Tag: Christian

Take Off the Blinders: Diversity Demands Educational Freedom

Yesterday, FoxNews.com posted a story on what appears to be a growing problem for public school systems across the country: accommodating Muslim holidays. Unfortunately, the report didn’t contain the solution to the problem. It did, though, contain a very succinct discussion of the root of the problem; an example of the good intent that causes people to ignore the problem; and the kind of “solution” that is ultimately at odds with the most basic of American values.

A quote from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the essence of the problem:

One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.

There you have the basic conundrum in a nutshell: Whenever you have a diverse population – whether in a hamlet, city, state, or nation – and everyone has to support a single system of government schools, you cannot possibly treat all people – or even most of them – equally. Either there are winners and losers, or nobody gets anything.

Understanding why public schooling  can’t handle diversity – why, simply, one size can’t fit all – is really basic common sense. So why isn’t there more outrage over, or even just recognition of, the utter illogic of our education system? Mohamed Elibiary, President and CEO of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, illustrated the attitude that likely causes lots of Americans to wear blinders:

I’m a little torn. I want Muslims to be getting the same recognition as other Americans, but at the same time I don’t want to see public education systems be a battleground between religious identities, because then we’re missing the point of why we have a public education system to begin with.

No doubt many people truly believe as Elibiary does: that a major purpose of public schooling is to bring diverse people together and, by doing so, unify them. It’s a fine intention, but also a classic case of intent not matching reality. Indeed, the reality is often very much the opposite. Rather than unifying people, public schooling has repeatedly forced religious conflict (as well as conflict over race, ethnicity, political philosophy, curriculum, and on and on).

It started almost on Day One, when Horace Mann, a Unitarian, was locked in conflict with Calvinists over what kind of Protestantism the state’s nascent “common schools” would teach. When Roman Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers, battles – sometimes deadly – erupted over who would get what kind of Christianity in the public schools. When Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution, the Scopes “Monkey Trial” fired the first big blast in the war over the teaching of human origins, a fight we are still very much in. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the fighting moved to what, if any, religious expression is permissible in public schools. And now, we’re getting fired up over whose holidays will get the most deference from government schools. It almost seems like war without end.

Finally, the article gropes at – but doesn’t grab – the solution to our education and diversity problem. Says Georgetown University professor Bradley Blakeman:

That’s the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We’re not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great.

Blakeman is heading in the right direction (even as federal policy pushes us the opposite way): The closer that control of education gets to individual people, the more easily it can be tailored to unique needs, values, and desires. Unfortunately, Blakeman fails to identify the obvious last step: completely decoupling government funding from provision of education. In other words, instituting universal educational choice. Making matters worse, Blakeman for all intents and purposes concludes that as long as decisions are made at the local level, and the majority gets its way, everything is fine:

A school should reflect the beliefs and practices of the community that they serve. And if school boards are sensitive to their populations, that’s fine, provided the decisions of the board reflect the majority opinion of its community.

It may sound harsh, but one way to describe this is simply ”tyranny of the majority” – whatever the majority wants, it gets, as long as it is the local majority. It’s a solution that completely ignores that ours is not supposed to be a nation of majority rule, but rule of law that protects individual freedom. And, of course, one of the most basic protections is the prohibition on government tipping the scales in favor of one religion, two religions, or no religion at all. 

This solution also fails, by the way, to address the problem at hand: School districts – not states or Washington – having to accommodate diverse populations. In other words, ”local control” is ultimately no solution at all.

Universal choice is, quite simply, the only system of education compatible with the most basic of American values – individual liberty – and the only way to avoid constant, divisive battles over who will get what out of the schools. Hopefully, people will come to realize that before our conflicts get even worse.

Dimensions of Diversity

David Boaz posed some questions about diversity promotion in American newsrooms in a post yesterday:

But if reflecting the community is essential, why are race and gender the only categories to be considered? Alexander doesn’t mention sexual orientation. Does the Post have gay (and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and questioning…) journalists in the correct proportions?

And how about ideological diversity? In the 2008 exit polls, 23 percent of voters described themselves as white, Protestant, born-again or evangelical Christians. A survey of American religion said that 34 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again. How many editors and reporters at the Post would describe themselves that way? I’ll bet that born-again Christians are the most underrepresented group in elite newsrooms.

