A Look At Real Diversity

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.
We 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.


14 thoughts on “A Look At Real Diversity

  1. I am an advocate of race-based AA but I would welcome class based AA. However, I believe that this will never occur at a widespread level. As it stands now, AA is mostly applied to ethnic minority students. As these ethnic minorities are indeed small in number (hence the term “minority”, affirmative action still leaves lots of room for the white children of the elites to fill the ranks of the top colleges and universities. Even if every every single remotely qualified Black and Hispanic student who applies to Harvard is admitted, there will still be plenty of room for the white upper crust.
    Once we move to class-based affirmative action, many poor whites will now be able to gain acceptances to top colleges, even with scores below the mean. However, because whites are porportionally such a larger part of the population than the minority students who were previously admitted under AA, the space left for the rich white elites will start to shrink dramatically. They will never allow this to happen.
    Race based AA = still plenty of room for wealthy white kids
    Class based AA = no more room for wealthy white kids.

  2. Kate, the problem is that simply drawing representatives from “diverse” groups does not ensure the sort of diversity that would be meaningful in a university setting (within the humanities, that is, as you helpfully distinguish). The academy and elite culture are perfectly comfortable with people of various ethnic backgrounds and skin colours on campus; in fact, we like it because it makes us feel good about ourselves and supports our self-image as “tolerant” and “diversity-affirming people” and all the rest. But this sort of diversity is only meaningful in propping up elite identity-formation; it does not challenge, for example, academic dogmas or in any way problematize or destabilize our assumptions about the relation of the academic elite to the hoi polloi.
    True diversity would entail, as I think you are getting at in the beginning of your post, listening to an meaningfully engaging voices other than those accepted among (most) of the academic (and other) elite. It means trying to treat the genuine voices of the poor with respect and not merely disguised (or not so disguised) contempt, which we justify through paternalism (or, rather, whatever the PC friendly and gender neutral term would be…). That many of the poor are religious- which is likely to include forms of religion even the religious members of the academy are deeply uncomfortable with- means that their voices simply will not be taken seriously or even listened to in the academy. Oh sure, we “listen” to them and make recordings of them and all that jazz, but it’s on the level of listening to bird songs or something. A truly diverse academy would entail engaging those voices and taking them seriously- not that we have to agree with them, but that they ought to be listened to and not merely dismissed as “populism” or “fundamentalism” or whatever else is socially acceptable in our world to label the views of the lesser classes.
    Such an approach is genuinely difficult. When you start listening to the poor, you find that they- gasp!- don’t fit into the categories they’re “supposed” to fit into. To talk to the poor and not talk down to them is difficult, because we have been conditioned to marginalize those voices- while at the same time ostensibly (and ostentatiously) celebrate “the poor” and “minorities.” It’s a hard approach to take- one cannot just embrace a naive relativism or valorization of the poor and their voices (which does happen on the fringes of academia); rather, engaging those voices in honest and non-patronizing dialogue ought to be the goal. How to get there, though, is I think much more complicated and difficult than simply filling up quotas of middle-class right-thinking students of colour.

  3. Another brilliant, nuanced and perceptive piece from John McWhorter. McWhorter is a true radical, in the genuine sense of the word: someone who gets to the root of a problem.

