Foes of Diversity … the Left

David Schraub has put out a very long (4 pages when inserted formatted and printed) reply a conversation we were having regarding diversity. It’s going to take an effort to try to reply, which is in part why it’s taken me a bit to get around to composing one.

I think there are two arguments going on here, and I’m going to try to separate them a bit.

  1. That diversity is good.
  2. Mr Schraub thinks diversity is good and is an activist for the Black American community and thinks boosterism for that cause is also good. Now, even granting that both of these is good … I disagree that the two notions are connected. In fact, if one is in favor of diversity then it seems logical that is in opposition to support specifically aimed at the Black community, for example regarding college affirmative action which seems a primary example.

Below the fold, I’ll endeavor to explain my objections or counterpoint to both points.

The punchline however is: To put it bluntly, the advocate for Black American affirmative action is a natural enemy of anything resembling actual diversity.
I. Diversity is “Good”

Mr Schraub begins:

Even as an abstract matter, diversity is beneficial, if only from the generic observation of a liberal education that it is good to be exposed to a wide variety of things. It is good that I have at least some background in music, biology, and economics (among other disciplines), even though I don’t plan on directly utilizing any of them in my career, because they broaden my mental horizons, enable me to more fully communicate with people for whom these areas are important, and expose me to new manners of manipulating and expressing myself in the world that I may (unexpectedly, perhaps) find useful or fruitful. The same thing can be said about meeting different types of people, who also can broaden my horizons, improve my ability to relate with other people unlike myself, and give me new and useful perspectives on important issues.

This is true, up to a point. To make an athletic analogy, cross training (training in a variety of sports) is good if I’m pursuing general fitness or one is not in training for a specific sporting season. If one is a serious cyclist, for example, and thus chosen one’s concentration, cross training (that is diversity of endeavor) is explicitly sought one month out of the year. But it is not “generically good” at all times. In the off-season (that one month) and in the winter some cross training is beneficial. However from March through the beginning of October diversity or cross training is harmful. For Bobby Fisher, back in the news with his death, his monomaniac pursuit of chess made him the best in the world. Diversity of pursuit for Mr Fisher would have made him perhaps a better person, but not a better chess player, which is what he sought.

The point is not that diversity in other disciplines is bad … it is not. However, if one aspires to be the best that one can be, there are times when diversity is not helpful. Specifically, the “goodness” of diversity is not universal. Diversity is good when starting out and for short intervals. But if one is pursuing excellence, often diversity is a distraction and specifically counter-productive and a bad thing.

II. Diversity in Action

Mr Schraub offers two models of diversity a “distance model” and a “relational model”. Regarding the distance model, which I think he sees as closer to one suggested by me in the comment thread of this post, Mr Schraub offers some weakened arguments concerning them which he then shoots down. That is one of his primary objections to a distance model of diversity is that he thinks that a “paradigmatic” student against which distance is to be measured is not a thing which can be found.

So, a college might start with who it imagines to be its paradigmatic student, Jane: White (Caucasian), American, female, upper-middle class, Christian, able-bodied, moderately-liberal heterosexual.

I think however, that the impossibility of classifying on a number of axis the mean or average applicant to a particular University or school is actually not such an impossible question. Asking then, an affirmative action program to identify and support students who “aren’t that” or who are “outside of the experience of the norm” is one which is not impossible, and in fact might be fairly straightforward.

However, Mr Schraub puts most of his energy into the second model of diversity, a “relational” model. His relational model would hold a goal in mind. He cites a basketball team, wanting a diverse set of players to fill different roles in order to for a “team”. It doesn’t serve to have 12 centers on a team, one has a place for some shooting guards, power forwards, point guards and so on.

This puts forth an idea that each department in a school might want to “skew” or adjust the applicant pools to insure good “relative” diversity as might be required to fill a diverse set of roles within each department. This is likely a good idea. However, as noted by Mr Schraub writing:

For example, I think inter-racial dialogue is important, and I think colleges are a key institution that constructs people’s ability and inclination to engage in public dialogue once they enter society.

Alas, if one takes the “relative diversity” requirements of scholastic departments, “inter-racial” (that is code for Black American) is pretty much off most of their charts. The problem is that except for the odd small department which is specifically geared to studying race issues … race is not an interesting axis on which to judge or skew the applicant pool.

