Learning about Social Diversity

By Henderson-King, Donna; Kaleta, Audra | Journal of Higher Education, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Learning about Social Diversity


Henderson-King, Donna, Kaleta, Audra, Journal of Higher Education


The Undergraduate Experience and Intergroup Tolerance

Past research on the effects of a liberal arts education has generally supported the ubiquitous view that students develop more liberal sociopolitical attitudes across the duration of their undergraduate education (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991). In this article we highlight evidence to the contrary and introduce recent research designed to assess changes in intergroup tolerance across a single semester of undergraduate education. In particular, we examine how shifts in feelings about social groups are affected by undergraduate experiences that focus on social diversity.

A sizeable body of research conducted over the past three decades has generally found that a liberal arts education is associated with an increase in humanitarianism and a sense of civic responsibility (Astin, 1977; Pascarella, Ethington, & Smart, 1988); a greater interest in and more liberal attitudes toward a variety of social and political issues (Anderson & Bryjak, 1989; Astin, 1977; Astin & Kent, 1983; Gallup, 1975; Hall, Rodeghier, & Useem, 1986; Nosow & Robertson, 1973; Rich, 1976; 1977); and greater regard for civil rights and higher levels of tolerance related to social, racial, and ethnic diversity (Chickering, 1970; Finney, 1974; Nunn, Crockett, & Williams, 1978; Rich, 1980; Winter, McClelland, & Stewart, 1981). Some of this work has taken a cross-sectional approach, comparing groups of students at different points in their education. For example, college graduates have been compared with high-school graduates and have been found to be more tolerant of social nonconformity (Nunn et al., 1978). Bas ed on a cohort of 1964 high-school graduates, Montero (1975) found that those who went on to complete four years of undergraduate education were subsequently more supportive of civil liberties than those who did not. Anderson and Bryjak (1989) compared students from four different years of undergraduate education and found a positive relationship between class standing and awareness of social issues. Their findings also suggest a positive association between level of awareness and the degree to which students adopted liberal views of these issues. Longitudinal studies have similarly found evidence of a liberalizing trend across the undergraduate years. Students' attitudes, values, and political views generally shift away from conservatism and traditionalism, and toward liberalism, during their tenure as undergraduates (e.g., Alwin, Cohen, & Newcomb, 1991; Newcomb, Koenig, Flacks, & Warwick, 1967).

Threats to this view of a liberal arts education have typically included arguments that it is the broader social environment, rather than college per se, which has a liberalizing effect on young people (Rich, 1977) or that apparent links between level of education and tolerance do not extend beyond abstract principles to the endorsement of governmental policy or action (Jackman, 1978). Others have shown that a shift toward greater liberalism or tolerance does not occur among all students but that certain subgroups of students are especially likely to exhibit shifts in their values and attitudes (e.g., Astin & Kent, 1983; Chickering, 1970; Rich, 1976; 1980). In particular, Rich (1976; 1977) has reported that an important predictor of liberalism among students is the number of courses they have taken in which social and political issues are predominant. Students' self-reports of the number of such classes taken were positively related to their liberalism as well as their knowledge about local and international politics.

In contrast to the substantial body of evidence that a liberal arts education fosters increased liberalism, there have been some findings of little or no change among undergraduate populations (McClintock & Turner, 1962; Plant, 1965). More recently, researchers have been suggesting that although substantial shifts toward a more liberal world view may have been characteristic of undergraduate education in the past, in the current environment such shifts are not as large as has previously been found (Dey, 1989; Wilder, Hoyt, Surbeck, Wilder, & Carney, 1986). …

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