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The Down Side of Diversity


Q. Of course I'm for schools that are integrated, both in terms of race and of income and other demographic categories. But sometimes I wonder what is the academic cost of so much diversity. Isn't it true that the more alike a group of students are, the more they tend to learn?


Isn't it highly ironic? But you're right. Schools in which there is less diversity among students and teachers in their skin color, ethnicity and income level tend to do better than schools with a lot of diversity in those factors, at all levels of academic achievement. In some ways, it was bad for African-American students to desegregate schools, even though of course no one wants to go back to that day.


The thing is, diversity has a down side. And even the most liberal fans of multicultural education know this.


Left-wing Harvard University professor and social scientist Robert Putnam says that the more multiculturalism and diversity are fostered in a society, the LESS civic engagement and community cohesion there tends to be. It has to do with personal feelings of belonging and security, which are even more pronounced among young children than the adult world as a whole.


Based on interviews with a half-million people, Putname came up with the finding that the more diversity there is in a community, the fewer people vote, the less people volunteer, the less they give to charity, and the less they work on mutually-beneficial community projects. They withdraw even from their own neighbors and friends, and tend to "huddle unhappily in front of the television."


Putnam concluded that in the most diverse communities, neighbors trust each other only half as much as they do in communities that are more homogenous - where people are more like each other in factors such as race, religion and income level. He said "virtually all measures of social health" were less in a diverse community, than in a more unified one.


With less unifying forces at work in a society, schools become hotbeds of conflict rather than places where people can come together and learn. And the isolation and mistrust that a splintered society breed tend to increase crime and social isolation among its citizens, and that includes schools as a key institution in any community.


In his book, Bowling Alone, published in 2000, Putnam described the American propensity for individualism and our tendency to "go it alone" instead of gathering with others to work on civic projects and so forth. But he also acknowledged that forced multiculturalism can backfire, too.


Multiculturalism, celebrating diversity and welcoming immigration were all supposed to increase the social capital of traditionally isolated population groups. But instead, unfortunately, they reduce social contact between diverse ethnic groups, and also within each individual ethnic group itself, he found.


The findings signal the wisdom of ash-canning "Political Correctness," and returning to the American slogan, E pluribus unum - "out of many, one" - as a better description of the tolerance and acceptance that we should all practice toward those of different races, ethnicities and income groups, while not forcing anyone to pretend to be in the same "tribe" as all others.


Putnam also puts out great hope that Christian churches are the one place where diversity can transcend the natural human tendencies to self-isolate and mistrust others. He pointed to large evangelical congregations that are diverse and integrated, but active and engaged all across their communities. The Christian ethic inspires people to celebrate where they are the same - where it counts, in their spirits - whereas in secular societies such as public-school settings, the common spiritual threads are denied and submerged in Political Correctness.


Schools might consider doing some of the 150 things Putnam recommends to re-start social engagement in their communities on his website,



Homework: The National Association for Multicultural Education offers the opposite point of view, that diversity is a good thing in schools.


By Susan Darst Williams Controversies 12 2008

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