent those without power? How do those without power represent themselves? In this course we will … learn to detect gaps in what is presented. We will recognize bias in the presentation of objects from other cultures.

Financial Lives

Despite finance’s ubiquity and seeming adherence to strictly economic principles, its effects in the world are starkly differentiated by race, class, and gender. The racial wealth gap in America is staggeringly large. The gender pay gap still exists. And the global poor are almost entirely shut out of access to basic financial services. But these phenomena did not come out of nowhere. They are the product of historical structures. This class is an attempt to think through the history of finance and difference, and to explore how notions of social and cultural difference have shaped the economic operations of finance and how, in turn, finance has shaped our notions of difference.

Food for Global Feminist Thought

What do global feminism and food have in common? Why are food and gender often interrelated? How does food contribute to politicized discourses on a wide range of bodies and bodily identities? What could eating disorders have in common with the patriarchy?… Reflecting on a variety of cultural products from around the globe helps us to understand the complex role of food and food-related-activities in our life. An intersectional feminist approach will frame class discussions and several sessions on the current issues related to gender and food, such as eating disorders and orthorexia, will be included.

Planetary Discards

This course will delve into the commonplace yet complex worlds of the thrown away, and by extension, the excluded, and the marginal. We will explore how processes of discarding are central to making, conceiving, and maintaining difference; how these processes are also central to making the self and identity; and how these processes are particular and historical and entangled in power relations.

Race, Racism, Colony and the Nation

The transformative properties of American democracy were racially precise: white freedom co-existing with/based upon black subjection (sic). How does racial difference inform our view of America today? How might the American Revolution be considered incomplete? What aspects of our racial divide can be explained by the colony versus nation metaphor? How did/do ethics, science, media and creative expression reflect the idea that our nation is not so “indivisible” after all?

Sovereignty in a Time of Slavery — Indigenous States and the Atlantic World

As Europeans invaded Africa, Asia, and the Americas between 1492 and the twentieth century – an extended period of colonialism that remains ongoing – they developed sophisticated legal theories, political philosophies, and religious frameworks to justify the unjustifiable taking of others’ lands and lifeways. Many of these theories were written by men whose investments in African and Indigenous slavery gave them the time and space to develop, ironically, universal definitions of human rights. How should we read these texts? … By the end of the class, you will have a more nuanced understanding of Native American governance, European political theory, and the relationship between early modern globalization and our own time.

Taboo and Transgression

This course uses the concept of taboo, and the transgression of these taboos, as a way to pose a series of questions. … Our work will be interdisciplinary in nature, both in terms of the academic disciplines of our readings (from psychoanalysis, philosophy, critical race theory, queer theory, anthropology, trans studies, etc.) but also through our engagements with various genres, using fiction, film and the visual arts.

Talking Trash

How much do we clean and why? How close will we come to filth, grime and refuse, and when? Do we see people and places as “polluted”? Talking Trash asks students to investigate the origins of their own divisions of the world, examining how their classifications of things as disposable informs their politics, identity, behavior and sense of space.

Town and Gown

University towns also have some of the highest rates of income inequality and educational disparity. This Difference Engagement Seminar will focus on instances of the latter and examine the University of Virginia in Charlottesville as a case study. The course will introduce students to their new home town, with particular attention to UVA’s historic role in defining, exacerbating, and trying to mend racial inequality.

Treaties, Power, and Time: Indigenous Sovereignty and Dispossession

Beginning in the 17th century American Indian people have engaged in the act of treaty making with first the British and then the Americans. These treaties are hallmarks of the encounter between radically different peoples; they still have legal power today. How are legal documents negotiated hundreds of years ago, in completely different historical contexts, where the differentials of power constantly shifted, interpreted now?

Who Dressed You?

Fashion has been utilized as a tool for common good, moving both culture and the individual toward empowerment, influence, self-identification, and community bonds, but also as a tool of power and privilege to segregate, distinguish, demoralize, and repress human subjects. … In this class, you will… recognize how fashion has been used to create and challenge social inequities.

Why Do We Laugh?

This course description has no overtly leftist content.

Thirteen of the 15 courses reflect the preoccupations of the progressive “woke” worldview, analyzing the world in terms of various forms of oppression, and identifying that oppression with Western White heterosexual males. This is self evident from the language in the descriptions themselves, but even more obvious when you consider that there is no mention of a single classical Western philosopher or strain of thought. Nothing about liberty. Nothing about wealth creation. No insights from the Judeo-Christian worldview. Only one course (“Why Do We Laugh?”) drawing upon evolutionary psychology in opposition to the idea that all human behavior is socially constructed. A better title for this series is “An Introduction to Oppression Studies.”

As an example of how Engaging Differences encourages debate, Coy points to a course, “Do We Still Have Faith in Democracy?” Arts & Sciences magazine profiled that course in 2021:

In the spirit of encouraging well-reasoned debates with room for differing viewpoints, the Engagements seminars introduce the College’s first-year students to the standards of critical thinking that provide the essential foundation to their liberal arts educational experience on Grounds. The ability to think and engage in discussions about different viewpoints is one of the qualities crucial to the liberal arts and educated citizenship, and one that employers value as they hire Arts & Sciences graduates from UVA.

The article quotes one of the teachers: “We don’t have any desire or expectation to change someone’s beliefs.” One of the core commitments of these seminars, the professor continued, is to “offer the best scholarship on these issues and provide students a way to consider them and what it means. That’s what college is about.”

This is the course that UVa would like to present to the world to convince people that it values intellectual diversity. But read the course description of “Do We Still Have Faith in Democracy?” It sets a very different tone than the course descriptions excerpted above.

What is a democracy and what distinguishes it from other forms of governments? What are the practices of democracy and the role of education in preparation for democratic participation? What does it mean to be a citizen of a democracy and who counts as a citizen? What are the challenges and opportunities of pluralism (religious, cultural, racial, political) to the life of democracy?

The questions are open-ended, ideology-free and designed to encourage debate. They are not informed by a leftist ideological construct. As such, the course is atypical. It is an outlier, not at all representative of the larger corpus of the Engaging Differences program.

In sum, I don’t find Baucom’s argument plausible, and I hope the Board of Visitors will not take it at face value. If debate is encouraged in any of these classes — and I question that much open dialogue occurs when course descriptions state explicitly the lessons instructors want the students to take away — any discussion will likely occur within narrow parameters.

Few first-year students have been exposed to alternative theories for viewing the world and they are not equipped to understand how the professors’ framing of an issue can bias the outcome. Frankly, from their descriptions, most Engaging Differences courses strike me as designed to inculcate impressionable young people with leftist concepts and thereby suppress critical thinking.

The Board of Visitors should revisit this issue, ask tough questions, and ask Baucom to defend the curriculum.