Associate Professor of Sociology
Biola University

Ethnic and minority diversity on university campuses continues to increase. As Christians, we recognize that equitable treatment for all students is our responsibility, but often we do not know which attitudes and behaviors may be misunderstood by ethnic and/or minority students. This paper seeks to (1) identify specific issues which may help us develop more effective strategies for bringing about and maintaining equity in the classroom; and (2) help us understand that educating for equity in the midst of diversity is not one of passive avoidance, but rather of active risk-taking, peacemaking, and reconciliation.


Should Christian education emphasize knowledge or action? Christian education in modern Western societies has never been content merely with "knowledge for knowledge's sake." Its aims have always included changes in behavior and actions toward a better world. However, working out the tension, or balance, between knowledge and right action has never been easy.

 In every historical context Christian educators have had to work at two dimensions of the knowledge/action problem. On the one hand, how did their strategies of education affect the knowledge-action issue? On the other hand, how did the ethical issues that demanded Christian action as they emerged in that situation influence the "curriculum" of their education?

 The challenge to Christian educators, then, consists of identifying those emergent issues of diversity and developing the best possible educational processes to enable the Christian community to contribute to "setting things right." Or to restate the question, how can Christian education more effectively help people discern and participate in responding to the issues of diversity on our campus?

 There are five basic assumptions which I make concerning the challenge of educating for equity in the midst of diversity: (1) our society today is dangerously unjust and unpeaceful; (2) our society does not have to be that way; (3) neither God nor most human beings want our society to be that way; (4) our Christian tradition gives us a vision of how our society could and should be, as well as guidance about how to move toward that vision; and (5) as Christian educators we can have a modest but significant part in bringing about meaningful equity in the classroom. That is our challenge. Our question is how. 

A biblical approach requires theological and ethical coherence if our students, as well as colleagues, are to care for each other. Educating for equity and justice should encompass four components of ethical decision-making: (1) exploring the biblical-theological vision expressed in Scripture (teaching a liberating hermeneutic); (2) analyzing realities of the human-social situation that enhance or block the vision of equity and justice (awareness and analysis of the realities that impinge on us and others); (3) identifying specific choices and action opportunities that approximate the vision (developing habits of advocacy to accompany acts of service, and to approach issues in ways that develop prophetic consciousness); and (4) clarifying middle-range norms (social values and goals) at stake in, and served by, specific actions (engaging in the task of contextual social ethics--exploring the social philosophy and values served by specific issues and evaluating in light of biblical thought) (Seifert, 1983:545).

 Educating for equity needs to encompass all four components and explore each in depth through a continuous cycle of awareness, analysis, action, and reflection. Our objective as equity educators should be to develop the university's capability in these four components.


In light of these assumptions, let me give an example of a way I have engaged in education for equity with groups of adult educators. First, I ask them to share with one another in groups of seven or eight two tasks: (1) Describe an experience in your life when you were most indignant because you saw something that you thought was wrong; (2) Describe an experience in your life when you were most pleased because you saw something you thought was right. The participants take an hour for that sharing and then write summaries of their examples on newsprint and post them around the room--the angry ones together and the excited ones together. During a break they will walk around and read each other's summaries, trying to see where any patterns emerge when they look at all of them together.

 The second step comes when I ask each of them to think about why they classified some as wrong, and others as right. What criteria did they use for their judgment? Then I ask the question "Where did you get those criteria?" Or, perhaps better, "Where do you get them?" After pondering that a little while, we discuss their answers and put them up on newsprint. Often one of the sad moments for me as a Christian educator comes when I see not what they put up, but what they leave out! The biblical and theological references named are usually restricted to the simple and familiar ones. Not much grounding on which to build an ethic for today's world! Nor is there much evidence of either social analysis or the use of ethical principles in their judgments and decisions.

 The model of biography proposed by C. Wright Mills (1961) that links individual experience to social phenomena in order to enrich an understanding of both social structure and personal problems is useful in opening up two lines for further development: the hermeneutical circle between the present situation and the tradition, especially the Bible, and the dialectic between the personal and the political in their lives. It also leads into social analysis and makes possible critical consciousness.This pedagogical action has some real advantages. It starts where people are. It uses what "operational" theology they already know. It can go beyond the cognitive when the most disturbing or exciting events with their emotional memories are recalled. It builds a community of sharing when it gets below the ordinary, urbane, polite discourse, and cumulatively frees persons to experience mutual learning. It exposes some of the gross social sins that sometimes form the basis for righteous indignation and provides the context for personal pain and joy.

