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Minding the Campus


A Look At Real Diversity

March 17, 2009

By John H. McWhorter

I have been teaching a class at Columbia on Western Civilization since September.

The class is highly diverse. By that, I mean that among the 21 students there is an Orthodox Jew, a child of Russian immigrants, and a couple of Korean-Americans. Plus a Chinese-American. And one of them grew up in France; just why she has no accent I have never been quite sure, but culturally she is more French than American. One student is even seven feet tall. And Catholic.

Yes, I have had four black students, and a few Latino ones. They're "diverse" too.

This has been a lesson for me in the benefits of diversity in education. Back in my days as a Berkeley linguistics prof, I was teaching linguistics, a scientific field in which there was little coherent concept of a "diverse" contribution: subordinate clauses have no ethnicity.

But here is a class on the intellectual heritage of our civilization. This is the kind of class that fans of racial preferences in university admissions tell us will be enriched by diversity.

And I heartily agree that discussion in my class would have been much less interesting and rewarding if all of the students were upper-middle-class white kids from the suburbs. If Columbia has created this vibrant mixture by attending to more than grades and test scores in composing their student body, then I applaud them mightily. I was in love with my students after a week and a half and will miss them immensely.

However, my year's experience has given no demonstration whatsoever of the benefit of diversity as we are supposed to tacitly understand it: i.e. the presence of black and Latino students alone.

The notion is that brown students are crucial in bringing their insights to class as members of minority groups with certain histories (shorthand for the notion that, say, Koreans and Jews don't count). And to be sure, oppression, injustice, historical legacies and stereotyping have occasionally come up in class. Plato, our first writer, had Socrates' guardians presiding over faceless masses condemned to inherited class levels. Hegel breezily dismissed Africans as backwards.

However, quite regularly, the non-brown students are as quick to bring up the problems with these perspectives as the brown ones. On the Hegel position for instance, the students most vocally offended were the Russian immigrants' son and a Jewish daughter of academic parents. My observation here is ordinary. "My own experience and that of colleagues with whom I have discussed the question," writes the former dean of the University of Michigan law school Terence Sandalow, "is that racial diversity is not responsible for generating ideas unfamiliar to some members of the class." He continues "I cannot recall an instance in which, for example, ideas were expressed by a black student that have not also been expressed by white students."

I have been quite happy to have my black and Latino students in the class - as individuals. After the rich experience we have had over the past school year, discussing substantial works by such a vast number of thinkers through the ages, for me to cherish them because of the color of their skin would be vapid at best and condescending at worst.

Am I oversimplifying by referring to pigment rather than life experience? Let's go with that, and yet. We have delved into Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and its rigorous characterization of the nature of virtue; sampled the glumness of the Hebrew Bible; grappled with the torturous musings of St. Augustine; decoded the Qur'an; guiltily savored the chilly pragmatism of Machiavelli; wrapped our heads around Rousseau's "noble savage" concept in which early man was solitary and devoid of the powers of comparison or affection; endured the thicket of Kant's reasoning; toured early America with Tocqueville - and what I am most interested in hearing from my black and brown students about this protean, majestic legacy of thought about the nature of being human is that a lot of the kids they went to school with came from richer families than they did?

Is that all they are? Within the context of this class material, is that even a significant part of what they are, as human beings like the other human beings in the class? They don't seem to think so. To insist that they are missing something would minimize, not acknowledge, them as human beings.

And thus I cannot condone the idea that for the purpose of "diversity" analyzed in this way, a university should have separate standards of admission for black and Latino students. Ivy schools like Columbia do not to any appreciable degree, and I detect no difference in preparation or curiosity between my brown students and the others.

However, at selective schools below this elite level, the "diversity" rationale has been used to justify setting up unofficial two-tiered student bodies of the sort that, for example, only Proposition 209, the 1995 ban on racial preferences, prevents the University of California from recreating even today. The nationwide trend towards bans of this kind of late, in Michigan, Washington State, and Texas, is long overdue, and contrary to claims of "resegregation," it is a moral advance. The "diverse" contribution that black and brown students purportedly offer is not important enough to a college education to justify elevating difference over performance.

It certainly isn't even to them -- "diverse" students don't enjoy being called on it. "We are not here to provide diversity training for Kate or Timmy," black undergrads at Harvard have written in a guidebook for black students. In a poll of minority graduates of the University of Michigan's law school from 1970 to 1996 asking which of seven aspects of their education they had most valued at the school, the top two were "faculty ability as teachers" and "intellectual abilities as classmates." They rated "ethnic diversity of classmates" and "being called on in class" at the very bottom.

In that light I shudder to imagine objectifying my black students by focusing attention on them when we discussed W.E.B. Du Bois. It's also instructive to imagine asking a middle-class black student precisely what "diversity" she brings to a campus -- as opposed to a Mormon, a lesbian, or someone who raises clams as a hobby.

