A while back I was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS), an honorific position in an organization that celebrates achievement in scholarship and arts, and promotes them through its quarterly journal Daedalus. I was of course chuffed to be chosen, but now I see that the AAAS is striving for diversity, but not the kind of diversity it purports to be seeking. Here’s an announcement I got the other day (I’ve left off names and phones numbers as they’re not relevant:
Note that the avowed aim of this initiative is to “ensure that the Academy’s work is informed by, and reflective of, the breadth of intellectual life in the twenty-first century.” And the mechanism for ensuring this is to “increase the diversity of our members and staff.”
Now we all know what this means. “Diversity” means “the relative number of woman and minorities”, though it’s never stated. But you find that out when you take the “member survey”, for you’re not asked about your work or the tenor of your thought, but about your ethnic origin: Asian, Caucasian, Black or African-American, Native Hawaiian, and so on. And that’s it.
The implicit assumption of this initiative is that the most efficient way to ensure diversity of intellectual life is to increase the diversity of sex (or gender) and ethnicity.
Now I recognize that these are connected to some extent. In my own field, the presence of women has put an increased and proper emphasis on the role of female choice in sexual selection, as well as other areas. And of course including underrepresented minorities with distinctive points of view clearly expands the intellectual breadth missing in the bad old days when the Academy comprised almost all white males. As Wikipedia notes, the founders included “John Adams, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and others of their contemporaries who contributed prominently to the establishment of the new nation, its government, and the United States Constitution.” Early members included Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.
So yes, I do favor a sweeping diversity among the members. To me, that should reflect an equality of opportunity: that all people, regardless of ethnicity or gender, should be considered for membership based on merit and accomplishment. But I also favor a form of “affirmative action” as well, for an equality of opportunity at present may not remediate an inequality of opportunity present earlier on, when women and minorities don’t get the encouragement or resources to start them on an equal footing with everyone else.
What bothers me a bit about the announcement above, I suppose, is the implicit assumption that diversity of gender and ethnicity are roughly equivalent to diversity of intellectual breadth, as well as the remediation of the latter involves asking only about one’s sex and ethnicity. For surely there are aspects of intellectual breadth missed by these factors. In fact, it seems a bit shortsighted to think that one’s sex and ethnicity will be ineluctably connected with certain points of view missing in the academy. After all, women or Hispanics are not all of one mind!
We all know about the conservatives who say “What about diversity of viewpoints?” They are concerned that right-wing voices are missing in college faculties, and that’s indeed the case: the overwhelming number of college faculty sit somewhere on the Left side of the political spectrum. This means that the faculty do inculcate students with a left-wing point of view: something that Jon Haidt has emphasized when he holds faculty partly to blame for the Authoritarian Leftist views of many of today’s students. So yes, I think there is a case to be made for looking for political diversity of professors, and hiring ones whose views aren’t much represented on campus. But not just political diversity: diversity of opinion and other ideology that will give students a real opportunity to adjudicate opposing viewpoints. That, after all, is the main goal of an education.
And so it is with the AAAS. By all means do some remediation if some groups haven’t experienced equality of opportunity. And yes, we do need “role models” from different groups, although I know some readers will disagree with me. (I’ve always favored some form of affirmative action at various levels of academia.) But if the AAAS wants intellectual breadth, can’t it look for intellectual breadth rather than just determining the gender or racial origin of prospective members? Surely there are some mavericks out there—regardless of who they are—who have non-standard ideas worth exploring.
After thinking about this, and taking the survey that gave my “race,” I decided that the “intellectual breadth” aim is largely a euphemism for “diversity of sex and ethnicity.” The Society is striving not just for equal opportunity, but for equal outcome: they are looking for a membership closer to the sex and ethnic composition of America. And given that intellectual and artistic aspiration—unlike, perhaps, interest in physics—seems to be roughly equally distributed among groups, that’s a worthwhile aim. But why ignore the very diversity of thought itself and use sex-chromosome complement and ethnicity as surrogates for “intellectual breadth”?
What makes me cynical about the alignment of the AAAS’s aims with its methods of remediation is the following statement from the Academy’s 2018 “Strategic Plan”. First we have a goal determined by members and the AAAS’s leadership, and then the mechanism for achieving it:
Inclusivity. Promoting broad inclusivity of people and perspectives is of great importance to members and staff. This includes both the diversity of the members and the staff, especially in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, geography, institutions, fields, and professions. As one member stated, the Academy should be recognized as an organization in which, “all people feel included and comfortable with one another.” Members and staff highlight the importance of assessing all the Academy’s practices and activities through a lens of inclusivity and diversity, including demographic diversity, ensuring these values are reflected in all that the Academy undertakes.
. . . . Inclusivity: Continue to increase the diversity of the members and staff, and ensure that the Academy’s work reflects its ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
It’s pretty clear what they mean by “diversity and inclusivity” here, and it has little to do with intellectual diversity. Granted, they want to include a variety of fields and institutions, which they already do, as well as people from a variety of countries, which they already do in their class of foreign members, but one does not feel excluded or uncomfortable if there are too few members from Idaho, or if there’s a dearth of topologists.
As I said, I’m in favor of increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in the AAAS. But in the end, I think the goal should be to give people an equality of opportunity (which must start at the beginning of childhood) rather than striving mainly to ensure an equality of outcome. And how on Earth did intellectual breadth get lost in this endeavor?