“Diversity” is all the rage these days. It even attracts support across the ideological spectrum: demographic diversity on the Left and viewpoint diversity on the Right. For some, it has a magical quality. As Harvard’s president recently announced, to defend the university from those who claim it racially discriminates, “We write today to reaffirm the fundamental principle that deep and transformative teaching, learning, and research depend upon a community comprising people of many backgrounds, perspectives, and lived experiences.” Another defender of diversity opined, “Diversity of all kinds, but especially geographical and racial diversity, is part of what makes education at America’s elite colleges and universities a unique and highly sought-after experience.”
Unfortunately, these demands neglect to mention who should be included in the diversity recipe—the “many backgrounds” that Harvard’s president celebrates—and, equally important, to specify the optimal mix of diversity. Imagine that a group of chefs sought the best recipe for boeuf bourguignon (French beef stew). Nobody would suggest, for example, “only the best ingredients” or “only fresh ingredients.” They would instead focus on the specific cuts of beef or the ratio of onions to carrots. The same is true of diversity—absent details, it is just a vague, useless word. In modern education, diversity is an instrumental value, a means to an end, not a terminal value that exists for its own purpose.
First, consider demographic diversity. What is the recipe? How many blacks or Hispanics are necessary, and what should be the gender mix? Do we also add a smidgen of LGBTQ+ to the student body? And again, who exactly? The potential list of human ingredients is almost unlimited, and it is multiplying (e.g., the “+” in LGBTQ+). If blacks are vital to the diversity formula, what about their varied economic backgrounds or countries of origin? A case can be made that diversity among blacks themselves has an educational dividend—American Americans might benefit from encountering West Africans.
Not only is there no standard recipe, as one might find in the classic Larousse Gastronomique, but the mix must surely vary by school. Diversity at Harvard would be different from, say, diversity at a community college in New Mexico. This is what some admissions officers mean by the phrase “crafting the freshman class”—to each school its own. Moreover, just as a chef might vary his recipe according to seasonal and market conditions, not all elements of a specific diversity mix might be available to maximize taste. Currently, for example, there seems to be an adequate number of gays to recruit, but who can predict the applicant pool in ten years? Would substitutions be permitted given market conditions—perhaps two bisexuals equal one gay? If the necessary number of American-born blacks were unavailable, what about substituting some blacks from the U.S. Virgin Islands?
Lurking beneath the surface of this demographic stew is the issue of “authenticity.” After all, the raison d’être for admitting an African-American applicant is to bring to the campus his unique experiences and views, which his non-black classmates need to encounter. But what if a black recruit lacks these stereotypical traits, that is, he has a 98% “white” personality and knows nothing about the lives of those who share his skin color?
How is this “authenticity” to be established with the available information conveyed from the standard college application? Should schools hire experts to determine authenticity, and should this requirement apply to all demographic categories—“real” gays, “true” Hispanics, and so on? Who will define “authenticity,” and can whites, for example, certify a black as “real”? What cash-strapped school could afford this intensive scrutiny? Needless to say, given the existing difficulties of “crafting” a diverse student body, this additional task may be impossible, while the ease of faking “authenticity” compounds the problem.
“Viewpoint diversity” faces similar tribulations. Thanks to human nature, an almost infinite number of viewpoints exists across human beings, and their combination is innumerable. So, everybody has a unique collection of opinions and is thus a candidate for maximizing viewpoint diversity. Even colleges recruiting from a narrow slice of the ideological spectrum will yield a plethora of perspectives. A freshman class of 100% left-wing ideologues may include anarchists, champions of Soviet totalitarianism, utopian socialists, orthodox Marxists, and countless others on the Left. This is viewpoint diversity in extremis, but it will hardly satisfy opponents of the academy’s left-wing tilt.
Is there some Bureau of Standards formula for the best diversity mix to maximize learning? Even broaching the idea of a hypothetical official manual demonstrates the emptiness of the diversity mantra. Harvard, for example, feared that “too many dull, laconic Asians” might impede vigorous class discussions. Will adding a handful of talkative, opinionated gays “correct” the defect, as a cook might add a little sugar to compensate for too much vinegar? Will a handful of blacks improve a class on race relations, or might “too many” inhibit frank discussions of hot-button racial topics? These are empirical questions, obviously, but no one dares to raise them. Professors know from experience that some classes are lively and exciting, while others are boring, but it is doubtful that anybody can specify the formula in advance. We don’t have an academic version of the Larousse Gastronomique to help craft “a good class.”
The value of diversity will necessarily vary by course content and level of instruction. It’s hard to imagine a professor worrying that a class full of dull Asians will undermine instruction on advanced calculus. Will he e-mail the dean of inclusion and ask that some queer Hispanics be encouraged to enroll to make his course a success?
Merit-only Cal Tech is 40% Asian, and it seems to thrive. Much may depend on what instructors—not admissions staff—themselves prefer. Some instructors teaching race relations might favor a room full of taciturn Asians with near-perfect SAT scores over, say, a rainbow of ethnicities, some of whom despise each other. If classroom diversity is so vital to learning, why not allow professors to select their own mix of students cafeteria style, rather than teaching whoever signs up? This idea, while consistent with the diversity mantra, is absurd, unworkable, and illegal. Imagine a cookbook-like course description that specifies in advance the demographic and ideological mix of those to be enrolled. In sum, there is no guarantee that whoever shows up will be the optimal mix for improved instruction.
“Diversity” is an empty vessel whose main purpose is to advance a political agenda, and it has always been that way. When Harvard in the 1920s decided that there were too many urban Jews of Eastern European extraction, it “diversified” its student body by admitting “more well-rounded” young men residing outside the big eastern cities, who excelled in leadership and sports. The number of big-city Eastern European Jews fell, and the WASP ascendency continued, at least for a few more decades. Today’s Left predictably prefers to diversify schools exclusively with students drawn from groups that overwhelmingly vote Democratic, namely, blacks, Hispanics, women, and gays.
This “diversity game” might be played across the ideological spectrum. Conservatives should abandon viewpoint diversity—which is hopeless, given the multitude of beliefs on everything “conservative”—and instead focus on diversity of life experiences to advance their agenda. Possibilities include military veterans, older students with blue-collar work experience, Appalachian rednecks, evangelical Christians, and ultra-Orthodox Jews, among other “under-represented minorities.” Happily, these categories have nothing to do with legally toxic racial preferences. To be sure, there’s no guarantee that some Iowa farm boys will enhance a Harvard classroom, but this version of campus diversity will help level the political playing field.
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