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Diversity Starts Earlier than College, Mr. Bruni

December 13, 2015

NYTimes op ed writer Frank Bruni’s column in today’s paper is titled “The Lie About College Diversity”. The column describes the challenge colleges face in getting students to mingle with classmates who are in different affinity groups and to be tolerant of those who hold different beliefs. After offering examples of this phenomenon from coast to coast and from elite colleges to State universities, he offers a good way for colleges to address the problem:

If colleges were as deeply invested in making sure that their students confronted diversity as in amusing and coddling them, they’d work harder than they do to change that.

More schools would require students to mingle in, and even contribute to, the cities and towns around them. They’d also pay greater heed to how gagged so many politically conservative faculty members and students feel.

In the process, they’d prove that admissions practices aimed at diversity aren’t just liberal, politically correct reflexes. They’re the vital first step toward a college experience that does what it should: unveil the complexity and splendor of the world, and prepare students to be thoughtful citizens of it.

But Bruni misses the fact that this siloing by affinity groups doesn’t begin in college: it begins at the outset of a students schooling. That oversight in his part led me to live this comment:

Mr. Bruni writes that  “…education’s mission (is) to challenge ingrained assumptions, disrupt entrenched thinking, broaden the frame of reference” and yet in earlier columns he has advocated the “reform movement’s” success by referencing higher standardized test scores. Teaching to tests will not fulfill Mr. Bruni’s mission for schools. Indeed, the charter school movement with it’s emphasis on specialized K-12 schools sets the “affinity grouping” in place before students even set foot in college as does the neighborhood and community residence patterns. If we as a nation want schools that “…challenge ingrained assumptions, disrupt entrenched thinking, broaden the frame of reference” we need to challenge the factory model that uses testing to measure performance, disrupt the attendance zones, and broaden the public’s conception of what schools are expected to accomplish. 

After attending my 50th high school reunion I was reminded that affinity grouping is not a new phenomenon. The former athletes, former band members, former drama club members, former honor students, and former “shop students” all reminisced about their common experiences in high school… but despite our diverse destinations we all did share a common space in time and at the very least intermingled in the hallways, homerooms, sporting events, and assemblies. Better than that, though, was what happened after school when we shared experiences playing pick-up basketball on playgrounds, attending inter-denominational youth fellowship activities in churches, and shopping in the downtown grocery and department stores that served local residents from all walks of life.

Without the chance to encounter people from different backgrounds in schools and in the community I do not believe I would have the same appreciation for the importance of diversity. We need to find ways to get students who now live in “affinity communities” to “mingle in, and even contribute to, the cities and towns around them” so that they, too, can appreciate the perspectives of others.

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