February 7, 2011    EducationRace

What Diversity Means for Schools

These days, we tend to assume that “diversity” is a universally desirable quality, especially when applied to a group of people. I’m guessing it’s because the theory of evolution is now thoroughly in the domain of popular culture, and because “diversity” is a key concept that allows the process of natural selection to work. My daughter, Annika, attends a public school that prides itself for its “diversity”. In terms of the racial makeup of the school, it is indeed diverse, but having spent a year and a half there, I began to wonder what “diversity” means under the skin. I believe that diversity in and of itself is neither good nor bad. The question is how it is implemented. The fact that any school is “diverse” by itself does not mean anything.

Annika previously attended a private school where the parents were quite rich, predominantly white, and shared similar values. The ticket to attend their fundraising party was a thousand dollars even for the parents whose children attended the school, and nobody complained. Everyone agreed with the basic ways that the school operated. There were no major dramas or screaming fights.

The difference between this private school and her school now is day and night. Whenever a group of parents meets in the PTA room to discuss issues, it is as if they happen to get stuck in an elevator and are trying to work together to get out of it. The diversity is quite apparent; not just racially, but also socio-economically, philosophically, and culturally. The fact that they do get things done, albeit less efficiently, is almost miraculous. This is a level of diversity that I’ve never had to contend with before in my life.

In our ordinary lives, most of us seek out others who share similar values and interests. If you studied finance in school, you might go work for a bank on Wall Street. You would then meet a lot of other people just like you. But, suppose you throw a dart at a classified page and get a job at a graphic design studio. You would probably experience a culture shock. Not many people would do this. Most of us isolate ourselves into small homogeneous worlds of like-minded people. And, we do not even realize that we do this. Here is an illustration of this point that I recently read in a book [I cannot remember which book it was]. The chance of meeting someone with a PhD from a truly randomized group of people is very slim, but if you have a PhD yourself, chances are, you would know a lot of other people with PhD’s. This means you live in a highly unusual group of people. This isn’t just about the level of eduction. All of us live in highly unusual groups. For instance, If you studied graphic design in school, you would know a lot of other designers, and that is even more unusual than living in a community of PhD’s.

In this way, we all live in an unusual or atypical world. That is, living in an unusual world is the norm in our societies. A public school, especially in New York City, is unusual in that it is not unusual; it comes pretty close to a random sampling of the people who live in your neighborhood. We rarely work together in a group of randomly selected people (another rare example is jury duty). Even if you participate in a community garden in your neighborhood, you still share your interest in gardening with the others, which is quite specific. Public schools are far more random because just about the only thing you share in common with the others is that you have a child and you live in the same geographical area. And, the latter does not mean much in a diverse city like New York. I happen to live in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in New York, which means I have this rare opportunity to see what happens when a truly random group of people meet and try to work together.

At Annika’s school, we cannot use email as an official mode of communication, because there are families who do not have access to the Internet at home. This means that every time we need to communicate something to everyone, we need to use both email and so-called “backpack mail” that the students can take home. As you could imagine, the process of distributing printed letters to all the students is quite time-consuming, labor-intensive, and expensive. But we have to do it because we need to respect the socio-economic diversity of the school. Every time someone suggests communicating only electronically, there is a strong opposition to it. At the private school Annika attended previously, it wouldn’t even occur to anyone to oppose such an idea. By default, they chose tools that can get the job done most efficiently and cost-effectively.

Not adopting the latest technological tools of efficiencies has many serious disadvantages. For one, the gap in productivity between Annika’s school and others will keep widening. The time, energy, and money that the school teachers and staff spend in preparing and distributing these backpack letters could be spent on improving the academic performance of the students at other schools. But at the same time, the respect for diversity reflected in this practice is a message we silently send to our kids. To some degree, it reminds me of the performance art piece by the artist duo, McDermott and McGough, who lived an authentic lifestyle of the 19th century, wearing top hats, lighting their house only with candles, and traveling only by boats and trains.

Beyond these practical issues of diversity, what is most fascinating to observe is how people cope with diversity politically, psychologically and emotionally. Firstly, most parents see “diversity” as something their children are learning and experiencing, and do not consider what the parents themselves are learning from it. When they face seemingly irreconcilable disagreements, they become frustrated and emotional. In one instance I know of, a teacher stormed out of the room crying, and in many other meetings, screaming fights ensued. After experiencing these highly emotional and stressful confrontations, many teachers and parents end up walking away from it all. The principal makes concerted efforts to protect his teachers from the parents by controlling the way the parents can communicate or interact with them. Ironically, from the perspective of an omnipresent God, the kids are probably doing a better job coping with diversity than the adults are. The kids have no choice. They are told to deal with it, whereas the parents and the teachers can walk away or put up a protective wall, and avoid the difficult aspects of diversity.

This sets up a chicken-or-egg situation where the only people who are still willing to confront the unpleasant aspects of diversity are those who tend to be naturally confrontational or are not afraid of confrontations. Imagine a room full of naturally confrontational people with greatly differing opinions. It is no wonder why emotions run high at our meetings, and this further discourages others from participating.

