Inadequate and Superfluous

Ashley Thorne

Do college freshmen really need mandatory diversity indoctrination even before they start classes? Princeton University officials thought so, and it gave incoming students an early dose of the doctrine so dear to the hearts of higher education's diversiphiles.  

Stan Katz, professor of public and international affairs at Princeton, was asked to speak at freshman orientation on the evening intended to prompt students to “reflect on diversity.” His twenty-minute speech followed shorter messages by three undergraduate students: a gay Mexican-American man, a Muslim Iranian-American woman in a hijab, and a 300-pound African-American record-setting shot-putter. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Multicolored Tiger,” (subscription required) Katz described the three as “simply extraordinary, both in their eloquence and their honesty about the growth of their realization of their personal identities.” He noted that they “were all advisers in our residential colleges, and clearly among the most civically engaged of their peers.” The students spoke about struggles with their respective decisions to come out as a homosexual, to wear a hijab, and to be comfortable in a 300-pound body.

Professor Katz, sobered by the students’ remarks, was embarrassed to follow them with his speech. He wrote that he “felt pretty inadequate (and superfluous), given the impact of the student speakers.” Dr. Stan Katz, with three degrees from Harvard and at least fifty years of life experience on these undergrads, felt inadequate to speak about diversity.  

Why did he feel inadequate? Why superfluous? It seems he was simply too aware of his own white maleness. The inadequacy he felt was fear of not being taken seriously—and he was probably right to have this fear. The campus diversity doctrine teaches that if you don’t fit into certain social categories, you have something to be ashamed of. The doctrine reserves credibility for those who fit into these categories. Those who don’t belong should feel inadequate and superfluous. Dr. Katz’s misgivings are exactly what the diversity movement aims to effect.

Professor Katz did manage to speak about his fear of discrimination as a young Jewish student, and to pose some thought-provoking questions:

But I asked the students to reflect on the meaning of diversity for their college experience. Is diversity an end in itself? Does the celebration of diversity encourage self-absorption and identity politics? Is diversity the end, or is it the means to achieving the campus civil society in which liberal education can truly thrive?

That second question is well worth asking. Does the celebration of diversity encourage self-absorption and identity politics? Several of Katz’s readers think so. One parent commented:

I do not see how encouraging students to think of themselves on day one as members of various identity groups is helpful to this process. It inevitably leads them to view themselves—and everyone else to view them—narrowly as representatives of identity groups, rather than as complex and multi-faceted human beings. (I won't even go into how narrowly "diversity" is defined on most campuses.) This may be good for the campus diversity bureaucracy, but I cannot imagine it is good for students.

But all this escaped Professor Katz, who concluded with a sigh, “I am pretty sure my remarks must have seemed pretty pale (I use the term deliberately) and timid compared to those of the student speakers.”

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