Frank Bruni, New York Times, December 12, 2015
The Supreme Court listened anew last week to arguments about affirmative action in higher education, and we heard yet again about the push by colleges to assemble diverse student bodies.
That’s a crucial effort.
It’s also an incomplete and falsely reassuring one.
Have you spent much time on campuses lately? Leafed through schools’ promotional literature? Listened to their come-ons?
If so, you’ve probably noticed how often they promise students academic and social experiences customized to their already-established preferences, tailor-fitted to their predetermined interests, contoured to the particular and peculiar niches they want to inhabit.
There’s a profusion of affinity groups. There are themed living arrangements that allow students with similar backgrounds and overlapping hobbies to huddle together. In terms of curriculum, there’s enormous freedom, which can translate into the ability to chart and stick to a narrow path with fellow travelers whose perspectives are much the same as yours.
So even if a school succeeds in using its admissions process to put together a diverse student body, it often fails at the more important goal that this diversity ideally serves: meaningful interactions between people from different backgrounds, with different scars and different ways of looking at the world.
In that sense it’s a betrayal as well of affirmative action, which isn’t merely a matter of cultural and economic redress and isn’t just about social mobility (though those are plenty worthy aims). It’s about an optimal learning environment for all students: white as well as black, privileged as well as underprivileged.
That environment hinges on what happens after admissions.
As Ronald Shaiko, a senior fellow at Dartmouth College’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Center, wrote in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2013, “The benefits of diversity do not spontaneously arise merely from the presence of a varied student body.”
Shaiko professed amazement at so much toil “to create diverse incoming classes” but so little to “nudge students into interactions outside of their comfort zones.”
“Without such nudges, students will default to sameness,” he concluded. That’s the human way. We’re clannish. Tribal.”
One of the most striking aspects of what we’ve seen and read about recently at an array of colleges, including Yale, Brown and Amherst, is some students’ insistence not just that their viewpoints be acknowledged and respected but that contrary ones be discredited, renounced, purged.
Is that where diversity was supposed to lead us?
I don’t think so, and I think we’re surrendering an enormous opportunity by not insisting that colleges be more aggressive in countering identity politics, tamping down partisan fury, pulling students further outside of themselves and establishing common ground.