On some level, anyone knows that there is no "diverse" perspective on irregular verbs, systolic pressure, the Franco-Prussian War, or the vast bulk of what a liberal arts education consists of. However, public discussion of racial preferences is infected with memes such as that it has been "proven" that in some occult way, diversity improves a college education anyway.

are to take Terence Sandalow's observation, for example, as mere "anecdote" in comparison to the notorious "Gurin Report" often mentioned - albeit rarely read - during the Supreme Court's evaluation of the admissions procedures of the University of Michigan in 2003. But Patricia Gurin did not show that diversity leads to better grades and test scores. She showed that students who went to schools with "diverse" segments of the student body gave positive answers to a list of self-assessing questions as to whether they were good blue-American NPR-listening sorts. Sample: "Do you think about the influence of society on other people?" Who would answer no? This report proves nothing about whether diversity makes for a "better" education.

The whole notion of the "black" perspective in my class falls apart the closer you look. Only one is a "native" black American. One is the child of African parents, and is more "diverse" amidst the class in his Christian faith and double life as a campus athlete (along with the seven-foot white Catholic). Two have a white parent, but of them, one is so light-skinned that you would only know she was black upon her telling you, which refracts her experience as a "black" person considerably. Is this still an interesting "diversity of black experiences"? Perhaps, but what does it have to do with engaging with Thomas Aquinas' proofs of the existence of God?

And meanwhile, certainly the most consistently and usefully "diverse" opinions and observations in the class have come from the Orthodox Jew, who firmly believes that the Old Testament is prophecy from on high, is fluent in Hebrew, and is part of a culture more distinct from mainstream America's than any culture evinced by my brown students.

My inability to cherish my brown students as the invaluable quintessence of diverseness is in no way "conservative." For example, I am all for adjusting admissions procedures to account for class as opposed to race. If a brown student went to a school where there were no Advanced Placement classes or had a tough home life and yet gives all indication of being a hungry and diligent student, less-than-astounding SATs should not keep him from admission to a good school.

This is also true, however, of his white equivalent. By the time I left U.C. Berkeley in 2002, admissions were based not on pigment but hardship. This meant admitting brown people who had grown up the hard way - but also white ones and Asian ones. It felt right.

I understand inequality. I understand diversity in its true meaning. What I will not understand is tokenism under a new name.

Yes, tokenism. How the "diversity" notion plays out on the ground gets lost amidst the usual claims that racial preferences have been justified with impregnable logic by William Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River (despite conclusive rebuttals by writers such as Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom and Larry Purdy) and fond recollections of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor’s arbitrary - and comfortingly generous - designation after the Michigan decision in 2003 of 25 years as the ideal further lifespan for racial preferences. In the name of enlightenment, this post-modern notion of diversity dehumanizes the people it purports to elevate.

I sense a crack in the dam on this issue lately. Barack Obama's comment that he would not want his children to get special treatment in admissions was an example, hopefully to be followed in the future. Espousing preferences based on class rather than race is acceptable to more than a few black movers and shakers - I recently found none other than Amiri Baraka to be among them.

Or, not long ago I watched the president of a top university make a speech in which the point was that campus diversity policies should not seek only, or even mostly, black Americans, but should focus on genuine diversity, including foreigners, poor people, rural folk. This was very carefully worded, with the usual buzz words despite the content. In our moment, no university head could express such a message straight out in readily quotable form and keep their job. However, if you were listening, the message was clear.

Just as viewers of art in the fifteenth century had trouble processing the depiction of perspective in paintings at first, the audience questioners did not seem to even pick up on the fact that they had heard a unique speech. They assumed, based on tradition and habit, that it had been a perhaps slightly circumlocutory version of the usual earnest call to submit blacks and Latinos to tokenism under the name of "inclusion." However, the speech was a first step.

Not a step "past race," mind you. Neither I nor my black students are under any "post-racial" impression. When the African immigrants' son asks me, in his American Black English cadence, "Where'd you get your haircut, man?" we know we are black. One of the black women told me in office hours early on she was glad to have a black professor, and we have often discussed the Obama phenomenon and other race issues of the day. I suspect she is the student in the class I'll still be in touch with ten years from now.

That's all fine. But none of that has anything to do with getting anything meaningful out of Descartes. I deplore - and suspect my brown students would as well - the idea that they would be admitted to Columbia or any other university on the basis of how fascinating their choice of hair stylist is, how they feel about Barack Obama's speeches, or even unpleasant encounters they may have had with the police.

The course I have been teaching has taken me and my students through an ever clearer understanding over the millennia of the fundamental equality of each person. As Kant specified, it is our highest duty that each person is to be treated as an end in himself or herself. As a fellow actor, acting for their own ends, and only that.

If we consent to the notion that brown students be admitted to universities as means for white people to show that they aren't racists by listening to stories of oppression, and as means for certain black people to show whites that they are angry that the playing field isn't perfectly level, then we fall out of step with true enlightenment on how humans should treat one another.

The eternal tragedy of history is that its injustices leave us still human in all of our diversities, subject to the same present-tense exigencies inherent to humanity, to seek self-realization from ourselves. We have only triumphed over the injustices of history in treating all humans not as means but as ends - that is, as selves, their selves, i.e. like we treat our own selves.

The sense today that this is a "conservative" take on race is interesting, given that Kant was one of the foundations of classical liberal thought. All I know is this.

I have been teaching a class on Western Civilization since September.

It is highly diverse.

My brown students are no less -- but no more -- meaningfully "diverse" than the others.

And in our class, together in all of our diversities, we have had a multifaceted and utterly human journey.

Original Source:



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