A Chemistry or Biology department cares not at all for race. It cares for people enthusiastic and talented in their particular field and for whom diversity means diversity within that field. For example, a chemistry department needs people interested in physical, organic, applied, and surface chemistry. And while it might be argued that the application of chemistry or biology has a diversity component, for example in medicine women might argue that the failure to study breast cancer sufficiently is a gender “thing”. However, in my experience that is not how people decide what to work on is interesting works at all. Scientific fields develop their own intuition of beauty. The best investigators in those fields flock and work on the “hot” or “sexy” topics. Buckyballs did not rock to the top of the Chemistry/Physics charts on gender or racial bias. They were interesting based on aesthetics internal to the field. This I think holds true for all the so-called “hard sciences” and engineering schools.

How about the social sciences or other departments? Let’s examine a few.

  • A music department typically concentrates on training students either for performance or teaching. Music performance at the collegiate level typically means in the fine arts (symphonic or operatic) … gender or racial diversity is unimportant … talent is key, i.e., can you play and perform at audition and concert. For music teaching, diversity requirement are regional and there is an argument that it might be good if they match the ethnic diversity present in the regional area from which the applicants are drawn at best.
  • A political science department clearly has some call for some diversity in racial matters to bring in different points of view. Domestic policy and politics however, are a small part of political theory and science. For, the current American racial mix is a blip on the historical political map. If one accepts that diversity in a student body is a good thing, wouldn’t it also be good to bring in students who think that come from monarchy, totalitarian, and communist bloc countries, Islamic, Hindu, socialist … and perhaps feel that those systems are defensible or optimal? So here, at best, the Black student is one in many of the diverse groups which one wants to bring into the mix to build a full “diverse” team of students.

The point is, few if any, departments will key on “inter-racial” dialog as relevant or interesting in the context of their particular field of study. So if “inter-racial dialog” is seen as a good thing, an honest approach to scholastic diversity (relevant or otherwise) will be antithetical to that view. The problem is (for the Black advocate) is that in the 6000 year history (intellectual, political, and artistic) of the development of civilization on this planet, Black/White inter-racial dialog is a very small chapter indeed. Real diversity would reflect that. To put it bluntly, the advocate for Black American affirmative action is a natural enemy of anything resembling actual diversity.

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4 comments

  1. My critique of the “distance model” isn’t just premised on the argument that the paradigmatic student can’t be found. I make at least three more arguments against it: 1) It’s an arbitrary construction (“classifying on a number of axis…”, but I asked, which axes?) 2) it doesn’t take into account differential weighing of the salience of various categories, and 3) it otherizes people who are outside the norm by telling them that their inclusion in the community is premised solely on how they aid others (but not necessarily vice versa) — the goal is to give Jane the best education, not the Latina Lesbian Marxist.

    On the relational model, I think the problem is you see a far narrower objective for the college (the “team”) than I do. I see a key goal of college as preparing students to be vigorous participants in the American political and social community (which includes several significant racial groupings), not just creating good chemists or musicians or whatever (here the Bobby Fischer point is apt — we don’t want a community of Bobby Fischer’s in their various fields, we want folks more well-rounded than that, even if it means possibly sacrificing gains they could make if they only focused on one thing). As I pointed out in my discussion of that model, if you disagree with that assumption (that colleges should help prepare people to become participating citizens comfortable interacting with broad swaths of the community), then the type of diversity you think will matter will differ from mine — but that, as we said, is a political difference, not a problem with the model. Remember, the “relational model” does not inherently direct itself to any particular set of politics — it depends entirely on what set of goals we seek to plug into it.

    I do think that you might understate the importance of racial diversity in the Chemistry department, again because you have a narrower view of what makes a good Chemist than I do, or perhaps more accurately, how social disciplines operate than I do. I think a college could reasonably hold that a) the best chemists are able to effectively collaborate with their peers, b) chemists come from different racial backgrounds, so c) it’s important for budding chemists to learn how to communicate with people of different racial backgrounds, so they be effective collaborators with as many chemists as possible. Or perhaps the department could observe that a) Black people with backgrounds suggesting they’d make good chemists are unlikely to pursue the discipline if they feel unwelcome (a feeling they get when they see very few Black chemists in the field or department), b) we want as many people who would be potentially good chemists to at least try it out to see if they have the aptitude and desire for it, so c) we’ll make a proactive effort to recruit Black chemists so other potential Black chemists are more likely to try it out. After all, even scientists are not just brains in vats (or labs) — colleges can (and should!) legitimately concern itself with the scientific community broadly construed.

