Reflecting America: Diversity as an Educational Priority
President Shirley M. Tilghman
January 25, 2011
Presented at Vistamar School, El Segundo, Calif.
It is a pleasure to visit Vistamar and observe the exciting educational experiment that is unfolding on this campus — the quest, as one of Vistamar's founders put it, for "the perfect high school experience." Perfection is something that no institution — including Princeton after 265 years! — has managed to attain, but, thanks to the dedication of a remarkable group of men and women, including Princeton alumni Rob and Alicia Lovelace, Vistamar has blossomed into something very special — an American school with a global sensibility and a profound commitment to realizing the value of diversity. With a student body that is roughly half female and half non-white, and in which more than 40 percent of students receive financial aid, Vistamar reflects America in a way that many schools do not. In a nation where municipal boundaries or the mobility conferred by wealth have divided student populations on socioeconomic and — frequently — racial lines, it is no small distinction for a day school to draw its student body from more than 70 feeder schools, representing more than 50 zip codes. As one student put it, "By attending a school like Vistamar that is intentionally diverse and inclusive, I have been encouraged to find and celebrate diversity in my own life," something this young woman had not encountered in her own neighborhood.
Tonight, at the risk of preaching to the choir, I would like to explore a question that many Americans, comfortably ensconced in neighborhoods like that student's, are prone to ask: Why should we care if our schools and universities are diverse communities? After all, should not our only real concern be the talent of their faculty and the aptitude of their students? For some of our fellow citizens, anything else is, at best, of peripheral importance, and some would even go so far as to argue, darn right anti-American. They would claim that the pursuit of educational diversity is a form of social engineering that uses discriminatory practices to redress past wrongs, subverting the principle of a colorblind meritocracy. This is a popular — and seductive — argument, but one that is fatally flawed in the context of 21st-century America.
Let me begin, however, with the first of these contentions — that diversifying our classrooms should be a low priority relative to other laudable educational goals, be it greater student achievement or more effective teachers. The problem with this point of view is that it misses the point. Diversity in this telling is perceived as an end in itself — diversity for diversity's sake — rather than as a means to an end, namely, achieving the very excellence that many would say outweighs diversity as an educational priority. Far from being unimportant, a diverse student body and faculty significantly enhances the educational experience of all students, opening the way to fuller lives and a more robust society.
This is precisely the conclusion reached by Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and four of her fellow justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in their landmark 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger. In this case a young woman named Barbara Grutter challenged the decision of the University of Michigan Law School to deny her admission on the grounds that she was overlooked in favor of less academically qualified applicants because of her race — which was white. In writing for the 5-4 majority of the court, Justice O'Connor argued that diversity is a legitimate and compelling interest in education precisely because educational benefits flow from a diverse student body.
What is the nature of those benefits? The first one, as many studies have clearly shown, is that students simply learn more in an environment where preconceived notions, born of circumstance and upbringing, are being continually challenged by fellow students who come from a different environment. As Justice O'Connor wrote, "Classroom discussion is livelier, more spirited, and simply more enlightening and interesting when the students have the greatest possible variety of backgrounds."
One of my favorite examples of this effect was told to me by Gary Bass, a professor of politics at Princeton. He teaches a course on human rights and war crime tribunals, and several years ago he had a student from Bosnia in his class. That year the quality of the discussion was profoundly raised by the presence of this student, whose family had lived through the Bosnian war and who could recount firsthand knowledge of what it meant to live with the specter of genocide. For those students, what could have been an abstract idea became a vivid reality.
Furthermore, the presence of students from different backgrounds can affect the nature of the material being taught. If, for example, the subject is history, the interests and perceptions of someone in the South Bay whose forebears suffered under the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Japanese-American Internment will differ from those of a white Californian, whose family's claim to citizenship has never been questioned. By bringing students and teachers of Asian and European heritage together, the temptation to focus on one historical storyline at the expense of another is much diminished.
The best education is first and foremost one that transmits knowledge and understanding while opening the mind to other points of view; that prompts a critical reassessment of long-held beliefs. But it also provides a second benefit that Justice O'Connor highlighted in her decision: It fosters empathy toward "the other"; an appreciation of those least like oneself, rooted in a respect for differences and recognition of commonalities. This can only happen fully in a diverse environment — when black sits down for lunch with white; when straight and gay rub shoulders on the same athletic team; when Christian, Moslem, Jew, and atheist probe each other's views in a class on the nature of religious belief; and when the privileged and disadvantaged find themselves as roommates and learn to see the world through one another's eyes.
One of the images I used to show when I gave lectures about the Human Genome Project was a photograph of Wilt Chamberlain — one of the greatest basketball players of all time and a towering seven feet tall — and Willie Shoemaker, the most successful jockey of his day. The photograph was taken by American Express as part of an ad campaign, and was designed to attract your attention because of the stark differences between Wilt and Willie — in terms of height, weight, skin color, eye color, hair texture, etc. The question I asked my audiences was the following: What strikes you most — the differences between Wilt and Willie that were there to behold or their remarkable similarities — in terms of gender, body plan, number of eyes, ears, noses, physiology, metabolism, etc.? My purpose, of course, was to get to the punchline, which was that Wilt and Willie are 99.99 percent identical at the level of DNA. That picture has always served for me as a visual metaphor of the glory of human diversity — and how it makes our lives richer and more interesting. How boring if everyone were 5'7" and could neither dunk a basket nor stay on a horse. But human diversity cannot be understood or capitalized upon if one cannot, as Princeton Professor Cornel West says, "imagine yourself in someone else's skin." Or in the words of President Gerald Ford, a man not often quoted in the same paragraph as Cornel West, "Tolerance, breadth of mind, and appreciation for the world beyond our neighborhoods: these can be learned on the football field and in the science lab as well as in the lecture hall. But only if students are exposed to America in all her variety."
