Letter to the Editor: The importance of diversity of experience

In his op-ed “What Does It Mean to be the Best?” (Sept. 20, 2017), David Kane ’88 is right to wonder about how to make the College the best that it can be. But his account of what we mean by “best,” and the changes he recommends to achieve that – such as reducing the pursuit of under-represented minority and low-income students – are based on a dangerously abstract notion of how learning actually takes place.

For instance: I’ve taught Moby-Dick a dozen times as part of a 300-level English course. For the last three years, I’ve also taught the book in the Summer Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) program. Without question, the SHSS classes have been better – in fact, they have been some of the most serious and electric courses that I’ve had the privilege to teach. My pre-frosh brought unusual guts and heart, as well as brains, to their work – at times challenging my assumptions, at others finding unexpected resonances between their personal histories and Melville’s. Their diversity of experience was a fundamental resource for what we learned.

I don’t know whether my students had SAT scores of 600, 700 or 800. I never had reason to look. I do know that, for myself and many of my colleagues, SHSS has reaffirmed our sense of why teaching matters.

Kane would do well to pause before prescribing further aggressive changes to admissions policies. I welcome him to sit in on any of my courses, and to see for himself whether those changes would damage or improve the college that we both love.

  • When I taught at Williams College it was fairly easy for me to pick out the students with SAT scores of 600, 700 or 800. It was obvious to everyone in the room that the less bright students made comments that the other students smiled at, or ignored, or dismissed with a quick glance to the ceiling.

    I observed a contemporary political science class at Occidental College taught by a FOX News panelist, Caroline Heldman. See, http://anonymouspoliticalscientist.blogspot.com/2011/10/visiting-professor-fox-news-liberal.html

    My sense is that real intellectual debate was quickly countered by the ultimately boring argument that men and whites cannot possibly understand the experiences of other people different from themselves. The discussion I observed seemed to be founded in the assumption that normal human empathy is physically impossible to conjure up.

    As our nation’s previously prestigious academic institutions get locked up in censorship and politically correct nonsense, the real work of envisioning and debating our nation’s future is taking place at other locations, and is increasingly carried on by those of us subject to reverse discrimination and the unremitting hostility of the left.