August 11, 2007

Diversity Not Panacea, Leads To Lower Social Capital

So says the sure-to-be controversial findings of a Harvard professor:
IT HAS BECOME increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam -- famous for "Bowling Alone," his 2000 book on declining civic engagement -- has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

"The extent of the effect is shocking," says Scott Page, a University of Michigan political scientist.
Whoops! And CU just hired a new diversity czar:
The University of Colorado announced Friday that Sallye McKee will become the first vice chancellor for diversity, equity and community engagement.
. . .
"I want students to say, 'Because I was at CU-Boulder, I'm able to live and work better as a leader in a global society,'" McKee said. "We want to work on building a campus climate that is safe and respectful."

The new position elevates the dialogue about diversity to the chancellor's cabinet.

"This is a very important step as a university," said Chancellor G.P. "Bud" Peterson. "When the senior leadership team meets to talk about issues of all sorts, the diversity perspective will be present at the table and have input. That hasn't always been the case."
Not sure what the "diversity perspective" is, other than what it has traditionally been--a token minority. Too bad CU doesn't mean diversity of ideas, of thoughts. The pop multiculturalism on college campuses these days tends toward stressing the inherent differences of cultures, the superiority of those "outside the norm" (non-white, non-Christian), and the inevitable Balkanization of campus social groups. While an undergraduate, I was encouraged to spend more time with "my people" by joining UMAS y MeChA. Needless to say, identity politics was not what I had in mind when I considered expanding my thought horizon in college. Judgement by character and not skin color was what I had been relentlessly reminded of since elementary school--now skin color, ethnicity, etc. was the most important factor and indeed determinant of social position within the university.

Assuming that any group shares more than a superficial similarity in upbringing, socialization, etc. is nothing short of stereotyping. Assigning worth based on such assumptions--brown, LGBT, progressive = good; white, straight, conservative/Christian = bad--has been the polarizing mode of conduct for the past three decades. This avenue of "diversity" has produced the negative results, the loss in social capital that Putnam observes:
"People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to 'hunker down' -- that is, to pull in like a turtle," Putnam writes.

In documenting that hunkering down, Putnam challenged the two dominant schools of thought on ethnic and racial diversity, the "contact" theory and the "conflict" theory. Under the contact theory, more time spent with those of other backgrounds leads to greater understanding and harmony between groups. Under the conflict theory, that proximity produces tension and discord.

Putnam's findings reject both theories. In more diverse communities, he says, there were neither great bonds formed across group lines nor heightened ethnic tensions, but a general civic malaise. And in perhaps the most surprising result of all, levels of trust were not only lower between groups in more diverse settings, but even among members of the same group.

"Diversity, at least in the short run," he writes, "seems to bring out the turtle in all of us."
Within the context of the university, the tendency toward "hunkering down" overtakes all other dimensions, as students naturally flock to similarly-minded peers in social activities and clubs as they continue the process of "finding themselves". Even the most "open-minded" eventually find the group or social milieu that best expresses their sense of being or answers some of their questions. This is, in fact, encouraged.

The backlash to this study should be interesting to follow (unless, of course, they choose to suppress it). If this is what is meant by academic freedom--challenging the status quo with rigorous scholarship and meaningful study, then cheers to all. I'm sure the Ward Churchills of the academic world are none too pleased that one of their shibboleths has been challenged in the public's eye.

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