And America has never been so varied. Indeed, we are poised to become a nation of minorities in which no one group can justifiably claim pre-eminence. A few statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau tell the tale. In 2008, non-Caucasians represented 47 percent of children under five and 44 percent of those younger than 18, with Hispanics leading the way. This is the future, and one that is approaching rapidly. Demographers predict that white America will lose its numerical superiority by 2042, a sea-change that has already occurred here in California, as well as in New Mexico and Texas, to say nothing of Hawaii, which has never had a white majority. All of this has profound social implications, and it demands an educational response that will prepare the rising generation of Americans for a new reality. The glue that will hold tomorrow's America together is empathy — a capacity to identify with the concerns and aspirations of others. And empathy can only be acquired through shared experience, especially in the formative years of childhood and adolescence. It is much harder to dismiss or belittle one segment of the population when they bear the face of a friend or classmate, or to silently endure, let alone accept, the dichotomies of "us" and "them" that fill the airwaves and the blogosphere.
Sadly, empathy is harder to achieve than one might think, for segregation did not expire with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Whether self-imposed or sustained by socioeconomic inequalities, many Americans are being raised today in isolation from "the other." According to a disturbing report by the Pew Hispanic Center, in 2005-2006, 56 percent of Hispanic students were being educated in majority Latino public schools, where just 3 percent of students were white. In the same vein, half of African American students were attending majority black public schools, in contrast to just 2 percent of whites. In my native Canada, the French and English communities are sometimes described as "two solitudes," but in the United States, there are many solitudes, which can only be bridged in a substantive way when schools and universities pursue diversity with the same vigor as other measures of educational success.
But I could imagine the cynics among us saying that while empathy may be morally admirable and nice to encourage, it is hardly sufficient reason for the state to intervene in decisions that affect how schools, colleges, and universities go about selecting and educating their students. And that brings me to the third conclusion that Justice O'Connor highlighted in her decision. She wrote: "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. All members of our heterogeneous society must have confidence in the openness and integrity of the educational institutions that provide this training." In other words (not that I would dare suggest that I could improve upon Justice O'Connor's language), in a country that has an ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots; between the reasonably secure and the perpetually insecure; between limitless personal prospects and inescapable dead ends, schools like Vistamar and universities like Princeton are serving a public good by acting as engines of social and economic mobility. Quite apart from the empathy they foster, and the high quality learning they impart, they are the surest means we have of giving substance to the egalitarian principles on which America was founded. Indeed, founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Princeton Class of 1771) perceived a vital connection between popular education and democratic government. In Madison's words, "Learned institutions ought to be favorite objects with every free people. They throw that light over the public mind which is the best security against crafty and dangerous encroachments on the public liberty." Many years later, the civil rights movement eloquently made the case that equality before the law is inextricably linked with equal access to the advantages of education. In other words, the pursuit of educational diversity is also the pursuit of equal opportunity.
And it was not just law schools that weighed in with the court on the societal advantages of diversity in education. Joining the University of Michigan were employers as different as General Motors and the U.S. Armed Forces. They made compelling cases that "the skills needed in today's increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints," as the 3M Company brief argued. The U.S. military argued that "based on their decades of experience, a highly qualified, racially diverse officer corps is essential to the military's ability to fulfill its principal mission to provide national security." This was a lesson the military learned the hard way in Vietnam, where a largely white officer corps found itself unsuccessfully trying to lead a largely minority cadre of servicemen. It simply didn't work.
This brings me to the charge that advocates of educational diversity are once again confronting: the charge, in essence, that diversity is being achieved by reverse discrimination. There are many reasons why this claim is flawed, beginning with the implicit parallel it draws between exclusionary practices, like those adopted in the segregated South, and inclusionary efforts to broaden the range of students and faculty in any given school or university. There is also a widespread assumption that the beneficiaries of affirmative action are in some way getting a "free ride"; that their abilities do not account for their admission. This is deeply offensive and hurtful to students of color, who live under a stereotype threat that any success they enjoy has not been earned. What is forgotten in the debate is that admission decisions are as much about the future as the past. When aspiring Princetonians ask our admission officers what they must do to prepare themselves for college, the first advice they receive is to take full advantage of their opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom, for that is as revealing as to motivation and more predictive of success than standardized test scores or grade point averages. I believe this fact is especially important in the context of creating diverse schools and universities, for it undercuts the argument that affirmative action, even when judiciously and narrowly employed, is the enemy of merit.
Nor do the benefits of diversity end at the water's edge. The world is growing smaller — and more competitive — by the year, and unless we develop the talents of every citizen, we will be engaging other nations with one arm tied behind our backs. And as our nation's traditional white leadership becomes an increasingly smaller proportion of the overall population, this weakness will only be exacerbated. The pursuit of diversity is very much the pursuit of national strength, not only by unleashing the capacities of greater numbers of Americans but also by giving these Americans the cultural sensitivity and cosmopolitan knowledge they will need to thrive in a globalized environment, where India can feel closer, at times, than Indiana.
And so, from a variety of angles — be it educational enrichment, equality of opportunity, social cohesion, or national self-interest — diversity does matter, and the more diverse our student bodies and faculty become, the better it will be for us as individuals and as a people — "one nation, indivisible."