 All of these positive values a good instructor can enjoy and build upon by using sensitivity along with specialized theological and ethical knowledge to enrich, challenge, and enhance the learning process. But it is only a very modest first step, for it lacks the power to transform persons or structures. It does not go far enough, however, to fulfill either of the two goals necessary for Christian education for equity: (1) helping students see what God is doing and wanting done among people in this world, and (2) helping students work with God to get it done. The process may help me and others clarify, but it does not yet commit us as instruments to be used by God to fulfill the prayer Christians pray: "Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven," or the much more concrete, "Give us this day our daily bread," when the "us" is the whole human community, not just those seated at my table!

 In order to help us see more effectively, and to develop a more critical consciousness and useful social analysis, we need to learn from and with those who are not what my dad calls "your kind of people." We must get beyond the ordinary social groupings if we are to discern cognitively what God sees as injustice and what God wants done for justice and peace. If we are to use our imaginations to bring together and enliven our theory and practice, we need to share a radical heterogeneity so as to achieve some relative liberation from the ideological cocoon within which we are constantly nurtured. We need some affirmative action guidelines in our Christian education.


Think of how great a portion of our time and energy is spent with people very much like ourselves. Our university makes it difficult for it to be otherwise. Our work structures and processes continue to push us further toward private living, often reinforcing a near cocoon existence. Yes, continuity of a structured community is necessary for our development and maintenance as individual selves, but that combination of continuity and homogeneity has its underside; namely, it traps us in cocoons where it is difficult to sense our common humanity working together to preserve it.

 That "cocoon," as I call it, is a way of understanding ideology and its enormous educating power over us all, for we are all educators in a system which is part of a larger system. If we include support staff as well as teachers, administrators, and students, three of every ten persons in the U.S. population participate directly in this system. Overall, some $230 billion will be spent on education this year. We are a part of it. We belong to it. We live in it, and we live off of it. Its day-to-day influence on our lives is incalculable. Its momentum is massive.

 The point for us here and now is that this educational system tends to reproduce the injustices in this society. Pierre Bourdieu and Claude Passeron (1977) have analyzed that reproductive function in France. But the same reproduction occurs here, and in all capitalistic countries. In fact, Basil Bernstein (1970) suggests that three stabilities are evident in every school system in every culture we know or have known: (1) the system separates mental from manual labor, and gives privilege to the mental; (2) the system exercises symbolic control in the society; and (3) while access to the system may be more or less widespread and open, acquisition of power through it is always limited and controlled.

 As educators we profit from and perpetuate these stabilities. If racism is one of the structured features of our society--and it is--then the educational system helps reproduce it. If sexism is a factor in our society--and it is--then schools help reproduce it. If cultural domination by the powerful is a characteristic of our society--and it is--then the educational system helps reproduce it. If class advantage of the rich over the poor is structured into our society--and it is--then schools help reproduce it. If a preferred language is structured into our society--and it is--then schools help reproduce it. We need to understand more adequately how our own structures, in particular Christian structures, tend to reproduce injustice.


Through intense critical inquiry, historic empirical studies of diversity have contributed in an important way to the changing role of Christianity in American minority relations and conflict resolution, for they have at least cut the intellectual ground out from under "theological" and "biblical" rationalizations for separatism and discrimination. Today, no person in the Christian community with any intelligence can take seriously old arguments about the inferiority of minorities.

 In spite of this, changes in the Christian university have been largely ideological and action does not yet, for the most part, keep pace with the theological emphases on the universalism of God's love, the individual's natural rights as revealed in the natural law, and brotherhood.

 It has been only recently that increasing student diversity in the classroom has heightened an awareness of our relative inability to be effective communicators. Through intensive studies of many cultures, research has also demonstrated that while all peoples have broadly similar capacities and face the same problems of living, they are subject in each situation to differing natural conditions and have hence developed diverse ways of meeting problems. No longer can the Christian professor meaningfully interact with people of diversity without a willingness to learn as well as teach. There must be ample time for students and professors to test each other out, to estimate reactions, and to familiarize themselves with the communication styles of other people(s) (Phillips and Ericksen, 1970:8).

 Perhaps the greatest problem in the Christian university then, is that they are conservative institutions in possession of a revolutionary gospel; exclusive groups founded upon inclusive theology. A re-examination of the infrastructure of Christian institutions would give much ground for hoping that universities which are Christian will move as a reforming force in the current crisis of increasing student diversity on American campuses.

