The Magazine for Leaders in Education: The importance of diversity – from our perspective

The importance of diversity – from our perspective – Brief Article

Howard Greene

Affirmative action has become the subject of one of the most protracted and heated debates in American education today. Diversity rests at the center of many of the most important conversations on higher education and college admissions. We don’t seek here to address the fundamental legal and political debates of affirmative action. What we’d like to do is affirm the relevance of diversity to the decisions that many students and parents make about college.

Why would students in a small town high school fervently embrace the establishment of an A Better Chance Foundation house, in which students of a variety of cultural backgrounds live to take advantage of the education offered in the local public school? “My family is an A Better Chance host family because we believe that everyone deserves an equal chance in life. Through this program we have been able to provide that for one very special student, who has become more than just a friend. She has become another sister,” wrote one host student recently.

Why would a Jewish student in the 11th grade join a Unitarian-Universalist Church youth group? “This group is fulfilling because it is diverse in all ways: it’s welcoming, and it does not make skin-deep assumptions about people. I would like to go to a college that has a politically aware student body, a sense of community, and diversity,” wrote this junior.

These students echo the concerns and desires of so many college-bound young men and women today. They want a life beyond the confines of their local environment. They hope to experience new ideas, new challenges, and, importantly, new people. They see the world as a melting pot. To them, artificial lines of race, ethnicity, religion, geography, age and taste are made to be crossed, redefined and erased. And those students not yet interested in working toward such diversity surely could use such exposure to help broaden their worldviews.

When we speak of the diversity among a college or university student body, we mean much more than racial or ethnic diversity. We also consider socio-economic, geographic, international, intellectual, artistic and athletic, political, religious, sexual orientation. Parents and students tell us that diversity is one of the important criteria in evaluating an institution. A diverse student body reflects a college’s ability to attract, select, and retain a wide range of students with individual interests and talents, dedications and values, backgrounds and perspectives. Such diversity fosters intellectual and social growth. It forces students to challenge their assumptions and to learn. Highly selective or prestigious colleges are not always the most diverse places in some respects, and need to improve their performance, but they are extremely diverse in other ways that matter greatly to a student’s educational experience. Less selective institutions also constantly search for talented, interesting and diverse student populations. All institutions face the need to diversify faculty and staff rosters.

In most cases, diversity is not the top factor in a family’s educational planning, and there are many for whom “diversity” is a buzzword for an environment to be avoided. We have found that the large majority of students whom we counsel each year actively seek out diversity in its many forms and are disappointed when they visit a campus and see only one type of student. Certainly college-bound students want to find others like themselves on campus. They just do not want to find only students who shop from the same catalog.

As the American population changes, college graduates will need even more the skills and desire to deal with individuals with a wide array of backgrounds and perspectives. The fundamental goals of a liberal arts education–critical thinking, problem solving, exposure to a broad range of ideas and topics, communications skills–remain perfectly suited to help students negotiate a diverse world. Shouldn’t college campuses reflect that diversity?

Howard Greene and Matthew Greene

Independent educational consultants

COPYRIGHT 2001 Professional Media Group LLC

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