The Supreme Court listened anew 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 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.
A given college may be a heterogeneous archipelago. But most of its students spend the bulk of their time on one of many homogeneous islands.
That’s consistent with the splintered state of America today, but it’s a betrayal of education’s mission to challenge ingrained assumptions, disrupt entrenched thinking, broaden the frame of reference.
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.
David Reingold, dean of the college of liberal arts at Purdue University, told me: “When I walk around university campuses, it feels like they haven’t changed a whole lot in terms of self-segregation. Those tendencies are as pronounced as they were 30 years ago. And I don’t think universities have figured out ways for students to build connectivity.”
In too many cases, they’ve done the opposite, indulging students’ desires for self-affirming enclaves – be they fraternity houses or “safe spaces” – and failing to push back when students tune out voices they find unpleasant and blot out viewpoints they find unsettling.
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?
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.
They’re in a special position to do that.
“College is a place where trust-fund kids, Pell Grant kids and all these people who would not normally be together in our society are living in very close proximity, and we need to take advantage of that,” Carol Quillen, president of Davidson College, near Charlotte, North Carolina, acknowledged.
Davidson is coaxing campus organizations and even using off-campus trips to orchestrate conversations between white and black students, between religious students and atheists, between budding Democrats and nascent Republicans. By prioritizing these kinds of exchanges, the school sends the message that they matter every bit as much as the warmth and validation of a posse of like-minded people.
At Denison University, near Columbus, Ohio, there are special funds available to campus groups that stage events with other, dissimilar groups. Adam Weinberg, the college’s president, told me that he’d attended a Seder at which Jewish students played host to international students from China.
And he said the school was examining everything from the layout of campus walkways to the architecture of common areas to try to ensure that students’ paths crossed more frequently than they diverged.
“We have a group of students and faculty meeting to think about our quad and how can we make some small changes that would bring back a public square where students might congregate,” he told me.
Schools should use academic requirements to make sure that students don’t travel a tract that’s too confining and idiosyncratic not just in intellectual terms but in social and demographic ones, too. For example, some science and math concentrations draw a disproportionate number of male students; if those students are not forced to take courses outside their majors, there’s a profound gender imbalance in their academic lives.
If colleges are trying to endow their students with an appreciation for, and fluency in, diversity, why aren’t they doing a better job of promoting study abroad? Only about 10 percent of U.S. college students engage in such programs, according to the Institute of International Education. Most of those programs aren’t even the length of a full semester.
And the most popular ones aren’t in exotic places but, naturally, Western Europe. Britain draws more U.S. college students than any other country, followed in order by Italy, Spain and France. These young men and women are broadening their worlds, sure, but with a minimum of real disruption and a maximum of Guinness, bucatini and chorizo.
If colleges were as deeply invested in making sure that their students confronted diversity as in amusing and coddling them, they’d work harder than they do to change that.
More schools would require students to mingle in, and even contribute to, the cities and towns around them. They’d also pay greater heed to how gagged so many politically conservative faculty members and students feel.
In the process, they’d prove that admissions practices aimed at diversity aren’t just liberal, politically correct reflexes. They’re the vital first step toward a college experience that does what it should: unveil the complexity and splendor of the world, and prepare students to be thoughtful citizens of it.
The New York Times