 As non minorities learn more about minority cultures (e.g., how they are integrated, their historical and evolutionary development, processes of cultural change, and the nurturing of a learning environment which is distinctly biblical) Christian universities can become increasingly useful in the understanding and direction of intergroup relations within the academic community.


Since the arrival of significant numbers of diverse minority students, countless educators in predominantly Anglo-Christian institutions of higher learning have been concerned about the academic performance of these students. Research conducted during the past fifteen years has been rather consistent in identifying a variety of factors that influence the academic success of minority students. Those factors which are most often cited fall into distinct categories: prior educational background and achievement, environmental and familial support, level of student motivation and commitment, high teacher expectations of student achievement, as well as a pleasant institutional environment (Berube, 1984).

It is clear that the quality of early education (i.e., the exposure to intellectual content and the development of academic skills) is critically important to the success of minority students at the university (Weis, 1985). Nevertheless, a significant number of minority students lack appropriate skills in the areas of numerical and verbal literacy, analytical reading, and problem-solving. Furthermore, they have often not been exposed to meaningful coursework in the laboratory sciences, foreign languages, English writing, and mathematics. This lack of exposure, coupled with inadequate skills, often acts as an inhibiting factor in university-level course selection, decisions related to choice of majors, and ultimately flexibility of career options.

 Since many minority students are often the first persons in their families to attend college, they do not have the firmly established environmental and familial support structure that is common to many of their Anglo counterparts (Berube, 1984). Even the most well-meaning friends and family members are often not in the position to provide the helpful insights and much-needed encouragement that is based on personal collegiate experience. Consequently, minority students are frequently forced to "go it alone."

 Perhaps the most prevalent assumption, in a society which values the "rugged individual" and the "Horatio Alger myth," is that the ability of individual minority students to succeed is directly related to their level of motivation and commitment to the educational enterprise. Yet, when one closely and realistically examines the complex of issues (e.g., inferior prior education, the lack of environmental and familial support, and the built-in institutional hindrances) that mitigate against the role of the individual, it is obvious that the responsibility for success or failure does not reside primarily with the individual. Given the external barriers that have been described above, probably few minority students would be able to succeed if left completely to their own resources. If not the individual student, then who plays the crucial role in insuring that minority students are academically successful?

 Technically, because of contractual obligations, expertise, and power, the professor has major responsibility for the outcome of a particular course. Yet university students, as adults, share a significant responsibility for creating successful learning experience (Billson, 1986:143).

 However, two assumptions must be continually challenged: (1) equal educational opportunity produces equal educational attainment and increased economic opportunity for all classes; and (2) the deterministic notion implicit in the equal access-equal results formula that the meanings of mainstream culture are necessarily internalized by students. Students no longer passively accept those meanings (e.g., meritocratic achievement) even when they recognize that doing so would be in their best interest (Weis, 1985:124) because their practices are attempts to deal with a variety of conflicting attitudes and dispositions that pervade their marginal situation. I will argue that if we are willing to assume that a university education is not restricted to mere acquisition of facts or skills, but rather encompasses personal development, examination of values, learning to think creatively and analytically, and improving communication skills, then attention is warranted to instructional techniques that expand student/student and student/professor involvement in academically appropriate ways. For example, learning, achievement, and retention appear to be socially rooted phenomena (Astin, 1985; Tinto, 1982). Several retention studies (Noel, 1978; Astin, 1975; "University of Pittsburgh Retention Report," 1980; McCroskey and Sheahan, 1978) have concluded that students tend to persevere on those campuses where they feel a part of the community. Noel (1978) recommends that universities establish and maintain a supportive campus climate, which he terms a "staying" environment. The "University of Pittsburgh Retention Report" (1980) exhorts faculty "to assume responsibilities beyond those of providing solid classroom instruction: they must help students build self-confidence; they must seek ways to interact with students; they must be willing to serve, formally or informally in an advising capacity." Furthermore, informal interviews of alumni at a small midwestern Christian college (Jenkins, 1981) showed that the single most important thing that students felt they had gotten out of college was not something they had learned in a course or their preparation for employment but the relationship that they had formed with a faculty member.

 Apparently, in a climate of psychological safety students will feel more comfortable about "showing their ignorance" or displaying their knowledge, more willing to share experiences and expertise, and to disagree with the point of view of the professor (Kelley and Thibaut, 1954:778; Schein and Bennis, 1965).

