Academic jargon is the worst kind of jargon, both for its pretentiousness and for its capacity to defend the indefensible.
In an earlier post I complained about the way the phrase “best practices” can operate as a substitute for sound judgment and thinking rather than as an expression of it. In this post I reflect on the uses of the words “inclusion” and the rapidly-ascending “equity.”
I’m on the faculty of Hope College and I recently had to fill out my annual Faculty Activity Report (FAR), which in general allows the administration to keep track of faculty accomplishments over the past year while also encouraging faculty to set goals for the coming one. A final question, however, pivots toward a completely separate concern by introducing material ideas about the sentiments and actions we are expected to "contribute" to the "climate" of the school.
I find this to be on the one hand rather vague (how does one contribute to a climate?), and on the other hand disturbingly tendentious. I refer specifically to the holy trinity of "equity, diversity, and inclusion" which have now become the contemporary analogues of the Jacobin obsession with liberté, égalité, and fraternité and will, I fear, also be enforced at the edge of a blade.
I've been around academia long enough to see jargon come and go, and have long been interested in the social conditions under which certain words gain cultural purchase and authoritative status.
"Diversity" has been around for a while, but it makes an end of what is merely a means. It is also an exercise in question-begging, particularly at a time when the value of diversity per se is increasingly being brought into question. But I'll acknowledge that the idea can be morally defended, especially if we use it in an academic setting to refer to diversity of thought, which is intrinsic to the search for truth, as opposed to an understanding of diversity based on accidental birth traits, and which are extrinsic to the search for truth.
Those of us who have been around for more than ten years can't help but notice the increased usage of the word "inclusion." Now it is all anyone can talk about, it seems, but once again with very little critical thought given to the word, its meaning, or the abstract ways in which it is used. Is "inclusion" a virtue? If so, what kind of virtue is it? To what existential condition is it a response? What sort of moral excellence does it seek to attain? What is its telos? Between what two extremes of excess and deficiency does it lie? Under what conditions is it exercised? When might it be appropriate and when not so?
These questions are never asked. I, for one, am not convinced it's a virtue at all, but rather the simulacrum of one (that of hospitality). Insisting we connect our commitment to inclusion to the abstract "climate" gives the praetorians of thought quite a bit of leeway in terms of pursuing charges against dissenters. And in no way, so far as I can see, does it connect meaningfully to the central purpose of an academic institution: to teach students the subject matter of academic disciplines in the context of a tradition.
Finally, the term "equity," and not the more traditional or intelligible "equality," is getting more purchase in the jargon of higher ed. In law and theory, "equity" refers to fairness and impartiality, and was instituted under the common law by "equity courts" whose job it was to fine-tune the generalities of the law to specific cases. And, in its most common usage, "equity" refers to "ownership," a concept that seems to have little relationship to its academic usage.
So why has the word "equity" suddenly replaced "equality" as common usage in academic institutions? My sense is this: "equity," unlike "equality" carries the additional aspect of being reparative. By demanding "equity" of its faculty (a rather awkward grammatical construction, that) colleges suggest that faculty somehow "fix" “inequities,” however those might be identified.
This transforms the role of faculty from being masters of a discipline that they communicate to students, from being servants of a tradition of thought and learning, to being social reformers. Which inequities will we be expected to repair, how will we do this, and who will make such determinations?
These are no longer educational questions, but are rather ideological or political ones, and are sure to divide faculty into those who claim to be on the right side of history and their benighted brethren who will meet the same fate as those who opposed the Jacobins. Any politicization of education will always be divisive in its nature.
And so I find myself wondering why, instead of the one content question on our FAR with its obvious tendentiousness, we don't have questions such as: How have you deepened your understanding of your academic discipline? In what ways have you honored a tradition of learning and thinking? How have you developed intellectual curiosity in yourself and your students? How have you demanded academic excellence from yourself and your students? How have you pursued the truth in your work?
These questions essentially unify a faculty, allowing each individual faculty member to flourish in his or her own way, by advocating for a set of practices and habits that allow for individual development toward academic and not social goals. Questions concerning contributions to a "climate" composed of inherently contestable and seriously political ideas are essentially divisive, and unity will only be achieved by the heavy hand of the winning party—and the privileging of one particular viewpoint in the evaluative form itself predetermines who will win.