I think David mostly means to offer these as a reductio of preference policies generally, but I think they’re fair enough questions on face—possibly because I’m less confident than David that there’s a useful operational concept of “merit” in reporting that can be disentangled from identity given some intransigent social facts about 21st century America. Past some threshold level of competence, a gay reporter is just going to be able to do a better job of reporting on the gay community than I am, and a black reporter is going to have an easier time covering Anacostia. And yes, a white evangelical will probably have an easier time covering white evangelicals—though it’s no mystery why editors might be more skittish about an active preference for historically privileged groups. In a better world, identity might be less important, but in the one we’ve got it’s likely to bear on a reporter’s effectiveness in certain beats. The principle has its limits—Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe are going to be brilliant covering just about anyone—but among mortal reporters you’d expect some effect.

That said, I can think of a couple reasons why religion and (especially) ideology might be less desirable diversity targets than immutable characteristics like race, sex, or orientation. First, outside the realm of screwball comedies from the 80s, there’s not all that much reason to worry about aspiring reporters trying to “pass” as black or Hispanic or (Jack Tripper notwithstanding) gay in hopes of securing a professional advantage.  Religion and politics, by contrast, are fundamentally choices we make, and a system of preferences would create an unseemly incentive to—either cynically or subconsciously—drift in the favored direction. There is, I think, something clearly distasteful about a professional environment in which (say) a mainline Protestant reporter is perpetually awkwardly aware that his chances at promotion might turn on whether he’s prepared to declare himself “born again.”

Second, because religion and political ideology are identities fundamentally grounded in belief, they necessarily go beyond the reportorial desiderata of being able to understand and get access to a community you cover. They entail a commitment to seeing one group as systematically in the right in an array of different types of conflicts or disagreements with other groups. Making that kind of intellectual commitment a prerequisite of covering certain beats might run contrary to the norms of objectivity good newsrooms try to cultivate.

So that might be a legitimate reason for papers to aim for some level of representativeness along racial, gender, or sexual orientation lines, but omit religion and ideology—from the newsroom, at any rate. Those arguments don’t apply as strongly to the editorial page—where, indeed, we do often see conscious (if not always competent) attempts to maintain some semblance of balance among perspectives.

Diversity in the Newsroom

The Washington Post’s ombudsman, Andrew Alexander, is very concerned that “journalists of color” make up only 24 percent of the Post’s reporters and editors. That might seem like a lot to some observers, but Alexander notes that minorities are 43 percent of the people in the Washington area, and it’s essential that the newsroom staff mirror the community the paper is serving.

Well, maybe. As a longtime Post reader, I don’t really know which of the editors and reporters are nonwhite, and I don’t really care. I would hope that the Post would hire the best reporters and editors, in order to put out the best possible paper – with the best possible reporting, writing, copyediting, proofreading, and analysis.

But if reflecting the community is essential, why are race and gender the only categories to be considered? Alexander doesn’t mention sexual orientation. Does the Post have gay (and lesbian and bisexual and transgender and questioning…) journalists in the correct proportions?

And how about ideological diversity? In the 2008 exit polls, 23 percent of voters described themselves as white, Protestant, born-again or evangelical Christians. A survey of American religion said that 34 percent of Americans describe themselves as evangelical or born-again. How many editors and reporters at the Post would describe themselves that way? I’ll bet that born-again Christians are the most underrepresented group in elite newsrooms. But they weren’t mentioned in Alexander’s column. A CBS/New York Times poll in December found that 18 percent of respondents described themselves as supporters of the Tea Party movement. How many Post journalists are? The Post has recently assigned reporter Amy Gardner to “train her sights on the emerging Tea Party movement and developments inside the Republican Party.” Is she a Tea Party Republican? If not, isn’t that sort of like hiring a white person to “train her sights on African-American politics and developments in the black community”? Cato’s studies on the libertarian vote classify about 15 percent of Americans as libertarian. How many Post journalists would be categorized as libertarian?

Slate, the online magazine owned by the Washington Post Co., which shares some content with the Post, reported in 2008 that 55 of its 57 staff and contributors would be voting for Barack Obama, with 1 for John McCain and one for Libertarian Bob Barr. I’m not going to look up the details, but I’m pretty sure that’s unrepresentative of the country as a whole and even of the Washington area.

If newspapers are going to move beyond strict merit hiring to hire reporters and editors who “reflect the community,” then they shouldn’t stop at race and gender. Let’s see some ideological diversity in elite newsrooms.