The Educational Value of Diversity

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In October of 1931, a 16-year-old college student joined a group of friends for a night of carousing and entertainment at the Driskill Hotel, in Austin Texas. He had no idea what to expect of the entertainment, the focus of the evening being on the “carousing” component. Rather unexpectedly, he is deeply moved by the performance, and particularly by the featured musician. Many years later, that student writes about that experience in his memoirs:

“He played mostly with his eyes closed. Letting flow from that inner space of music things that had never existed. He was the first genius I’d ever seen.”

diversity1The “genius” he was referring to was Louis Armstrong, who was himself only 31 at the time, at the beginning of a career that would eventually identify him as one of the greatest virtuosi and innovators in the history of American music.

The young man was Charles Lund Black, who would go on to become a Professor of Law at Yale and expert in American constitutional law and contribute importantly to a number of cases involving key civil rights issues.

Professor Black would later say the following about his experience that evening:

diversity2“It is impossible to overstate the significance of a sixteen year old Southern boy’s seeing genius, for the first time, in a black. We literally never saw a black man, then, in any but a servant’s capacity…Blacks, the saying went, were ‘alright in their place’, but what was the place of such a man, and of the people from which he sprung?” http://www.nytimes.com/2001/05/08/nyregion/charles-l-black-jr-85-constitutional-law-expert-who-wrote-on-impeachment-dies.html

In Black’s eulogy, a former student would say of him, “He was my hero…He had the moral courage to go against his race, his class, his social circle.”

In Medical Education, the concept of Diversity has become entrenched in our collective vision as expressed in both the Future of Medical Education in Canada recommendations and in accreditation standards. The rationale for such initiatives has been largely perceived to be the need to ensure equity of opportunity, and a need for medical schools to respect and reflect the gender, cultural, religious influences of the societies they serve. Laudable and worthy justifications, to be sure. However, Mr. Black’s encounter with Mr. Armstrong hints at deeper, even greater benefits. Does diversity within a learning environment, or as a deliberate component of a curriculum, have educational value? Does it shape thought and attitudes? Does it make students better practitioners of whatever career they undertake? Does it make them better citizens?

These questions have had particular relevance and attention in the United States for the past several decades, where they have been the focus of legal as well as pedagogical attention. Affirmative Action initiatives and subsequent legal challenges have required both jurists and educators to engage this question critically and analytically.

In 1978, Chief Justice Lewis Powell wrote the following opinion regarding the case Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke. He argued “the atmosphere of speculation, experiment and creation – so essential to the quality of higher education – is widely believed to be promoted by a diverse student body…It is not too much to say that the nation’s future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to the ideas and mores of students as diverse as this Nation of many peoples.”

Chief Justice Powell’s decision, however, did not settle the issue. Challenges have continued and the wisdom of mandated diversity initiatives has been repeatedly questioned. This is largely due to the lack of a theoretical framework or evidential basis demonstrating value. Since then, considerable work has either emerged or been resurrected to provide such evidence, which is summarized in an excellent paper by Gurin and colleagues (Harvard Educational Review 2002; 72: 330).

From the theoretical perspective, the work of a number of sociologists and psychologists is particularly relevant, and fascinating to review. In attempting to describe their work, I freely admit to venturing far beyond my expertise and apologize in advance to those much more knowledgeable.

Erik Erikson, as far back at the early 1950s, postulated that late adolescence and early adulthood were critical times in the development of personal and social identity. He theorized that such identity develops most effectively when people at that stage of life are provided what he called a “psychosocial moratorium”, by which he meant a time and situation during which they could feel free to “sample” and experiment with various social roles for themselves before taking on a more fixed and permanent role, i.e., before they “committed” to a profession, personal philosophy, or relationship. Colleges and universities are critical to providing this environment for most young people, certainly in North America. But how can they promote this critical social development? In the words of Gurin and colleagues:

“Higher education is especially influential when its social milieu is different from students’ home and community background and when it is diverse and complex enough to encourage intellectual experimentation and recognition of varied future possibilities.”

In other words, the real power to influence goes far beyond lofty mission statements and curriculum, and arises largely from developing an environment where students are able to interact both passively and actively with individuals who are “different” and therefore force new thought and new perspectives during this critical developmental phase.

Sociologist Theodore Newcomb carried out a series of studies and long-term follow-ups of Bennington College students between 1943 and 1991. (Newcombe et al 1967. Persistence and change: Bennington College and its students after 25 years. New York: John Wiley and Sons), (Alwin et al 1991. Political attitudes over the life span. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press). To medical folks, this is the sociologic equivalent of the Framingham studies. He and his colleagues found that political and social attitudes were most likely to change and remain so in students who had encountered novel concepts and attitudes, largely through peer influences, while attending college, thus supporting Erikson’s theory and demonstrating long term durability of the early life experience.

In the Gurin paper, the authors draw on the work of Jean Piaget and Diane Ruble in extending the concept of disequilibrium, to the early learning experience. In Gurin’s words:

“Transitions are significant because they present new situations about which individuals know little and in which they will experience uncertainty. The early phase of transition, what Ruble calls construction, is especially important, since people have to seek information in order to make sense of the new situation. Under these conditions individuals are likely to undergo cognitive growth unless they are able to retreat to a familiar world.”

