I’ve been dreading writing this blog entry.
It’s about diversity.
As a middle-aged white male, writing about diversity feels a bit disingenuous. It also feels dangerous. We live in a shoot first, ask questions later world.
Wait. I’ve already messed it up.
Looking for a quick turn of phrase to talk about how quickly people rush to judgement in our Twitter-fueled, viral culture, I see how many different ways that statement can be construed. I want to take it back. Can I try for something else to make my point without misunderstanding? I didn’t mean to reference Ferguson. I’m not insulting police. Oh, man, I’m just digging myself into a deeper hole here.
Did I just say “man?” Women can dig themselves into holes, too. Sheesh, this is getting messy. (I think sheesh is safe, but I just don’t know anymore.)
Let’s change topic and move to firmer ground for a moment.
The Value of Diversity
I feel much more comfortable writing about diversity from an intellectual angle. You’ve probably heard about the academic studies highlighting the benefits of diversity, both in the natural and social worlds. Professor Scott Page at the University of Michigan is a leader in helping us understand how diversity of groups leads to stronger outcomes. In a more relatable context, Walter Isaacson’s latest book The Innovators makes it pretty clear the value of harnessing divergent disciplines in the creative process. Harvard’s Tony Wagner hit on this point when he visited Cary Academy recently and talked about how diversity is key to success in the 21st century.
We know the numbers. The US continues to become a much more diverse place, where whites will no longer hold the majority of the US population by 2043. Students today will have many more jobs than their parents, increasing rates of exposure to those with different backgrounds, experiences, or beliefs. At Cary Academy, more of our parents report having graduated from high school overseas than in the Triangle area.
The Real Value: Inclusivity
The problem isn’t really with diversity or even understanding its value. That train has left the station. (Getting safer with the metaphors, I hope.) The real issue, as University of Kentucky professor Christine Riordan writes in the Harvard Business Review, is that diversity is useless without inclusivity.
This is where things get a little sideways. At least, this is where the hard work begins and why I felt a little hesitant about even writing about the subject.
Issues of culture, race, religion and sexual orientation bring tremendous baggage that can make all of us uncomfortable and uncertain about how to proceed — for fear of offending, out of frustration that we are not understood, or simply because we don’t have the personal experiences or context to make meaning. In schools, the issues can be compounded because we are working with developing minds, where families, communities, and churches often also have a strong stake in the conversations.
The complexity of these issues hit home for me last month when I was attending a conference for North Carolina independent school heads. We were reviewing some aggregate survey data about constituents’ priorities and their feelings about performance in those areas. (Cary Academy did not participate.) The data indicated that trustees, parents, faculty, students, and alumni put a lower importance on “diversity” in our schools than most other items (academics, athletics, clubs, character building, etc). It also showed that they thought our schools were performing more poorly in the area of diversity compared to other items in the survey.
A discussion ensued. Did this data indicate that since diversity wasn’t that important we shouldn’t worry about performance? Is it a waste of time spending energy to improve an area that people didn’t care about? Most of the room of white, middle-age males deferred as an African-American male head of school and a female head of school spoke up. I didn’t dare say a thing.
Upon further reflection, had I the courage to speak I would have argued that the low importance people place on diversity is our fault. By our fault, I mean the fault of school leadership. We need to articulate why diversity is important, even if we mess up a bit along the way. We need to encourage more dialog about the importance of inclusivity rather than shy away from the conversations just because we know they can be uncomfortable or for fear that we might mess up and offend.
The risks are real. I think this is because at times one person’s inclusivity can feel like another’s exclusivity. Diversity and inclusion are great in theory, until they runs smack into something impacting you or somebody you love.
A friend whose child attends another school recently learned he was accepted at an Ivy League university. He happens to be a pretty darn good athlete, and it wasn’t long before other parents were openly speculating that was the only reason he got in. I have no idea, but I do know that he is both smart and athletic. In a similiar vein, administrators at schools that accept international students often hear complaints that those very talented and affluent kids will somehow take college places from their children. Some people are still trying to make sense of the news that nearly half of Harvard’s incoming classes are now students of color.
The Conversations Are The Point
Discussions about race and sexual orientation have challenged us at Cary Academy. I have been proud of the way that our parents, employees, and students have engaged in conversations over the past few years, including the most recent discussions following our MLK speaker, judge Lori Christian, who shared some important perspectives on race and our justice system. These conversations are hard. We don’t go out of our way to make people uncomfortable, but it is fundamental to our mission as a learning community that we allow these conversations to take place.
A difficult question can arise when certain topics seem to push against values, either religious or family-based. For example, it is not unreasonable to ask: If I’m uncomfortable about topics such as same-sex marriage, then how can you say you are being inclusive by allowing them to be discussed in your school?
I don’t have a quick and ready answer, and quite frankly anything I say probably won’t be satisfactory to somebody who is feeling aggrieved. I do suspect that allowing that line of reasoning would be the quickest way to shut down most challenging, real-world conversations at a school — and then we wouldn’t have much of a learning community left. Exposure to significant issues of the day is core to our mission and essential preparation for the complex world of college life that awaits our graduates.
In fact, you might consider such discussions central to the purpose of education — to help our students exercise judgement in the world. To do this, we need to embrace a form of cosmopolitanism: the artful blending of reflective openness to new people and ideas with a developed sense of your own personal and cultural identity.
So, we plug along in the spirit of good will and trust, trying to be as open and respectful as we can along the way. That is certainly what I’ve tried to accomplish here, and I thank you letting me share some of the ways I still wrestle with these important topics.
Perhaps it is fitting during Black History Month to let Dr. Martin Luther King have the last word: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. … Intelligence plus character – that is the goal of true education.“