    Finally, I’m curious what this sentence means: “Alas, if one takes the ‘relative diversity’ requirements of scholastic departments, ‘inter-racial’ (that is code for Black American) is pretty much off most of their charts.”

    Across the entire school, Carleton doesn’t have any requirement for inter-racial education. Our requirements are 4 terms of a foreign language (5 if it’s an Asian language), 4 terms PE, 2 terms of arts/literature, 2 terms humanities, 3 terms social science, and 3 terms math/science. We do require folks take a whopping one term of a “RAD” (Recognition and Affirmation of Difference) class — but that’s defined very broadly: I met my RAD requirement with “Intro to World Music” (we didn’t study any African-American music — but we did study American Polka, Ireland, Iran, West Africa, and Decatur Illinois (really)). In my experience, RAD courses are more often met through international “area studies” courses (South-east Asian history, Chinese Literature, etc.) than through courses specifically talking about American racial experience.

    Even departmentally, there is virtually no requirements for taking any courses focusing on race. Political Science, which even you agree would be a good candidate, doesn’t have it. Neither does English, another seemingly strong candidate.

    In general, I’m less concerned about whether people take a course specifically labeled “Racism in America”, and more concerned about whether in the courses they do take they’re exposed to as many relevant perspectives as possible. Professors can fill that sometimes (a prof can play Marxist for a day, for example), but identity groupings are harder to replace.

  2. Mark says:

    David,
    In order (and trying not to miss points you make):

    1. I realize that wasn’t the only argument you made on the distance model, but I didn’t concentrate on it as it’s not one you support. But that argument was very weak.
    2. Not entirely un-seriously, your view of education needs to be more diverse. For many people, diversity is good in education. However, for those who have the talent, determination, and love of particular fields diversity is not helpful. Bobby Fisher was not a better person for his monomania but he was a better chess player for it. There is a place for those like him (or the Michael Jordan’s) in this world. Genius like that sometimes begs, demands and is better served by eschewing diversity. Your mention of a “community of Bobby Fishers” means you miss the point. One can’t have a community of such people, because they are one in a million. However there are those destined to be at the top of their field … if not the “best in the world” like Fisher. Those striving for, and who have a chance at, being in the rarefied elite in a particular field require non-diversity and concentrated effort at their endeavor.
    3. So, Chemistry “requires collaboration and experience with working with a variety of people” from different backgrounds. Alas, that still hurts your Black advocacy because that means Indian’s, Chinese, Eastern European, and Middle Eastern and so on fill that and are actually more commonly found in the field of Chemistry.

      As far as your notion that we need more (mediocre) Black Chemists to make the path easier for the great one’s not actually, I think, real. We don’t actually need “more” non-great Chemists. And those of genius will make their own way. It may be callous, but frankly there is no need for more “mediocre” anything in the sciences today.

    4. “Alas, if one takes the ‘relative diversity’ requirements of scholastic departments, ‘inter-racial’ (that is code for Black American) is pretty much off most of their charts.”

      That is my essential thesis. That Black American racial issues and history comprise such a small fraction of the Academic landscape that trying to get a diversity in any particular field will find that the Black American is just one small voice in a diverse world. So, there is no call or need for any Black-American voice/presence in a music, chemistry, or any other department over a Slovenian, Indian, Japanese, or Coptic one.

    5. On your remarks on inter-racial education at Carleton. That’s sounds just fine. Recall seem to fail to appreciate just how small the American inter-racial question is on the landscape of the intellectual, political, cultural, and artistic panoply that 6000 years of civilization has created.
    6. Professors can fill that sometimes (a prof can play Marxist for a day, for example), but identity groupings are harder to replace.

      And … Black American’s being one of, what 1000, different world ethnic group they get to be first in (your) line … why? And here the “as many relevant perspectives” line comes to play. There is more than one relevant perspective. Your particular advocacy of one perspective is at odds with that.

    1. In order again then.

      1) If you think that particular warrant against the distance model was weak, I’m willing to sit on my other three.

      2) I don’t the educational system should be geared to (as you say) one in a million Bobby Fischer’s (that would be far too Nietzschean for my tastes). And in general, folks like that don’t progress through the educational system normally anyway. For the vast majority of people, I think it’s important to have at least some breadth in their educational persona (I’m not even sure with Bobby Fischer that I’d rather he’d have taken some time off from chess to learn how to be an effective citizen, but whatever). I don’t think we really disagree that most people should be exposed to at least some breadth of experiences and disciplines(what those should be, of course, is the political disagreement I reference).

