Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Confronting Contradiction: Diversity Experiences at School and University

Academic journal article Perspectives in Education

Confronting Contradiction: Diversity Experiences at School and University

Article excerpt


Despite the fact that national and institutional policies address the importance of transformation and the embracing of diversity across the South African higher education sector, in practice on our campuses and within our classrooms, we still have a long way to go in the pursuit of a more equitable higher education environment. While existing research (for example, Ministry of Education, 2008; Soudien, 2010) has analysed and provided evidence of the lack of meaningful transformation within the sector, a great deal remains to be done, particularly in understanding the many and complex factors influencing the manner in which students respond to diversity encounters. In seeking to better understand diversity and transformation in practice, rather than policy, this article considers the manner in which first-year students experience diversity encounters when entering university. In addition, the research started from the assumption that, in order to understand diversity encounters at university, it is necessary to also understand the conditions that exist for students prior to university (i.e., at school). As such, the research design included both high school learners and first-year university students, thus enabling the construction of a rich account of the factors that impact on how students experience diversity.

In this article, I draw on the capabilities approach (CA), as developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, to theorise the complexities and contradictions that emerge from students' and learners' encounters with diversity. The paper thus contributes to the growing body of work on higher education and human development, a body of work firmly situated within a social justice agenda (Boni & Walker, 2013). The Oxford English Dictionary defines diverse as being "of different kinds", and diversity as "variety".1 Using these definitions as the starting point, I approach the topic of diversity encounters across two dimensions. The first is related to encounters with different kinds of people (commonly referred to as encounters with 'the other'), and the second is about encounters with different kinds of ideas and ways of knowing. Understanding both of these dimensions is critical in the case of higher education, particularly given the role of higher education in the "socialisation of enlightened, responsible and constructively critical citizens", as was articulated as one of the four purposes of higher education in the 1997 White Paper and reiterated in slightly different wording in the newly released White Paper for Post-School Education and Training (Ministry of Education, 1997: 7-8; Department of Higher Education and Training, 2013).

The article begins with a brief introduction to the key tenets of the CA, followed by an overview of the study methodology. Thereafter, I present the empirical data demonstrating how first-year students and high school learners experience diversity. The paper then shows how the CA provides a helpful lens for interpreting the various complexities and contradictions that emerge from the data, and so potentially opens up new avenues for interventions that seek to build diverse, democratic and socially equitable university spaces.

Agency, freedoms and capabilities

The CA is particularly useful for research focused on social justice, because it emphasises the role of education and higher education in developing "complete citizens who can think for themselves, criticize tradition, and understand the significance of another person's sufferings and achievements" in addition to the more commonly noted instrumental purposes such as skills development and preparation for employment (Nussbaum, 2010: 2). The CA requires that we consider what people are able to be and to do, and what they value being and doing, or put differently, their well-being (Nussbaum, 2012, 2000; Sen, 1992, 1999). Capabilities refer to the opportunities or freedoms available for a person to achieve what s/he values, irrespective of whether s/he chooses to make use of the opportunity or not. …

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