 In discussing the concept of psychological safety, Benjamin (1978:7) states that the class climate affects the student's sense of belonging and whether or not he/she looks forward to class, participates, drops the class, or leaves the university altogether. A safe and friendly climate increases participation levels and class attendance.

 If these statements are true for majority students, then it is especially true for minority students, many of whom are attempting to function in an alien (and from their perspective), often hostile environment. Many times the responsibility for establishing strong faculty/student relationships with minority students falls to minority faculty and administrators. Although most minority academicians are more than cognizant of their role-model function for both minority and majority students, it is impossible for them to bear this responsibility alone, for one very obvious reason: they represent only a negligible percentage of the total faculty at most predominantly Anglo and male-dominated institutions. Given certain choices of majors and their concomitant course requirements, some minority students may never be taught by a minority faculty member during their tenure at most Christian colleges and universities. Consequently, the primary responsibility for teaching minority students continues to reside with predominantly male-Anglo tenured faculty.

 If minority students are to succeed academically, it is imperative that the interaction between them and faculty members be positive, encouraging, and, in general, conducive to academic growth. This is a difficult task in a society that has often so isolated and alienated racial groups that faculty members are frequently unaware of behaviors and attitudes that have a strikingly negative impact on their minority students (despite their good intentions).

 A university with interest in and commitment to the academic success of diverse students must assist its majority faculty members in developing pedagogy appropriate to the affective and cognitive needs of all students, as well as an awareness of the ways in which their relationships with minority students could be strengthened. Moreover, there must be a willingness to institutionalize curricular modifications, academic support services, and, in general, a campus ambience that is conducive to furthering academic excellence. In short, it is the responsibility, both moral and intellectual, of Christian colleges and universities to (1) weave minority students into the essential fabric of the institution and (2) meaningfully integrate minority scholarship into the curriculum. 



1. Avoiding eye contact with minority students while making eye contact with majority students.

2. Ignoring minority students while recognizing majority students. This behavior includes ignoring comments by minorities or not showing any recognition of their contribution.

3. Calling directly on majority students but not minority students.

4. Coaching majority students more than minority students in working toward a full answer by probing for additional elaboration or explanation.

5. Interrupting minority students more when they do respond.

6. Waiting longer for and responding more extensively to the comments of majority students. Also using a tone that communicates more interest with majority students and a patronizing or impatient tone with minorities.

7. Offering little guidance and criticism of the work minority students produce.

8. Attributing the success of minority students to luck or factors other than ability.

9. Maintaining physical distance by assuming a posture of attentiveness when majority students speak and habitually choosing a location nearer majority students.

10. Making seemingly helpful comments which imply that minority students are not as competent as majority students.

11. Ignoring the cultural contributions of minorities and using examples in such a way as to reinforce a stereotyped and negative view of minorities.

12. Reacting to comments or questions articulated in a minority language style as if it is inherently of less value.


1. Discourages classroom participation.

2. Discourages students from seeking help outside of class.

3. Leads students to drop or avoid certain classes, to switch majors or subspecialties within majors, and in some cases to leave a given institution.

4. Minimizes the development of collegial relationships with faculty that are important for future professional growth.

5. Leads students to question the extent to which faculty are actively and consistently modeling biblical behavior standards.

6. Undermines confidence.

7. "Dampens" career aspirations.


1. Pay particular attention to classroom interaction patterns during the first few weeks of class, and make a special effort to draw minorities into discussion during that time.

2. Respond to minority and majority students in similar ways when they make comparable contributions to class discussion by (1) developing comments; (2) crediting comments to their author; (3) coaching both minority and majority students for additional information.

3. Notice whether the language style of a minority student's comment, question, or response affects your own perception of its importance.

4. Notice patterns of interruption to determine if minority students are interrupted more than majority students either by yourself or by other students. Intervene in communication patterns among students that may shut out minorities.

5. Ask minority and majority students qualitatively similar questions and give minorities and majorities an equal amount of time to respond after asking a question.

6. Make eye contact with minority as well as majority students after asking a question to invite a response.

7. Make sure that minorities are not squeezed out by majority classmates from viewing lab demonstrations or engaging in other group assignments.

8. Assume an attentive posture when responding to questions from minorities or when listening to their comments.

9. Offer to meet with minority students to discuss academic and career goals, and to write reference letters when appropriate.

10. Include minority students in the informal interactions that can be important in communicating support and acceptance.

11. Become aware of contributions by minorities in your area and use examples when appropriate. The implications of certain theoretical perspectives for minorities may also be pertinent in certain disciplines.

