How to address the more robust and dangerous differences among us is, in many ways, the central question of our democracy. As an educator, I have long believed that our most important role in preparing students for responsible citizenship is to assist them in understanding the differences that can divide society and, more important, the role that they can play in navigating, alleviating and mediating those differences. I cannot imagine holding our country together without such capacities.
It is, therefore, with immense conviction that I advocate an intentionally diverse population of students on college campuses. While our missions necessarily require us to prepare students for a range of endeavors, we should not minimize the urgency of also helping them negotiate our many divisions. That is why the recent court decision affirming the consideration of differences, including racial differences, in the admissions process at Harvard University is so important. A student’s race is one factor that might inform his or her personal, social and educational perspectives. Intermingling these perspectives on a college campus enriches the learning experience for all students. Admissions officers should retain the ability to consider race along with other important attributes of an applicant’s profile.
I know something about where the lack of diversity in one’s education can lead. I was the last of 12 children born in a former sharecropper’s shack on a plantation in Grapeland, Tex. When I was 7, my family moved to Houston’s notorious “Bloody” Fifth Ward, then a stringently segregated community. Throughout elementary school, middle school and high school, every one of my classmates was black.
It is almost impossible to convey now what it was like to grow up in such a deeply troubled time when lack of understanding and fear of difference colored assumptions about intelligence and worth. Those biases shaped and limited thinking about possibilities in life, stunting the aspirations of generations. I often wonder what life would have been like for my grandparents and parents if their worth had been acknowledged and understood. Today, as I consider what my richly diverse higher education offered me, in contrast to my early life, I am surprised how little some understand the great societal advantage of integrated learning communities.
An interest in a more robust diversity eventually moved me beyond the confines of the Fifth Ward. After living with a Mexican family while studying in Saltillo, Mexico, I left my historically black college in Louisiana to study French at Wellesley College. I have forgotten many of my long-ago classmates, but I will always remember one white student in my Ancient Philosophy class at Wellesley. One day, when the discussion turned to apartheid in South Africa, she listened as several white students joined me in arguing against it. She eventually raised her hand, told us she was South African and gave a spirited defense of apartheid and its adherents. While I found her arguments unconvincing, she taught me the value of listening to and learning from difference. In that class full of people different from each of us, we both heard opinions we never would have heard in our home communities. The emphatic epiphany of that moment has remained with me throughout my life.
When I was testifying in the Harvard trial, an embarrassing moment overwhelmed me as I tried to explain in factual terms the importance of a diverse class. Recalling the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue, I started to cry. How, I thought, will we ever repair our country if we fail to bring differing young people together as we educate them?
It is not enough for students to learn passively; they must have their assumptions and ways of thinking challenged. The presence of diversity in the classroom provides that opportunity and makes for stronger and more effective participants in the human project.
Today, having left my position at Brown University and returned to an HBCU, I remain persuaded that my students at Prairie View A&M University deserve intense and extensive encounters with difference. African American students are in the majority here, but they encounter diversity on the campus as well as through our partnerships with colleges in the Texas A&M system, their work and study abroad, and extracurricular programming. When they seek my advice, I urge them to push beyond experiences readily at hand to embrace broader realities of thought and identity.
Harvard has a mission to educate citizens and leaders for our society. Without diversity, it could accomplish only part of that mission, for to lead in today’s world is to be prepared to mediate difference. That skill can be only partially acquired through theoretical study; the proximity of others offering different backgrounds and points of view is essential.