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.
- That diversity is good.
- 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.