July 31, 2003

July 31, 2003 | Commentary on Education

The Myth of Multiculturalism

During the last few weeks before I began my freshman year at William & Mary, the school offered a learning experience that sounded like a pretty good deal.

 

It was a five-week seminar called the Summer Transition Program. It promised to help students "develop and enhance study habits, test-taking and time-management skills necessary for a successful college experience." It also sought to "create friendships" and a "lighter fall course load by offering three credits."

 

I couldn't participate, though. I'm white -- and the class was offered only to racial and ethnic minorities.

 

Which raises a few questions: Is William & Mary saying that only ethnic and racial minorities need extra help with study habits, test taking and time management? Do white freshmen already have these skills down cold? Wouldn't a class that counts as three hours of coursework and thus could be used to lighten the first-semester workload help all novice collegians?

 

Furthermore, why on earth would a friend of mine who scored 1490 on her SAT be invited to take such a course -- all expenses paid -- simply because she's Hispanic? You'd think anyone who scores a 1490 on the SAT has a pretty good handle on study habits, time management and, especially, test taking. At least that's what my friend thought. She took the invitation as an insult.

 

And why would the college seek to foster "friendships" exclusively among minority students? Isn't one of the purposes of college to meet and learn from students of different backgrounds? Doesn't cloistering minority students together for the first five weeks of their college education constitute a signal from the college that they need not -- indeed, should not -- mix with others?

 

Yes it does -- and that may be the point. When the academy looks around for the problems most in need of addressing, here is what it sees: "oppressive foundations of society such as white supremacy, capitalism, global socioeconomic situations and exploitation." That's according to Paul Gorski, an adjunct professor who specializes in diversity issues at the University of Virginia and George Mason University, and Bob Covert, an associate professor at Virginia.

 

Even if one concedes that these are the most pressing problems on campus, how do the Summer Transition Program and similar programs help? And, again, wouldn't we be better off addressing these problems together?

 

Sadly, some of those who fought so hard for desegregation now fight for re-segregation -- in the name of multiculturalism and diversity. They forget the very lesson they taught America 40 and 50 years ago, the message of Martin Luther King Jr.: That people be judged not by the color of their skin but by what's in their hearts and minds.

 

As Michael Boland, an editor of The Counterweight newspaper at Bucknell University wrote: "Meaningful diversity, the sort that actually enriches a university setting, springs from what's going on inside people's heads. It is not a function of what those people look like."

 

Yet diversity of color seems valued far more than diversity of thought in the very places where thought should matter most -- college campuses. Boland's remarks followed a public snubbing of Bucknell's Conservative Club. When the club sought a seat on the Multicultural Council of Presidents, an umbrella organization of minority student groups, the request was denied without explanation.

 

Conservatives take a lot of heat for allegedly being indifferent to the needs and struggles of minorities. Might helping other minorities get to know the members of the Conservative Club increase understanding?

 

Common sense seems to be on a leave of absence elsewhere, too. Three years ago at Penn State, a student chapter of Young Americans for Freedom was forbidden to register as a student organization because it had in its charter a statement that human rights are "God-given." The student-run group that certifies student organizations claimed this constituted religious discrimination, and the faculty group that reviews its decisions agreed. It took the president of the school to see the First Amendment implications and overturn the decision.

 

Wake Forest used to require incoming freshmen to attend a racism workshop in which whites were "ridiculed, abused, made to fail and taught helpless passivity so they can identify with 'a person of color for a day,'" according to Reason magazine. Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania topped that: It made freshmen line up by skin color, from lightest to darkest, and step forward and express how they felt about their place in the line.

 

Professor Gorski says the "metaphor of the melting pot is no longer functional" in America. In fact, it's more functional -- and more necessary -- than ever. Lincoln was right that a house divided against itself will not stand. America's universities need to realize that.

 

Jeanne McDonnell, a sophomore at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., is a summer 2003 intern at The Heritage Foundation.

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