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Rethinking Diversity

Digressions

By Sue Meng

It’s an interesting time to be a columnist these days: with war abroad, the threat of SARS infiltrating our borders and affirmative action debacles at home, it’s hard not to adopt a tone that tends towards the apocalyptic.

And so comes some reassuring news: Harvard College admissions are as watertight as ever, with only a mere 9.8 percent winnowed out of a pool of over 20,000. This new ratio—one lucky first-year out of ten—elicits pride from the Admissions Office and strikes fear into the hearts of every parent with a high school junior at home.

In other words, Harvard remains the citadel of higher education (Yale trails at 11.4 percent), and it is becoming harder and harder to get a foot in the door. Giving tours and information sessions for hopeful students and their even more hopeful parents, who rattle off admissions statistics and ACT/IB/AP/SAT numbers even more glibly than admissions officers themselves, makes me glad that I’ve got both feet firmly planted on this side of Byerly Hall. On a recruiting trip a few weeks ago, I was enthusiastically given a resume by a girl who was a professional model, concert pianist and champion debater. Her resume is a full two pages longer than mine, with “Vogue” and “Seventeen” listed under a lengthy “Publications” section. I dutifully passed on her resume to the Admissions Office and thanked my lucky stars I am graduating college rather than high school. After a day spent with these wunderkinds, I flip on “The Bachelor” and feel just about ready for life in a nursing home.

But, aside from the 3,100 valedictorians and 5,000 Princeton Review poster children, the most touted number in these new admissions statistics is that a historic 10.2 percent of the Class of 2007 are African-American. With the Michigan cases currently being heard before the Supreme Court, such a number is especially significant, underscoring the College’s commitment to racial diversity as one of the cornerstones of a comprehensive education. Harvard’s amicus brief maintains the importance of race as a factor in admissions, arguing “[it is a] fact that a racially diverse class improves the educational process by exposing students, both in the classroom and through their informal interactions, to a broad range of experiences and viewpoints.”

What is troubling about arguments like these is that racial diversity is automatically and easily equated with intellectual diversity—a one stop panacea against a nightmarish campus where everyone looks, thinks and dresses alike. If a racially diverse class guarantees a broad range of experiences and viewpoints, is race then an umbrella term for socio-economic disparities, religious differences and political polarities? The assumption that race itself is a sufficient standard of diversity at times reinforces the barriers such diversity is meant to dismantle: instead of highlighting the mutuality of experience that can be fostered through dialogue and debate, such a conceptualization of race underscores the inherent “otherness” of those who are racially different.

A more compelling measure of the diversity of the Class of 2007 is found in the less glamorous numbers: it is a class evenly divided among musicians and writers and actors and artists and budding politicians, among those interested in the humanities, sciences and social sciences. The broad range of experiences and viewpoints that these differences suggest goes beyond racial diversity: these differences are ones between individuals rather than the groups to which they belong. Race is a factor, certainly, in shaping individual experience, but it is not necessarily the most important, nor does it ensure a real diversity of ideas. Particularly at a university, ideas rather than race should be the primary currency of diversity.

Harvard does an admirable job of putting together classes composed of true individuals. After a recent visit to a school where homogeneity was the natural state of existence (had I stayed there any longer I thought I too would sprout blonde hair and don pastel miniskirts) I came back ready to hug everyone from the guy who resembles Shrek in my English section to John Lopez in Leverett House (hello John) who wears Hawaiian shirts in the dead of winter. Quirky is the first word that comes to mind when describing people I have come to share my life with here: the poetry writing, tarot-card reading, personal-ad posting English concentrator from Florida, the right-of-right conservative Indigo Girls fan from New York, a hippie classicist from North Carolina. And although there may be a bigger proportion of Nalgene-sporting anti-war activists here than most places elsewhere, I think we have more than a fair share of eccentric characters whose ideas, backgrounds, beliefs, soapboxes and idiosyncrasies make it a consistently surprising place to get an education.

This is not to say that college admissions should necessarily be race-neutral, but that consideration of racial diversity should be only a beginning, and not an end, when talking about, as Harvard does in its amicus brief, “the powerful educational value of student diversity.” Diversity in its most raw, most powerful form is calculated based on the richness of our conversations rather than the incremental rise and fall of admissions statistics.

Sue Meng ’02 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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