Monday, May 4, 2009

On the Difficulties of Building Diversity

The other day I started crafting a great post about how to make affirmative action more effective. For the record, I happen to oppose affirmative action, but diversity is one of those things that all large state universities - yes, even Texas A&M - talk about. Well, I got to work devising an amazing system which would not only account for race and gender, but also country or state of origin, political and religious views, prospective major, all kinds of things... I was going to get as close to ensuring diversity of thought and experience - and the accompanying intellectual vigor - as any government scheme could get.

But then several problems cropped up. First, most states only want diversity within narrow bounds. Arizona has very low out-of-state tuition, which has been pulling talent to the state for decades; however, this is more the exception than the rule. In Texas, there is a keen sense that Texas schools are for Texans only. This attitude, coupled with the state's clandestine affirmative action program, means that only 4% of students at Texas A&M are from outside the state.* There are days you can feel the intellectual insularity in the classroom when you are teaching undergraduates. Students would benefit greatly from having classmates from across the country - I definitely did - but that is not a viable option. Instead, those trying to promote diversity are implicitly asked, "Could you please build diversity without so many outsiders?" Talk about mixed messages.

A second practical problem is that all my brilliant factors about religion, political views and values would hinge on self-identification. The problem there is that people could game the system, marking themselves down as whatever persuasion would get them extra points on the admissions application. But this eventually leads to a bigger question: How do you get dissimilar people to associate with one another?

Typically, when prospective students are visiting a school, they are looking for a "good fit." This does not necessarily mean a place that is in intellectual lock-step with themselves, but at least somewhere where they will "feel at home". Or maybe they are looking for an institution which will teach them the skills they want to learn. Whatever the case, there is almost always an implicit search for same-ness, on some level. Why would anyone ever choose diversity? Even someone who says, "I want to go to a school which will challenge my views," is likely to have implied limits: "I want my views on politics or literature or society challenged. But not my view of existence itself." Or maybe just the opposite: "I want my views of intangible philosophic ideas to change in exciting and radical ways. But don't ask me to actually live differently." I have even known people of strong religious faith to say they want to go to a school where their faith will be challenged. But the idea behind that plan is to see their faith strengthened, not undermined.

Little wonder, then, that government schemes to improve diversity usually come up shorthanded. Even when the racial or gender composition of an institution changes, bringing about a real diversity of thought, the kind that breads an vigorous intellectual life, is not so easy. Birds of a feather will instinctively flock together.

How then, can we accomplish true diversity? In my time there, I found the University of Dallas a rather diverse place. Some people would find this surprising, since the school is overwhelmingly white, mostly Catholic, politically conservative and solidly middle class. But in spite of all of that uniformity, the intellectual discourse was fantastically exciting. We had Platonists and Aristotelians, supporters of the Achaeans and supporters of the Trojans. The Thomists would debate the Lockeans, and the Heideggerians would reject them both. Classicists rubbed elbows with biology students, and Politics majors traveled the Mediterranean with physicists. Students from Drama and English would argue about who was the true keeper of Shakespeare's legacy and charismatics would ponder Scripture in the company of Opus Dei. Never, before or since, have I seen such a consistently rich and diverse intellectual life.

How did it happen? Oddly enough, uniformity was part of the process. We all had to take the same classes in the Core Curriculum. We were not allowed to hide within our own disciplines and opportunities to opt out of particular courses were few. Not only did we become better people for having studied such a broad curriculum, but our discussions were also enriched by having such a wide range of colleagues in our classes.

Moreover, a common set of Core courses gave us a shared vocabulary of terms and examples. To some minds, this would suggest a narrowing of views, a lack of diversity. But in practice it meant just the opposite: we were having real discussions, actually engaging ideas, rather than misunderstanding one another and the texts we were reading and superficially arguing about terms.

Finally, we went after big issues. "What is justice" the Republic demanded of us in our first semester. We could have debated the justice of particular events: Wounded Knee, Dresden, Hiroshima. But the Founders of UD, in their wisdom, saw that these would only be examples of larger issues. A disagreement about Hiroshima, however fierce, might only be over the implementation of policy; conversely, agreement about the end result of Hiroshima might paper over a more fundamental disagreement about the nature of justice. By constantly asking questions about first principles, we avoided the false comfort of hasty consensus, and learned a great deal about critical thinking as well.

* This is the result of the so-called "Ten Percent Rule," which stipulates that any student in Texas who graduates in the top ten percent of his or her high school class is guaranteed admission to any state university in Texas. This was put in place when affirmative action was ended, as a means of keeping minorities (specifically blacks and Hispanics) who would not otherwise account for a significant portion of the enrollment of Texan higher education. However, the Ten Percent Rule has also meant that Texas schools have had almost all of their seats promised to in-state students, and are therefore unable to recruit meaningful numbers of out-of-state students. Admissions departments have quietly told highly-qualified out-of-state applicants that their chances of admittance, which would have been good before the Ten Percent Rule, are slim. Academic scuttlebutt has it that the university presidents hate the Ten Percent Rule, because it imposes this geographic insularity - and along with it a mental insularity - but the gurus of political correctness in Austin are unlikely to dismantle the Ten Percent Rule any time soon.

PS I was scrounging around trying to find a picture which might be relevant to this post. Brownie points - or Guild Points? - to anyone who can explain what the picture depicts and how it is relevant.
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