Diversity and Homogeneity

A commenter writes:

If law schools care so much about diversity, then why do they encourage segregated student groups?

Law schools should cut all funding to identity groups, except where that identity is directly related to law. Want to hang out with your black friends and discuss black issues? Do it on your own dime. Want to hang out with your Christian friends and discuss being Christian? Cool, but you have to pay for your own pizza. Want to get together with people who like environmental law and talk about environmental law, craft beer and organic, free range pizza for all

This argument seems to be something of a straw man. Law schools argue that they care about diversity, both in the sense of having students be exposed to the views and experiences of people of various religious groups, sexual orientations, and so on, and in the sense of teaching future lawyers to get along well with people from other groups. Sometimes this is a cover for simply wanting to get more students of particular races (chiefly blacks and Hispanics) in the school, for the sake of some sort of racial proportionality. But often it is a sincere and plausible view of what is helpful to students’ education. (I disagree with some ways of accomplishing this, such as by giving students preferences based on race, but that’s a different matter.)

But it hardly follows, it seems to me, that diversity should be the only goal, and that law schools view it as the only goal. There are also plausible arguments that students’ education can be enhanced by sometimes being around other students who share the students’ background and interests that often stem from that background. Black students who, rightly or wrongly, feel isolated in some measure from classmates because of their race could find it useful to spend some time around black classmates; and being together with other black classmates can help them think about legal questions that turn to be of special interest to many blacks (though not all blacks and not necessarily just blacks). Devoutly Christian students who wonder how they can incorporate their religious convictions into their future legal work — for instance, how they can reconcile their duties to clients with duties to God — could find it helpful to spend some time around Christian classmates.

Indeed, if you set aside ideological battles and look at the lives of reasonable ordinary people, I think you’ll see this mix of a desire for diversity and homogeneity. A Christian or Jew might both deliberately expose himself to people of all religions — since he knows he has to learn to work well with them — and want to spend some time talking to people who share his own religion. A woman might have many male friends, and value the perspective that such friendships can provide, but might also want a girls’ night out on occasion. A person might love being an American, and deliberately avoid locking himself in a, say, Korean-American social circle, might nonetheless find value in occasionally focusing on the Korean part of his identity, and spending time with those who share that identity. These are quite reasonable attitudes to take towards enriching one’s own personal life education. They seem to be reasonable attitudes to take towards enriching one’s students’ education.

Now one might argue that, even if this is reasonable, it’s something that universities shouldn’t do. And I think that at some point that’s probably right; I’m skeptical, for instance, of race-themed university housing, partly because it’s likely to err too much in the direction of self-segregation. But I don’t think that having student groups (which get a very modest amount of university funding) that focus on particular interest areas and identities is likely to be excessively segregating. And whether or not I’m right on this empirical question of educational effectiveness, I don’t think that this question can be answered merely by asserting that universities’ “car[ing] so much about diversity” means that universities may never support groups that are homogeneous.

More broadly — and at the risk of sounding banal — I think this is a special case of the danger of assuming that one principle should be extended to its logical extreme, or that people who endorse that principle are obligated to take it to its logical extreme. Liberty is very important, but social survival requires a mix of liberty and community, and friends of liberty need not feel obligated to resist all communitarian constraints on liberty. (Consider, for instance, our duty to serve as jurors, or to testify when subpoenaed.) Equality of men and women is very important, but it’s not the only important thing, and supporters of such equality need not support it in all aspects. (Consider, for instance, the exclusion of women from many combat roles, and the existence of women-only sports teams, two policies that strike me as at least plausible, even to someone who generally supports sex equality.) And an institution that supports diversity may likewise think that sometimes some enclaves of homogeneity are nonetheless valuable and worth fostering. That a little bit of something is good, or even that a lot of it is good, doesn’t mean that more is always better.

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