The Magazine

The Diversity Kit and Caboodle

The latest in cynical, ideological scholarship.

May 17, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 34 • By MARK BAUERLEIN
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JUST OVER a quarter of a century ago, the Bakke decision sparked an intellectual quest: How could proponents of affirmative action justify the use of racial preferences in college admissions on educational grounds? Last year, the culmination of that quest was enshrined, fittingly, in another Supreme Court decision. Writing for the majority that upheld the affirmative action program of the University of Michigan law school, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor affirmed racial preferences as a basic American policy. "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation," she declared, "is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized." In the schools, O'Connor wrote, diversity is a pedagogical good, as students of different races bring the "unique experience of being a racial minority" to the campus and so promote among students at large a deeper understanding.

Behind that high-flown social vision, what's more, stands a burgeoning field of social science called "diversity research" (DR). Summoned into being by a long series of court challenges to preference programs, DR comes dressed in the trappings of survey analysis, complete with charts and statistics and all the scholarly paraphernalia of citations and peer-review panels. Since DR exists for the sole purpose of proving that affirmative action lifts all students' knowledge and skills, its findings are marked by an unusual unanimity: All studies reach the same conclusion--that campuses need more diversity, more multiculturalism. As one pro-preference expert witness sums up the wisdom of the field, "Students learn more and think in deeper, more complex ways in a diverse educational environment."

The future of affirmative action rests partly on researchers' continuing ability to show that multiracial classrooms are superior. Rarely has a research agenda gathered so much backing so quickly. Funding comes from the U.S. Department of Education, the Ford Foundation, and universities. While it is difficult to nail down funding totals for the field as a whole, two Ford Foundation grants in 2003 are suggestive: The foundation awarded the Association of American Colleges and Universities $225,000 to show schools how to connect diversity with excellence. And it gave the Civil Rights Project at Harvard $600,000 to build a network of researchers, lawyers, and advocates to bolster affirmative action.

The findings of diversity researchers are disseminated by groups concerned with higher education as well as by an expanding network of specialized institutions, such as the federally funded Center for Research on Education, Diversity, and Excellence at the University of California-Santa Cruz. These days, nearly every campus has its office of diversity.

Brown University, for instance, distributes a "Diversity Kit" to high schools and anyone else who's interested--mostly people connected with state departments of education who are involved in the mission of diversifying the classroom, from kindergarten up. Underwritten by the U.S. Department of Education, the kit opens with a warning whose fervor is characteristsic of the genre: the "caution that the content of the kit is emotion-laden." Touching as it does on people's unspoken assumptions and subtle prejudices, DR generally proceeds from a vantage point of moral certainty. It seldom stoops to acknowledge contrary findings. The website of the Office of Diversity Education at the University of Indiana Bloomington exemplifies this complacency. Its homepage, between quotations from Malcolm X, assures visitors that "once the diversity model is described in terms that the various laws and policies intended . . . people are much more willing to open their minds."

But not all minds are so pliable, and diversity researchers must work hard to spread the faith. One approach has been to make "diversity classes" a required part of the college curriculum. These courses, whether in social science or literature or art, are intended to raise students' awareness of racial and ethnic minorities. The students who take them also make for handy research subjects. In 1998 at Penn State, for instance, Betsy Palmer monitored 1,000 students in diversity classes for their awareness of racism and involvement in "diversity activities," such as campus events held by gay and lesbian groups. The study (excerpted on the web's Diversity Digest) found that during the semester, "racial and gender attitudes became more tolerant" and "self-exploration" deepened, though affiliation with Greek organizations "negatively influenced tolerance."

In 1999, Mitchell Chang, a UCLA researcher, administered the Modern Racism Scale to students in diversity courses at a public university in the northeast. This test, a set of seven questions used since the 1980s, purports to "read" attitudes the respondents would prefer to conceal. (Item number 3, for example, is: "Blacks are getting too demanding in their push for equal rights." Respondents state whether they strongly disagree, somewhat disagree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat agree, or strongly agree.) Researchers concluded that "diversity course requirements are good vehicles for shaping students' racial views."

In 2002, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard published a survey of eleventh graders in an integrated Massachusetts school district. Using a Diversity Assessment Questionnaire they had developed, researchers tabulated students' racial attitudes and ambitions. (Sample question: "How comfortable would you be with a work supervisor who was of a different racial or ethnic background than you are?") They found that most kids were content around each other, and 89 percent felt prepared to work with people of different races. One worrisome result surfaced, though: White students expressed less interest than others in mingling with minorities as adults.

Those troublesome whites. . . . In a section of the Harvard study headed "Academic Support," white students reported receiving from teachers and counselors the least encouragement to attend college and the least information about college admissions of any group. Nevertheless, it is a cardinal tenet of diversity thinking that it is whites who benefit most from the preferences given to racial minorities. (Asians rarely figure in the discussions.)

The argument is that "majority students who have previously lacked significant direct exposure to minorities frequently have the most to gain from interaction with individuals of other races," as researcher Jonathan Alger put it in an essay entitled "The Educational Value of Diversity." Specifically, DR starts from the assumption that the white point of view is impoverished because it is not informed by the experience of oppression. Only rarely does DR explore how minority students profit from contact with whites. Indeed, diversity researchers maintain that while whites need interracial contact, blacks need both interracial contact and protective immersion in their own race.

One recent study by two professors of education at Stanford University, Anthony Lising Antonio and Kenji Hakuta, shows DR pushing the scrutiny of whites to Orwellian lengths. Researchers recruited 357 white students at Stanford, UCLA, and Maryland and broke them into groups of three. Each trio was assigned a "collaborator," who was either black or white. The subjects composed a short essay on child labor or capital punishment. The collaborator asked students to summarize their views and led a brief discussion. After that, the participants wrote another essay on the same issue. The papers were collected and students wrote a third essay on the other topic. Investigators rated the essays for Integrative Complexity (IC), defined as the capacity to differentiate and integrate two or more perspectives (purportedly a feature of higher thinking). The result: Groups with a black collaborator displayed greater IC in their essays. Researchers concluded that exchange with black interlocutors deepens white students' thinking. Which was of course the goal.

Along the way, however, this sort of intrusive race vigilance flouts the humane premises of civil rights. To single out one race for enlightenment by another race is, some would say, a perversion of liberal education. DR poses as scientific inquiry, and promises educational improvement, but the data actually reveal a good deal less. If students subjected to diversity training acknowledge that their perspectives have, well, diversified, who's to say they are demonstrating a "learning outcome" and not mere conformity?

It should come as no surprise that students respond as desired. Having had speech codes and sensitivity training foisted on them over the years, they mistrust promises of anonymity. They've learned to play the game and move on. Quick to detect which answers will be praised as proof of learning gains, they suspend conscience and provide them. Diversity researchers take the results, package them as science, and parade them in courts of law. But this is an ideological enterprise, at once utopian and cynical, that, regrettably, will continue while money is plentiful and the students go along.

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University.