12. Provide minorities with informal as well as formal feedback or constructive critique on the quality of their work. Watch for comments that may imply they are not as competent as majority students or that attribute their success to chance and their failure to lack of ability.(I wish to acknowledge the report, "The Classroom Climate: A Chilly One For Women?" [Project on the Status and Education of Women, Association of American Colleges, 1982] for helping organize some of my thoughts.)


 The greatest of life's resources lies mainly in the power to meet contemporary challenges. Resolving issues of diversity is not an easy task. There are no simple answers. It is not as easy as learning the alphabet or memorizing a set formula. Breaking down barriers that have stood for years will not be accomplished overnight. Nevertheless, if Christians are going to be the kind of people that God wants them to be, the attempts must be made. The challenge involves risk-taking.

 I want to be a risk-taker, but over the past few years I've noticed this growing tendency to cling more tenaciously to security and certainty, to protect myself from failure, to take fewer risks. And I don't like it. It's stifling. It kills the dreamer inside of me.

 However, I suspect I'm not alone. In fact we live in a society where most of us carry insurance to minimize almost every imaginable risk. We put warning labels on foods even though there is only one-in-a-million chance of their causing cancer. Our ancestors set sail in questionable boats for unknown lands. Today we roam our freeways "buckled for safety" while looking for motels where "the best surprise is no surprise at all." We want absolutes, sure things, guarantees, and warranties.

 We have become a society of vicarious risk-takers. We watch others take chances for us (i.e., in horror movies, TV crime shows, football, auto racing). There's no danger; the stakes aren't ours--there's no personal risk. 

Probably the greatest inhibitor of risk is humiliation. We will go to any length to minimize our public failures. But avoiding failure at all cost is the opposite of growth. Thomas J. Watson, the founder of IBM, once said, "the way to succeed is to double your failure rate."

 In the last recorded parable before his crucifixion, Jesus told the story of the talents (Luke 19:11-26). You've heard it before. In this parable Jesus seems to be saying there are only two kinds of people--the fruitful and the unfruitful. The fruitful are risk-takers. They refuse to let fear stifle them. On the other hand, the unfruitful live cautious, conservative, neat, tidy lives. They seldom make mistakes.

 Why are we so resistant to change? Why is change so difficult for each of us? We find a clue in the fact that Jesus likened us to sheep (stubborn, hostile, and self-willed) and, if this is true, perhaps this may be one of the reasons we have difficulty with change. We can begin to understand what our problem is as seen through His eyes. But whether we are basically innovators or reactionaries, there is no possibility for growth without change. To live is to change. To be alive is to be dynamic and adaptable.

 God calls us to be risk-takers--to not become paralyzed by fear. Theologian Helmut Thielicke (1967) argued that, "There are really only two ways to take a thing seriously. Either you renounce it or you risk everything for it. Either you fling away the pound (talent, opportunity) or you use it and trade with it. There is no third choice."

 Educating for equity means that I not only want my students to be warm and loving--I want them to be knowledgeable and competent. I think it is the same in the field of Christian influence. God is sovereign particularly in the field of Christian influence and persuasion. He doesn't need us and could influence people directly if it so pleased Him. But for whatever reason, God has chosen us as His representatives, usually making His appeal to people through us. We can be humanly competent as we seek to persuade, or we can butcher the job. God can overrule our bumbling efforts, but it is irresponsible to expect God to do so if we haven't taken the trouble to discover the best possible means of influence. As Christian influencers for equity it behooves us to learn these principles so that we will be cooperating with the Holy Spirit rather than working against Him.

 Where is God calling us to take risks? An education which is biblical can be the answer for minority students' needs if the Christian university can and is willing to become a powerful force in the area of intergroup relations. The university must have courage to set the example for and lead others to a biblical understanding and model for equitable and just behavior in intergroup relations. At this juncture, it is necessary to remember that "every social problem affecting multitudes of people is also a problem for each individual member of those multitudes (Moberg, 1968:131).

 We must be ever remindful that peacemaking efforts in the midst of diversity are not efforts of passive avoidance, but rather of active risk-taking, peacemaking, and reconciliation.

 Where do we go from here? Do whatever is necessary, but do so that we may remain one!


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This is a revised version of a paper presented at Biola University's Presidential Luncheon Series, October 20, 1986. The author wishes to thank Judith Lingenfelter, Sherwood Lingenfelter, and Marty Martinez for advice and discussion which helped shape the paper.