      3) I think it’s a mistake to characterize my advocacy as univocally for Black people, but in any event the observation that most non-White chemists aren’t Black doesn’t necessarily take out my point. So long as they assist in non-trivial numbers, and if we assume that the average non-Black chemist is less apt at interacting with Blacks than members of other groups, it’d still be beneficial to bring in Black chemists to “fill the niche.” If Indian chemists are already present in the department, then we don’t need more to reap the interaction-teaching benefits (and if they’re not present, then what makes you think I’d be hostile to adding them in on diversity grounds?).

      To the other half, I disagree that we only need “great” chemists. Most chemists aren’t great. We do need solid chemists, able to do the flashless but necessary grunt work of chemistry. I don’t think there is anyway to be sure that the greats will make their way in the discipline no matter what, but certainly the further down the chain you go (from “legendary” to “great” to “solid” to “competent”…), the less likely it is that the factors I outline will cease to matter. So to get the best discipline overall, we need to create a welcoming environment for people of all types.

      4/5) I group these together. a) Again, this is precisely the sort of political disagreement as to what pursuits we find important that my model anticipates and explicitly says need to be resolved beyond the model. b) Certainly, I’d agree that cosmically, American racial problems are rather insignificant (indeed, most individual disciplines are rather insignificant). But people don’t live cosmically, we live specifically, and in the world many of us live in, American racial problems remain very important. Again, this is a question of baselines, and again insofar as you disagree with this starting point, your results will vary.

      6) I think it’s clear that I don’t advocate just one perspective — it’d be qualitatively bad to only hear the Black voice, and I’ve never made that advocacy. I just think the Black voice is an important one to be heard along with many others, and too often it isn’t when it should be. After that, cross-apply yet again the point about how we have different political commitments and assumptions about what we think is salient that obviously will drive us in different directions. Again, that’s not a flaw in the model, that’s anticipated by the model and explicitly rendered outside its scope.

    2. Mark says:

      David,

      1) I’m not sure why you’d do that, you regard it as the “weaker” or less relevant version. I guess I’m unsure why it matters whether I address it or not, as you pretty much decide it isn’t relevant.

      2) My point, which you seem to continue to ignore, is that diversity is not always good, and sometimes is bad. What one replaced Mr Fisher with an equivalently talented neurosurgeon. Who via his monomaniacal interest in surgery and the brain can do things nobody else can. Would his branching out to other interests, which would impact his ability to save lives negatively, a good thing.

      My point is that diversity is usually good. But not always. There are exceptions.

      3) Yes we need good (or solid) not great chemists. The point is, there isn’t a shortage of such, but the reverse (the sciences by and large have a glut of the solid/mediocre journeymen).

      So long as they assist in non-trivial numbers, and if we assume that the average non-Black chemist is less apt at interacting with Blacks than members of other groups, it’d still be beneficial to bring in Black chemists to “fill the niche.”

      Why? That’s only the case because you take for granted your particular advocacy.

      4) Let’s imagine three classes. Both classes, based on the incoming applicant pool are predominantly protestant white suburban. Via our “affirmative action” program to encourage diversity we bring in for “departmental relational purposes”. We bring in 8 additional students to the classroom via this program.

      Group “A” -> 6 American Blacks and two Hispanics.
      Group “B” -> 2 Korean, 1 Filipino, 2 Chinese, 1 German, one Italian, and one Japanese.
      Group “C” -> one German, one Russian, one Romanian, one Copt, one Eritrean, one Chinese, one Saudi, and one Malaysian.

      Group “A” is how I view your advocacy for diversity “in America”. Group “B” is the “Chemistry” departments “relational diversity” model and Group “C” is the for the foreign policy department.

      I’m unclear on how you argue that Group “A” is a better model of diversity for the Science or Foreign affairs departments by any measure. How can the second two groups not provide a more rewarding experience with regards to understanding others, broadening horizons, and forcing/helping all these students learn to collaborate with peers of racial and ethnic backgrounds which they are likely to encounter in todays workplace?

      The point is, you can make arguments why “A” is better for American polity and on human rights grounds. However those both run against any reasonable model of diversity.

      You work directly against ethnic diversity when you advocate for any particular group! How is that not clear to you?