McWhorter Watch: How a Diverse Classroom Reinforced His Opposition to Affirmative Action
Manhattan Institute Fellow John McWhorter
Manhattan Institute Fellow John McWhorter’s recent column on a teaching experience at Columbia University (“A Look at Real Diversity,” March 17, 2009) begins on an uncharacteristically humble note. McWhorter is reknown for his insistence that there is no inherent educational benefit in having a diverse student body. His March 17th column, however, begins with an admission that his prior dismissal of the value of diversity may have been a bit too hasty. McWhorter explains:
I have been teaching a class at Columbia on Western Civilization since September.
The class is highly diverse. By that, I mean that among the 21 students there is an Orthodox Jew, a child of Russian immigrants, and a couple of Korean-Americans. Plus a Chinese-American. And one of them grew up in France; just why she has no accent I have never been quite sure, but culturally she is more French than American. One student is even seven feet tall. And Catholic.
Yes, I have had four black students, and a few Latino ones. They’re “diverse” too.
This has been a lesson for me in the benefits of diversity in education. Back in my days as a Berkeley linguistics prof, I was teaching linguistics, a scientific field in which there was little coherent concept of a “diverse” contribution: subordinate clauses have no ethnicity.
But here is a class on the intellectual heritage of our civilization. This is the kind of class that fans of racial preferences in university admissions tell us will be enriched by diversity.
And I heartily agree that discussion in my class would have been much less interesting and rewarding if all of the students were upper-middle-class white kids from the suburbs. If Columbia has created this vibrant mixture by attending to more than grades and test scores in composing their student body, then I applaud them mightily. I was in love with my students after a week and a half and will miss them immensely.
I you believe that this mildly transformative experience may have turned McWhorter into a advocate for affirmative action, though, you are sorely mistaken. Indeed, the demographics of his class, with its wide range of students from European and Asian immigrant backgrounds and U.S. ethnic and religious minorities seems to have taught him that while diversity can indeed contribute to the educational experience of college students, there is no particular reason that specific measures should be taken to attract Blacks and Latinos. Writes McWhorter, “my year’s experience has given no demonstration whatsoever of the benefit of diversity as we are supposed to tacitly understand it: i.e. the presence of black and Latino students alone.”
Indeed, McWhorter has concluded from this experience that Black and Latino students may not even contribute to the type of diversity that truly enhances the classroom experience. Remember that scene in George Orwell’s Animal Farm when the leaders of the government declare that “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”? Well, McWhorter’s version might read, “all minorities are diverse, but some are more diverse than others.” SpecifIcally, he believes that there is no guarantee that the truly non-mainstream perspectives and analyses in class will be offered up by students from either of these two ethnic groups. And, thus his continued rejection of affirmative action strategies, most of which are directed toward building the numbers of students from underrepresented minority groups (Black and Latino students).
There was nothing particularly “diverse,” recalls McWhorter, about the opinions and experiences of U.S. Blacks in his class. Their privilege and their acculturation within this, the nation of their birth, most often found them with opinions quite similar to their white, non-immigrant classmates. Instead, explains McWhorter,
the most consistently and usefully “diverse” opinions and observations in the class have come from the Orthodox Jew, who firmly believes that the Old Testament is prophecy from on high, is fluent in Hebrew, and is part of a culture more distinct from mainstream America’s than any culture evinced by my brown students.
And so, I must ask: Is the potential contribution that their difference might add to the classroom experience the only justifiable reason for actively recruiting Black and brown students? If their classroom comments don’t enhance the classroom experience by injecting into discussion commentary and analytical frameworks that somehow manifests diversity, should the affirmative action efforts to increase Black and Latino student numbers on U.S. campuses be scrapped? Should the value of campus diversity be evaluated based on the impact that it has within the classroom — or even on the campus — or is it more important (and more relevant) to consider the impact that diverse student bodies (and thus diverse cohorts of well-educated Americans entering the workforce every year) have on the larger society?
I don’t know how McWhorter would respond to these questions, but I have the sneaking suspicion that he and I would disagree.
Posted by Ajuan Mance