Education Opinion

Diversity and Multiculturalism: The Independent School Story (Part 1 of 3)

By Peter Gow — July 26, 2013 5 min read
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In 1988 the National Association of Independent Schools published and began to support its Multicultural Assessment Plan--the fabled MAP. The idea was that schools would follow the Plan to complete a comprehensive self-assessment of their spot on the spectrum of multiculturalism and diversity. It might have seemed a little late, 20 years after Dr. King’s assassination and at least as many years into many schools’ efforts to do what the Civil Rights Movement had been all about, at least in its inception: integrate.

Integration is an old fashioned and rather awkward word these days, but at least through the ‘80s it was still in regular use as part of the “busing” controversy. Decades after Brown v. The Board of Education, public schools everywhere were still working at--and populations north and south resisting--decreasing the levels of de facto segregation and trying to proportion their student bodies to reflect the makeup of their whole communities. It wasn’t pretty; you’ve seen the 1976 photo of the African American man on Boston’s City Hall Plaza apparently about to be speared with an American flag during an anti-busing demonstration. (It supposedly wasn’t exactly like that, but close enough, and the image endures.)

Some independent schools had been “integrated,” to the extent of having a handful of underrepresented minority students, for decades, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many more turned their attention to the aspect of their student bodies. Maybe because teachers tend to reside on the leftish side of the political continuum, many began to push their schools toward something more than monocultural admission and financial aid policies. Slowly--by the mid 1980s in many cases--school pictures began looking a bit less like slices of Wonder Bread and a tiny bit more like, well, America. Faces of color were still relatively sparse, but they were present. Schools paid close attention to and trumpeted gains in their minority enrollments.

It fairly quickly sank in that a more diverse school photo might be a good thing in a highly abstract way, but that diversity alone--especially if largely confined to the student body--was not going to ensure a school’s becoming the “multicultural community” its viewbook promised. The mere presence of students of color might change a few things--many of them out of sight of the adults in the school--but it did not a community make.

The next wave of change was curricular. The literary canon of works by “dead white men” and triumphalist historical narratives gradually gave way, in many places, to reading lists offering real diversity of voices and to approaches to history partly informed by counter-narrative perspectives from the likes of Howard Zinn, Ronald Tataki, and even Eric Hobsbawm. The 1980s were yeasty times for history and English teachers, as we re-learned our fields from new points of view and re-cast our courses to include different voices and different cultural perspectives. It should be noted that women’s history and a “feminist” perspective--thanks in part to the work of Carol Gilligan, some of which was carried out at an independent school for girls--were a part of this curricular revolution, appearing just as Title IX and new attitudes towards girls and sports was also spurring the formation of new teams across the independent school nation: girls’ soccer, girls’ lacrosse, girls’ ice hockey. (And the debate goes on at some schools, whether to call these “girls’” or “women’s” teams. When I coached I let my teams decide, and against my Sensitive New Age Guy hopes they invariably opted for “girls’”.)

What was missing was a concerted effort to understand what the experience of being in a white-majority school filled with relatively affluent and socioeconomically privileged kids was actually like for the newly arrived students of color, some of whom were beneficiaries--and all of whom were often maddeningly presumed to be beneficiaries--of schools’ expanded financial aid policies. Since many schools also had mandatory athletic programs, where students of color who performed well were subject to the double stigma of being presumed to be on “athletic scholarships"--and a few of them, to be sure, had been recruited for just that reason. Socially, too, it wasn’t uncommon for students of color to be omitted from invitation lists and excluded from certain in-crowds.

So the NAIS Multicultural Assessment Plan of 1988 showed up just in time, offering those schools who undertook it a cutting-edge (for the time) instrument for measuring and evaluating the success of their efforts to multiculturalize. The self-study was rigorous and in most schools rather painful, revealing area after area in which things could be much better. A subsequent report by a trained visiting team of MAP veterans from other schools--the Plan’s culminating stage--tended to be more painful still. The mirror didn’t always reveal what schools wanted it to, but then they had asked for it, and most took the results to heart.

It should be noted that of the thousand or so NAIS member schools at the time, perhaps fewer than ten percent underwent the MAP. It was costly to complete, it was hard, and it was guaranteed to reveal large and embarrassing shortfalls between good intentions and actual outcomes. But many of those schools who did were soon in the first phalanx of the movement toward becoming more truly diverse and “multicultural” communities, in which the initial step was the establishment of offices and administrative positions focused on this very work. In the next decades these offices would work toward moving schools forward toward better work and toward helping faculties and students--underrepresented minorities as well as majority--navigate the difficult waters of access, address the uneven distribution of privilege, and begin to build authentic mutual understanding.

Over the next couple of weeks I plan to write more about independent schools and their ongoing struggles to move from “diversity” to true inclusivity. No school can claim to have “finished” this work, but many are on the journey.

(Part 2 of this series will appear here on Friday, August 2.)

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

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