Campuses across the country are dedicated to “promoting diversity.” UW has “diversity champions” and a Provost of Diversity who lectures at forums on diversity and encourages us to “embrace diversity,” “achieve diversity,” and “design for diversity.” The Chancellor says that diversity isn’t really a goal, but a fact of existence. “There just isn’t enough recognition that human beings are different from one another,” she says.
What is this fetish with difference? Is it true that human differences are going unrecognized and “diversity” advocates are merely bringing this to light, or is there more to the story? To see what the advocates of diversity are really after we need to look a little deeper.
Everything is different; no two rocks or people are the same in every respect. But in many ways things are essentially the same and should be treated as such. Snowflakes, for example, are different in size and shape, yet we ignore these differences when shoveling, sledding or skiing because the differences are non-essential – they are differences that make no difference. Thus, we treat snowflakes as essentially the same.
People too, are different in countless ways: height, weight, skin color, sex, etc. But in an important respect, people are the same. Individuals all possess the capacity to think, study, learn and develop character – they are all rational, volitional beings. This essential sameness is what unites civilized people. Politically, socially and academically, differences of skin color, sex, etc. are non-essential – they are differences that make no difference – and should be ignored. In this respect, individuals should be treated the same, ignoring irrelevant differences.
To embrace difference as a matter of policy is to jettison the essential process of selecting and discriminating between differences that are important and ones that are not. Failure to identify essential differences, such as one’s character and ideas, from non-essential differences, such as one’s skin color, is the essence of racism.
If this is so, why do advocates of diversity focus on physical attributes that are irrelevant to a person’s character and academic ability, while saying nothing in regard to differences in motivation, learning acumen, ability to overcome obstacles – differences that actually matter?
This is best illustrated by the new catch phrase “inclusive excellence.” Like diversity, we are now encouraged to “embrace inclusive excellence” and engage in “the inclusive excellence conversation.”
What comes to mind when you hear the term “excellence?” Maybe a guitar virtuoso or a skilled doctor comes to mind? It refers to the highest level of proficiency or achievement as measured against some standard. Academic excellence, for example, is measured against the standard of critical thinking skills, problem solving, knowledge of facts and so on. Someone who is ignorant or irrational cannot be said to have achieved academic excellence.
Athletic excellence, on the other hand, is measured by a different standard, including physical health and skill, endurance, agility, mental discipline and concentration. An obese, uncoordinated person cannot be said to have achieved athletic excellence. [Ed. note – John Daly doesn’t count]
Notice that inherent in the term “excellence” is a standard by which to make the evaluation. As such, it is necessarily selective – it acts to distinguish between and exclude achievements based on a certain standard.
The term “inclusive excellence,” however, becomes an oxymoron. By packaging the terms together it puts over the idea that “inclusion” is a type of excellence independent of any standard. In doing so, it primarily functions to undercut the concept of excellence and the need for standards.
This is most clearly demonstrated by Chancellor Biddy Martin’s eloquent analysis of “inclusive excellence” at the 2009 Campus Diversity Forum. “Excellence,” she said, is not something “out there” in reality, but rather is defined by inclusiveness and diversity. “The forms in which we include one another . . . dynamically interact, appreciate and learn about each other – that’s what excellence should be.”
Notice the message, inherent in the term “inclusive excellence,” that the Chancellor is eager to drive home: there is no standard by which “inclusive excellence” can be judged. However we choose to interact and however “inclusiveness” is defined, that is what we will call excellence. This amounts to legislating excellence and standards out of existence.
Imagine your parents reaction upon hearing that you’ve achieved “inclusive excellence,” only to find out that you’ve been skipping class and receiving failing grades. But wait, you explain: excellence is not something “out there;” it is just the form in which I dynamically interact and include. In other words: it’s good because I (or we) want it to be good.
At root, diversity is a rejection of standards. It is an attempt to erase the distinction between essential differences and non-essential ones – between values and non-values. “Inclusive excellence” should be rejected in favor of real excellence.
Jim Allard ([email protected]) is a graduate student in the biological sciences.