I often get a sense that most teachers and parents did not think about the implications of diversity for themselves before they chose a school that prides itself for its diversity. Because they see “diversity” as an educational philosophy for their children, they might not have considered what it means for themselves. The teachers who do not like confrontations, for instance, would probably be much happier if they taught at private schools.

Because of this confrontational nature of diversity, the leaders at every level of the school are overwhelmed by the task of calming everyone down. Some of the leaders tend to see this as their primary job, and resolving the actual issues at hand as secondary. That is, if they manage to calm everyone down, they feel their job is accomplished, and no efforts are made to synthesize the differences into a workable solution. If everyone operated this way, nothing will ever get done, but a lot of things do miraculously get done. How? Interestingly, they do what they do in our societies at large; they naturally form sub-groups of like-minded people. Each “committee” of the PTA is a group of like-minded people who can move efficiently and get things done, and has a natural tendency to purge those who are too different, not just in terms of their ideas, but also in terms of their communication styles. This tendency to form homogeneous sub-groups leads to criticisms of exclusivity (“cliquey”, “exclusive clubs”, “undemocratic”, etc..). Then concerted efforts are made to be inclusive, but after a while, all the sub-groups naturally tend towards homogeneity again just for the sake of getting things done. It is as if we have a love-and-hate relationship with “diversity”.

Iraq is a nation with a great diversity of religions. Some people argue that Iraq should be split into three different countries, divided by their religious orientations. However, the problem is that such a move would encourage each country to be theocratic. Democracy is very much like natural selection; it wouldn’t work if there is not enough diversity. In a nation full of Christians, for instance, Christianity would dominate the political system, and all the other religions would be oppressed. Democracy is a self-organizing system that requires certain ingredients for it to work. The reason why democracy works so well in the US is because there is a great diversity. An alternative to democracy for effectively organizing a diverse group of people is dictatorship, which is what Iraq had during Saddam Hussein’s rule. It works as long as the leader is strong enough. To manage diversity, we need either a strong leader or a strong political structure.

Interestingly enough, Annika’s school was founded by a principal with strong leadership. Shortly before Annika joined the school, she had retired and a new principal was assigned. Among the parents who knew the original principal, she is a legendary character and I hear nothing but great things about her. I do not mean to compare her to Saddam Hussein, but some people at school have described her style as “an iron fist” in a good way because she was a great force of unity. However, the problem with relying on a strong leadership to manage diversity is that the organization would descend into chaos if the leader were to be removed. As in Iraq, the parents and the teachers at Annika’s school are now scrambling to learn self-organizing skills because they did not need them before. Indeed, the last few years at Annika’s school have been a period of transition from a strong leader to a strong self-organizing structure. If we can succeed in the latter, we would in fact be better off than before.

As described above, diversity is a disadvantage in terms of productivity. This is part of the reason why Japan is so good at production. Being a highly homogeneous society gave them a big advantage over the US especially in the 70s and 80s. However, homogeneous societies have difficulty adapting to changing environments. Japan’s economy has been on a steady decline for the past 20 years. Because Korea and China are now equally good at production, Japan has lost its competitive edge and has failed to reinvent themselves. Homogeneity allows a nation or a species to become highly efficient at a specific task, but when that specialized skill is no longer relevant, they quickly go extinct. Furthermore, homogeneity is not conducive to creativity because creativity is achieved by making unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. A homogeneous group of people has a hard time achieving this because their pool of knowledge is also homogeneous. In diversity, we sacrifice bits of efficiency and productivity for creativity.

Homogeneous societies and groups of people are much easier to manage, but, as with anything easy, the reward is small. In comparison, going for diversity is a big gamble. Depending on how we manage diversity, it could descend into utter chaos, or flourish creatively. People don’t automatically love one another when they are just randomly grouped together. One Korean-American man told me that he is quite glad that he went to a predominantly Asian school because his self-esteem was never damaged by the experience of racism at school. He said he has met a lot of other Asians in college, and those who went to racially diverse schools had many serious psychological and emotional issues because of the discrimination they experienced at their schools. I’ve met many Asians who talk about racism in a deeply bitter tone even as adults. It makes me want to ask, “Is it really that bad?” To them it is, because every experience of racism, however subtle it is, brings back their childhood memories. In this way, if “diversity” is not managed well, it can be a traumatic experience for a child. Just as we don’t expose our kids to hardcore pornography, we need to introduce certain realities of life in a controlled manner.

So, how should we manage diversity? I’m not sure. Each organization would have to find a structure that works for them. Annika’s school is grappling with this question right now. Although most people are not consciously treating this as an issue of diversity, they realize the need for a stronger organizational structure to replace the strong leader who left. I’m quite curious to see what happens. Would an effective organizational structure emerge out of our struggle? Or, would we fall apart? We’ll see.