Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Back When Harvard Was More Diverse

Andrew Ferguson’s book about the college application process contains, in passing, a vignette about Harvard and about the typical Harvard alumnus. After decades of various efforts to recruit more African-Americans, women, Latinos, and other demographic groups into the student body, Harvard has become less, not more, diverse than it had been in the distant past.

Yes, the student body now contains more African-Americans, more Latinos, more women, more Asians, and more representatives of other demographic segments. But it contains fewer diverse ideas and opinions.

In his book, Ferguson recounts a conversation with an acquaintance who interfaced with many Harvard grads:

“In a way you had more human diversity in the old Harvard,” a friend once told me, after a lifetime of doing business with Harvard graduates.

Diversity is not ensured by the optics of gender or skin pigmentation. Diversity is ensured by a spectrum of worldviews.

But the same university admissions process that included more African-Americans, women, and Latinos was the same process that insured that, among the incoming freshmen, there was a homogeneity of thought.

“It used to be the only thing an incoming class shared was blue blood. But bloodlines are a pretty negligible thing. It allows for an amazing variety in human types. You had real jocks and serious dopes, a few geniuses, a few drunks, a few ne’er-do-wells, and a very high percentage of people with completely average intelligence. Harvard really did reflect the country in that way back then.

Those who currently matriculate, not only at Harvard, but at many of the nation’s universities, have learned to shape themselves to look like what the application process wants them to. They’ve learned to write the same moving essays about overcoming obstacles, and to check the same boxes on their personal profiles for the admissions department.

They’ve spent years practicing, learning to give the right answers to the questions on the college applications. Some of those questions are, by the way, bizarre.

The diversity which is absent at many modern American universities is the diversity of human types.

“You still have a lot of blue bloods getting in, multigeneration Harvard families. But now a majority of kids coming into Harvard all share traits that are much more important than blood, race, or class. On a deeper level, in the essentials, they’re very much alike. They’ve all got that same need to achieve, focus, strive, succeed, compete, be the best or at least be declared the best by someone in authority. And they’ve all figured out how to please important people.”

What has asserted itself on campus, then, is not diversity. It is a type of group think.

Instead of lively debate, many campuses are dominated by a shocking uniformity.

Harvard grads disagree with this, of course. They like to say that the new Harvard represents the triumph of meritocracy.
No, my friend said. “It’s the triumph of a certain kind of person.”

If we speak of diversity on campus, we might ask how that diversity is measured and defined. To merely count noses of different colors is crass, coarse, and an insult to everyone’s humanity.

When students leave the university, and enter the everyday world of neighborhoods, schools, and grocery stores, they will not be surrounded only by people who spent the first eighteen years of their lives learning to give the right answers to the college application questions.

A campus with a true diversity of thought will better prepare its graduates for life after college, when they will encounter all types of people.