The Di­ver­sity Delu­sion: How Race and Gen­der Pan­der­ing Cor­rupt the Univer­sity and Un­der­mine Our Cul­ture

THE (Times Higher Education) - - BOOKS - Joanna Wil­liams, for­merly at the Univer­sity of Kent, is now head of ed­u­ca­tion at Pol­icy Ex­change.

By Heather Mac Don­ald St Martin’s Press, 288pp, £22.26 ISBN 9781250200914 Pub­lished 4 Septem­ber 2018

Uni­ver­si­ties have al­ways been value-laden in­sti­tu­tions. In the past, the par­tic­u­lar re­li­gious, po­lit­i­cal and schol­arly prin­ci­ples un­der­pin­ning academia were rarely ex­plic­itly ac­knowl­edged. To­day, in con­trast, val­ues are dis­cussed openly: al­most ev­ery univer­sity has an in­sti­tu­tional vi­sion or mis­sion state­ment.

In The Di­ver­sity Delu­sion, Heather Mac Don­ald dis­sects the chief value driv­ing the con­tem­po­rary univer­sity: di­ver­sity. Rather than lend­ing moral weight to schol­ar­ship, she ar­gues, the ob­ses­sion with di­ver­sity en­cour­ages stu­dents to iden­tify with clearly de­lin­eated groups dif­fer­en­ti­ated by skin colour, sex or sex­ual pref­er­ence. Lessons in “vic­ti­mol­ogy” teach stu­dents to recog­nise the op­pres­sion faced by their par­tic­u­lar iden­tity group.

Mac Don­ald’s rhetoric is acer­bic; nonethe­less, she raises im­por­tant ques­tions. Does of­fer­ing lower en­try re­quire­ments to dis­ad­van­taged stu­dents risk set­ting some up to fail? Why do stu­dents priv­i­leged to at­tend the most elite uni­ver­si­ties in the world see them­selves as vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion? Aca­demics and ad­min­is­tra­tors, Mac Don­ald con­tends, are among “the most prej­u­dice-free, well-mean­ing group of adults on the planet”. So why do univer­sity man­agers in­dulge protest­ing stu­dents and re­ward their “delu­sional self-pity”?

Mac Don­ald pulls no punches and yet, de­spite the ro­bust­ness of her polemic, she shares some com­mon ground with her op­po­nents. She crit­i­cises the so­cial de­ter­min­ism of “vic­ti­mol­o­gists” but buys into a bi­o­log­i­cal de­ter­min­ism, ar­gu­ing that men and women are in­nately dif­fer­ent when it comes to sex and re­la­tion­ships. She comes very close to claim­ing that black peo­ple can­not do math­e­mat­ics, ar­gu­ing that “math deficits show up at the ear­li­est ages”, a prod­uct of the “sys­temic aca­demic weak­nesses of those stu­dents” brought about through “bad be­hav­ioral choices and mal­adap­tive cul­ture”.

Mac Don­ald’s own prej­u­dices emerge when she ex­plains why uni­ver­si­ties have so en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced di­ver­sity. Her first tar­get is the 1960s and, in par­tic­u­lar, the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment. “In a strik­ing his­tor­i­cal irony,” she tells us, “the baby boomers who dis­man­tled the univer­sity’s in­tel­lec­tual ar­chi­tec­ture in fa­vor of un­bri­dled sex and protest have now bu­reau­cra­tized both.” To­day, boomer blam­ing is as fash­ion­able as iden­tity pol­i­tics.

Change did in­deed sweep through uni­ver­si­ties in the 1960s and 1970s, but stu­dent rad­i­cals and pro­gres­sive aca­demics gained in­flu­ence only be­cause the cul­tural elite had al­ready largely aban­doned its mis­sion to dis­cern, con­serve and prop­a­gate the best that had been thought and said. It was be­cause the En­light­en­ment val­ues of dis­pas­sion­ate rea­son and ra­tio­nal­ity had been called into ques­tion that rad­i­cals had space to oc­cupy.

A sec­ond tar­get of Mac Don­ald’s book is stu­dents them­selves: the nar­cis­sis­tic “cup­cakes” with a “nau­se­at­ing sense of en­ti­tle­ment”, who demon­strate “boor­ish be­hav­ior that gets worse ev­ery year”. As re­cent cam­pus protests have shown, some stu­dents do in­deed have a philis­tine ar­ro­gance that seem­ingly en­ti­tles them to pun­ish those whose views they find of­fen­sive. Stu­dents de­serve crit­i­cism, but so too do the many adults, not just aca­demics and di­ver­sity of­fi­cers, who have in­dulged their be­hav­iour.

Mac Don­ald seems to long for a time be­fore the sex­ual rev­o­lu­tion when women were mod­est, men were chival­rous and pro­fes­sors taught the canon. In­stead of hark­ing back, we need to reimag­ine the con­tem­po­rary univer­sity to take ac­count of so­ci­ety’s changes in or­der to rein­vig­o­rate rather than den­i­grate schol­ar­ship. What Mac Don­ald gets right is that this re­quires treat­ing stu­dents like in­tel­lec­tu­ally ca­pa­ble in­di­vid­u­als, not op­pressed and vic­timised groups.

Boomers Mac Don­ald tar­gets the women’s lib­er­a­tion move­ment of the 1960s

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