  4. John McWorter,
    I agree with what you say, and yet perhaps there is a better — and different — case to be made for diversity in the Ivy League when you consider the importance of networking and the degree to which these student bodies compose the pool from which our nation’s future leaders will be chosen.
    Just look at the people around Obama, in the bureaus of the New York Times, or at the top of Wall Street, and other similar places.
    Wouldn’t it be healthier for our democracy if our political, financial, and cultural elites had a better understanding and appreciation of the realities of ordinary working-class (or, if you prefer, lower middle-class) people? They are the majority after all and by a very long shot. It is not good to worry about the benefits of trade on poor Chinese peasants (to choose just one example) if it causes you to forget about your fellow citizens.
    This is not simply a matter of class and ethnicity, though it most certainly includes class and ethnicity, but it is also very much a matter of geography and of the cultural differences of geography. As a linguist I am sure you know what some of those differences are (and for those who are not familiar I recommend the book, Albion’s Seed.)
    So here is what I would like to propose for your consideration:
    First,separate out the hard sciences from the liberal arts and social sciences and put the former on separate if nearby campuses. For those who aspire to be real scientists let standards of achievement and aptitude be applied without distinction — as it is at Cal Tech today for example. It doesn’t matter if this group is unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Very few scientists end up leading the country (sorry but economists are not scientists) while tomorrow’s leaders can certainly learn appreciate the main principles of scientific reasoning without becoming scientists themselves: physics for poets, elementary statistics, Biology 101, etc.
    Then for our liberal arts colleges and universities, including our law schools especially but also our schools of public administration, education, international relations, and the like, let us, as a matter of broad principle, apply across-the-board affirmative action standards right down to the county level. In other words, within every county within every state, the rural as well as the urban, let the highest scoring or otherwise qualified representatives of the various groups(African-Americans, Asian Americans, Askenazie Americans, European Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, etc) be admitted in approximate proportion to their numbers in the county, the more populous counties of course furnishing larger numbers of admittees.
    If this approach were taken our Ivy League campuses would then have truly diverse student bodies. They would include all the absolutely most brilliant students throughout the land who did not want to be scientists (since they would come out on top in whatever county they live in) and it would also include the most brilliant representatives of every ethnic group and geographical region of America.
    Assuming they are drawn from the top one or two percent of the population they would be smart enough, every last one of them, to profit from a good liberal arts education, especially if the emphasis is on gaining a broad overview of history (what group’s ancestors have not struggled from servitude to freedom?) and the main principles of economics, psychology, etc. all this in a preparation for careers in law, government, banking, etc..
    This way a representative cross-section of the best and the brightest from the nation as a whole might begin life-long friendships and form those networks that are necessary in order to succeed at the national level.
    In other words affirmative action for all.
    I bet we would see a lot less racial self-segregation than we see today, and I know we would see a lot less resentment.

  5. Ugh. I had to suffer through bell hooks’ tripe-filled screed ‘where we stand:class matters’ as a grad student at a prominent west coast Jesuit U. Why can’t I get prof’s like McWhorter? Instead, I was told to appreciate hooks’ superior wisdom because she was a ‘poor’ black woman. Gag. Worst grade ever of my entire transcript.

  6. I took this class 1989-1990, as have all students at Columbia College for decades (except the Koran was not on the syllabus, nor should it be – Western Civ?). Without such a curriculum unifying us, our diversity loses value against identity politics. Also, I found it interesting to have read almost this entire piece not knowing Prof. McWhorter’s skin color, which I inferred only at the end. That helps prove his point, I think. How much of that class was wasted on me 20 years ago – what I wouldn’t give to take it again with a teacher like him and also students like his!

  7. Well written; would that Prof. McWhorter’s assessment were paid greater heed in industry vis-`a-vis diversity.

  8. Professor McWhorter is a marvelous, erudite, and patently temperate proponent of the truth for its own sake, regardless of where it takes us. He is an admirable role model for the students fortunate to take any class he might offer. Also, his books and articles are always worth reading several times. The students at Columbia are, indeed, very lucky. I sincerely hope that they took full advantage of this opportunity. From what John has written above it does appear that they have taken full advantage of his gifts.

  9. I am a voracious reader of Professor McWhorter’s books and writings. He is an unsung hero in my eyes, and a voice America desperately needs. I admire his courage to speak the truth unflinchingly. I wish I knew him as a close friend and colleague. Would to God I were a kid again and could sit under this man’s tutelage!

  10. Wow. I wish I had had a Professor like John McWhorter in my college years. His students should drink up all he has to give. A message that should be heard by all. Thanks Professor McWhorter!

  11. “One of the black women told me in office hours early on she was glad to have a black professor … I suspect she is the student in the class I’ll still be in touch with ten years from now.”
    More like: Ten years from now she’ll be glad she had Professor John McWhorter.
    And just so.
    Excellent piece.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *