Many colleges and universities require applicants for undergraduate admissions to write an essay describing the ways in which they’ll bring “diversity” to their hoped-for alma mater. Thisprocedure isn’t especially new. The diversiphiles first launched the tactic in the early 1990s. But required diversity essays have been getting renewed attention recently as they spread to graduate programs. In that light, we recently decided to examine the practice a bit more systematically.
We surveyed the application criteria at 20 of the most selective schools in the annual rankings of U.S. News & World Report. Many of those included in this small sample no longer maintain individualized applications, but use the Common Application Online (CAO) instead. The CAO doesn’t have a required diversity essay, but provides a diversity question as an option. Some of the colleges that use the CAO, however, make the question de rigueur. The CAO at Yale, for example, asks prospective students:
A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
That’s virtually identical with what you can expect to find at dozens of other institutions, where “diversity” is cultivated with tedious uniformity.
Let’s weigh this question. The first sentence simply asserts that the “range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences” adds to the “educational mix.” Few people would doubt that, and the sentence is no doubt written to command bland assent. But if we force it to stand up for inspection, it displays a remarkable intellectual slovenliness. When we go to college, we do indeed benefit from encountering people with views and experiences other than our own. But that encounter depends on something else: a shared commitment to the broader purposes of education. The enlivening “mix” that Yale would like to foster requires students, at some level, to put aside differences at least long enough to consider one another’s views.
The “diversity” doctrine doesn’t necessarily prevent that deeper sharing from taking place, but it does cut against it and urges students instead to huddle inside their pre-chosen identities. The Yale CAO question is the first of a long series of subtle steps that teach students to lead with their particularities and to cultivate a kind of group vanity.
The second sentence in the assignment (“Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.”) is a masterpiece of question-begging. What of the student who has slowly and painfully worked his way out of psychological isolation or social alienation to achieve a sense of identification with the larger community? Such a person would seem to have no acceptable answer to the task of explaining “the importance of diversity” to his own life. Would the Yale admissions office look favorably on the student who answered, “I have found ‘diversity’ to be a cudgel by which self-appointed elites attempt to enforce their preferences over others. Diversity to me has been the experience of having my individuality denied, suppressed, and demeaned. It is a word that summarizes a smarmy form of oppression that congratulates itself on its high-mindedness even as it enforces narrow-minded conformity.”
No, any student really seeking admission to Yale wouldn’t say such a thing. But chances are very good that a great many students harbor insights very much like that. They know their ethnic or racial categorization, their socio-economic status, and other such characteristics matter far more to admissions offices than their actual thoughts about who they are.
These “diversity” essay questions are never innocent. They are a tool to keep college applicants aligned with the dominant ideology on campus, which continues to favor group categorizations over both individuality and the broader claims of shared community.
A recent poster at our blog alerted us to the spread of the diversity essay to graduate program admissions as well. As destructive as these essays are at the undergraduate level, their seepage into graduate study is even more alarming. Surely graduate study should be about learning to participate fully in a discipline. The appearance of the diversity essay on this shore suggests that the ideology of group difference is making a bid to trump even that.
At the University of California, Berkeley – and irrespective of the specific program you’d like to pursue – all applicants to graduate programs must provide a Personal History Statement, according to the following criteria:
Please describe how your personal background informs your decision to pursue a graduate degree. Please include information on how you have overcome barriers to access opportunities in higher education, evidence of how you have come to understand the barriers faced by others, evidence of your academic service to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education, evidence of your research focusing on underserved populations or related issues of inequality, or evidence of your leadership among such groups.
Note that if you want to be a graduate student at
Berkeley, it’s not nearly enough that you personally add to the “diversity” of the graduate student body. You must also demonstrate that you have been out dynamiting social barriers to liberate others. You need a story about what you have done so far “to advance equitable access to higher education for women, racial minorities and individuals from other groups.”
Would Berkeley really reject a brilliant astrophysics student or a promising philosopher who replied, “Sorry. Not my thing. I have focused on my studies and advancing the frontiers of knowledge and inquiry in my field, not on social reform. In any case, I would have thought that ‘advancing equitable access’ isn’t relevant to my application."
Chances are that, as with the undergraduate applying to Yale, no one would be foolish enough to say this. We learn to go through the motions, appease the bureaucratic bullies that need to be appeased, and make up the stories necessary to pass gates like this. Most people accommodate. But that’s not to say that these rhetorical choke points have no effect. They teach the would-be student to whom and to what to bow. They enunciate the doctrines towards which the privately dissenting must be hypocritical and that the rest learn to accept as the piety of the age.
The Berkeley graduate application amounts to a requirement that the applicant prove his record as a pro-diversity activist if he want to get in. It’s a silly idea, and it is profoundly at odds with intellectual freedom, freedom of conscience, and the real purposes of education. Because of that, it is a requirement that probably won’t stand forever. “Diversity essays” are a First Amendment case waiting to happen.