Education and diversity

Media ecologist and culture critic Neil Postman:

The idea of diversity is a rich narrative around which to organize the schooling of the young. But there are right reasons to do this, and wrong ones. The worst possible reason . . . is to use the fact of ethnic diversity to inspire a curriculum of revenge; that is, for a group that has been oppressed to try to even the score with the rest of America by singling itself out for excessive praise and attention. Although the impulse to revenge is in itself understandable, such a view will lead to weird falsifications, divisiveness, and isolation.

* * *

There is, in addition, another reason for emphasizing diversity, one of which we may be skeptical. I refer to the psychological argument that claims the self-esteem of some students may be raised by focusing their attention on the accomplishments of their own kind, especially if the teachers are of their own kind. I cannot say if this is so or not, but it needs to be pointed out that while a diminished self-esteem is no small matter, one of the main purposes of public education—it is at the core of a common culture—is the idea that students must esteem something other than self.

* * *

Diversity does not mean the disintegration of standards, is not an argument against standards, does not lead to a chaotic, irresponsible relativism. It is an argument for the growth and malleability of standards, a growth that takes place across time and space and that is given form by differences of gender, religion, and all the other categories of humanity.

Thus, the story of how language, art, politics, science, and most expressions of human activity have grown, been vitalized and enriched through the intermingling of different ideas is one way to organize learning and to provide the young with a sense of pride in being human. In this story, we do not read Gabriel García Márquez to make Hispanic students happy, but because of the excellence of his novels. That Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay were women is not irrelevant, but we ask students to know their work because their poems are good, not to strike a blow for feminism. We read Whitman and Langston Hughes for the same reason, not because the former was a homosexual and the latter African-American. Do we learn Einstein because he was Jewish? Marie Curie because she was Polish? Aristotle because he was Greek? Confucius because he was Chinese? Cervantes because he was handicapped? Do we listen to the music of Grieg because he was a short Norwegian, or Beethoven because he was a deaf German? In the story of diversity, we do not learn of these people to advance a political agenda or to raise the level of students’ self-esteem. We learn about these people for two reasons: because they demonstrate how the vitality and creativity of humanity depend on diversity, and because they have set the standards to which civilized people adhere. The law of diversity thus makes intelligent humans of us all.

The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Education


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