In simple terms (that even a cardiologist would understand) the greater the difference between the students prior life experience and the learning environment in which they find themselves, the greater potential for new thought, new concepts and personal growth.

The Michigan Student Survey (MSS) and Cooperative Institutional Research Program (CIRP) are longitudinal studies examining, among other things, how diverse education processes influence attitudes and career success. The MSS is a single site study involving 1,582 students. The CIRP is a national cooperative involving 11,383 students from 184 American institutions. Both involved racially and culturally diverse populations of students assessed on the basis of their pre-university and university cultural environments i.e. their “diversity experience”. For detailed description of results, I would refer the reader to Gurin et al. Harvard Educational Review 2002;72:330. The key findings relevant to those considering diversity initiatives in university programs:

  • There was a positive relationship between diversity experiences and educational outcomes
  • The influence of a diverse educational environment was consistent across schools and cultural groups
  • “interactional” diversity was more influential than “classroom diversity”

But are these effects also relevant to medical education, where one might suppose that students are older and further along developmentally, and perhaps pre-selected for cultural diversity and preparedness?

  • In 2003, Whitla and colleagues (Academic Medicine 78:460) reported on a study involving medical students at Harvard Medical School and the University of California, San Francisco. Students surveyed reported that contact with diverse peers enhanced their educational experience and supported ongoing affirmative action initiatives.
  • A graduation questionnaire administered by the Association of American Medical Colleges to 20,112 graduates from 118 medical schools (Saha et al, JAMA 2008; 300: 1135), demonstrated that, for white students, attendance at a school with high proportions of peers from underrepresented minorities was associated with greater confidence in caring for minority patients and positive attitudes regarding equity issues. These associations were not found for non-white students.
  • Niu and colleagues (Academic Medicine 2012; 87: 1530) surveyed 460 Harvard medical students and found that those who reported spending more than 75% of their study time with students from diverse backgrounds or having participated in diversity related extracurricular activities felt more prepared to care for diverse patients.

And so, it seems Mr. Black’s experience in 1931 was not simply an isolated event, but indicative of the potential for great things to emerge when open minds are exposed to new situations, new social constructs, new paradigms. The value of Diversity in education is about much more than a need to exhibit “fairness” and some notion of social justice, but rather an active educational intervention capable of expanding the vision, imagination and therefore potential of students.

So, what does all this psychosocial theory and American experience say to those of us engaged in medical education in Canada in 2014? We might feel, with some justified smugness, that we are not faced with the same social divides and engrained class issues as our southern neighbours. We might also take solace in the knowledge that our schools are uniformly committed to the concepts of equity, fairness and diversity in the workplace, and have rather rigorous policies in place intended to ensure the issue of structural diversity. However, we might also see this as an opportunity to enhance our approaches to medical education, where the ability to effectively engage people of diverse backgrounds and with diverse needs would seem particularly relevant. Finally, many in 2014 Canada might define Diversity as more of a socioeconomic as opposed to racial/ethnic issue, given the well-documented struggles of our First Nations and immigrant populations. With all this in mind, I pose a few perhaps unsettling questions for consideration:

  • Do our students engage in medical school in the type of passive and active learning environment that theories and studies suggest could truly influences their development as physicians?
  • Do our policies, which focus largely on identifying numbers and proportions of various groups in our school relative to the general population, truly promote the development of that effective learning environment, or simply attempt to demonstrate token compliance with regulations?
  • Our students, raised in and drawn from a Canadian culture that promotes equity and fairness, are good and instinctively fair people, unfailingly tolerant of diverse individuals and eager to contribute, but do they develop a deep understanding of the issues of those less-advantaged, and are we, as the stewards of their education, doing all we can to develop a learning environment that will promote that understanding?

Can we do better? Can’t help but think so.

My next article will focus on initiatives currently in place and being undertaken here at Queen’s to enhance the student experience through Diversity initiatives. As always, your input is welcome.

Many thanks to Sarah Wickett, Health Informatics Librarian, Bracken Library, for her valuable assistance in the compilation of information for this article.

 

 

8 Responses to The Educational Value of Diversity

  1. Karen Schultz says:

    Tony, as usual an interesting and thought provoking blog. It makes sense that diversity and opportunities to truly understand that diversity, set up such rich opportunities to broaden and deepen us all (not to mention other very important impacts). I look forward to your next blog and seeing if there’s even more we can be doing.
    Karen Schultz
    FM Program Director

  2. Michael Sylvester says:

    Well done, Tony! You drew me in with that marvelous story, then used theory and evidence to move me gently away from my default position (we’re ethically obliged to foster equal representation) to something better: interactions with new and different people – especially for young minds – is fundamentally good education!

  3. David Walker says:

    Tony – you drew me in and I became more and more fascinated by what I read. I lost track of time! Bravo

  4. Lori Rand says:

    A topic near and dear to my heart. Great read! If you haven’t already checked them out, here are a few other of my favourites – Pascarella and Terenzini, and Arthur Chickering.

Leave a Reply to Lori Rand Cancel reply

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