Reshape Universities Because of “Stereotype Threat”?

Roger Clegg, Minding the Campus, June 2, 2010

An Inside Higher Ed article yesterday by English professor Satya P. Mohanty of Cornell on “Diversity’s Next Challenges” {snip} features, in particular, an argument suggesting that “stereotype threat”–the claim that fear of being judged by a stereotype can cause minorities to do much less well on a test than they should–requires that universities and all of society must be restructured before minorities can be expected to succeed.

{snip} Professor Mohanty has extrapolated [the] claimed findings [of stereotype-threat research] to a broader one, that the “culture of our campuses,” indeed the entire “culture of learning,” needs to be restructured with the aim of fostering racial trust. Merely admitting a diverse student body is not enough: We must “think about what our campuses feel like to those who come to learn.” Campuses must be perceived as “trustworthy” by these students. And this means that campus culture must be “more open, democratic, and genuinely attentive to the experience of different social groups.” {snip}

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Needless to say, it would be a mistake to think that the problem of stereotype threat should be solved by encouraging students to think of themselves as individuals. To the contrary, we must recognize “the importance of group identification for the psychological well-being of those who are from socially marginalized groups.” Group identities are a good thing; indeed, even the resulting conflicts are just fine and should be “normalize[ed],” since such conflict is “a potential source of knowledge, a vitally important knowledge in a democratic society that thrives on difference . . .”

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Professor Mohanty’s piece appeared a day after Inside Higher Ed’s rival The Chronicle of Higher Education published a piece by the Century Foundation’s Richard D. Kahlenberg, arguing, as he long has, for the replacement of race-based affirmative action with wealth-based preferences. {snip} Having done this, we must “question our deeper assumptions about what success is” and “rethink some of our most basic theoretical assumptions.”

One of those is “the nature and value of what is called ‘objectivity.'” In particular, “genuine objectivity” need not embrace “neutrality”–colorblindness–where “unfairness is built into the environment”: “What seems fair and just to a member of one social group is not in fact experienced in the same way by members of a group that is, say, the target of negative social stereotypes.”

So, really, you have a remarkable amount of the usual nonsense compressed into one piece here: Our whole educational system–indeed, our whole society–is rife with discriminatory assumptions and attitudes that explain why some groups don’t do as well as others, that the solution is to change the way universities (and, ultimately, all society, which of course must be led by our universities) operate so that all students succeed, that identity politics and even conflict is good, that more federal spending on and control of education is essential, and that objectivity is a fraud, or at least it is if you define it as neutral rather than as, well, subjective.

But here’s the irony: Professor Mohanty unwittingly does a fine job of refuting most of the rest of his piece in this one sentence that begins his penultimate paragraph:

“One of the most revealing experiments . . . showed that what targets of negative stereotype threat respond to most favorably is a clear message that while the test is tough the evaluation will be fair–that the students’ social identities will not be a factor in the way their academic performance is judged.”

Precisely. {snip} The test can be “tough”–don’t dumb it down to ensure that everyone succeeds–so long as the students know that “social identities” aren’t weighed, one way or the other. Universities cannot keep it a secret when they have different admission standards, and they will not fool the students when post-admission policies are jerry-rigged with an eye on politically correct equal outcomes either.

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And how could it be otherwise? If a university has one set of admission standards for one group, but it lowers them for another group, it will inevitably feed stereotype threat rather than thwart it. The same is true if begins changing post-admission standards.

Rather than obsessively defining and redefining diversity, and trying to calibrate what effect this or that kind of diversity has on this or that vague aspect of “the learning environment,” universities would be better advised to focus on hiring smart professors who are best qualified to find the truth in particular disciplines and impart it to students who are, in turn, chosen as the most qualified to do work at the intellectual level demanded by that university.

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The fact of the matter is that “the future of diversity” means “the future of racial and ethnic preferences.” And focusing on superficial characteristics like skin color and what country someone’s ancestors came from is, besides being divisive and unfair and legally dubious, simply not a good way to select the most talented and valuable individuals. {snip}

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