While screams of racism rang out following Nino Scalia’s ham-handed question during oral argument in Fisher v. University of Texas II, the more interesting, and far more difficult, question was posed by Chief Justice John Roberts.
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?
There was a quick and unhelpful retort that the nation’s foremost astrophysicist and all-around badass, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, happens to be black, but that doesn’t actually answer anything. A group of STEM academics reacted by writing an open letter to the Supreme Court.
Justice Roberts asked, “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to physics class?” and “What [are] the benefits of diversity… in that situation?” Before addressing these questions directly, we note that [it] is important to call attention to questions that weren’t asked by the justices, such as, “What unique perspectives do white students bring to a physics class?” and “What are the benefits of homogeneity in that situation?” We reject the premise that the presence of minority students and the existence of diversity need to be justified, but meanwhile segregation in physics is tacitly accepted as normal or good. Instead, we embrace the assumption that minority physics students are brilliant and ask, “Why does physics education routinely fail brilliant minority students?”
Aside from a bit of grand-standing, and that writing letters to the Court isn’t exactly a procedurally appropriate means of getting one’s two cents in, they too don’t answer the question. They can reject the premise all they want; they’re not on the Court so they don’t get a vote.
In his New York Times column, Frank Bruni adds fuel to the fire by raising the backend problem. Even when diversity is a driver of admissions, colleges fail miserably to make use of it because of their acquiescence to the desires of students once they show up on campus.
THE Supreme Court listened anew last week to arguments about affirmative action in higher education, and we heard yet again about the push by colleges to assemble diverse student bodies.
That’s a crucial effort.
It’s also an incomplete and falsely reassuring one.
Have you spent much time on campuses lately? Leafed through schools’ promotional literature? Listened to their come-ons?
If so, you’ve probably noticed how often they promise students academic and social experiences customized to their already-established preferences, tailor-fitted to their predetermined interests, contoured to the particular and peculiar niches they want to inhabit.
Remember all those demands being made by affinity groups? They share a core component, put my tribe first, put my interests first, put me first, and recreate the supposedly diverse campus to make it the way I want it to be. To the extent admissions decisions may be driven by the goal of diverse experience, campus life is driven by segregation, isolation and shutting down the benefits of diversity. As Bruni notes, we’re a tribal species, and we prefer to be with others who are just like us, if left to our own devices.
“Without such nudges, students will default to sameness,” he concluded. That’s the human way. We’re clannish. Tribal.
And this, amazingly and counter-intuitively enough, gives rise to an answer to CJ Roberts’ question.
Unlike humanities or the soft sciences, hard science like physics is unforgiving. The math involved isn’t black or white or green. It’s just math, regardless of who crunches the numbers. The answer doesn’t change for a black student or a white student, for a male student or a female student. You either get the right answer or you don’t, and when put through the wringer of a rigorous course of physics study, what is uncontestable is that there are students of all races, genders who can cut it. And who can’t. There is no wiggle room.
But that only applies to the basics, as dawned on me as I watched a nearly four hour video of a class, lovingly called 2.009, at MIT (the official name is “Product Engineering Processes,” but all classes, not to mention majors and buildings, at MIT are known only by their numbers). At the fringe of hard science, the amount of imagination in solving the unknown is extraordinary.
My epiphany came from the convergence of a couple things. First, that the faces of the students included all hues. Second, that their approaches to doing the impossible were completely different. Third, that they were compelled to work in teams, the “nudge” that Bruni argues is missing when students are allowed to have their own way. And finally, that this culminated in their doing the “impossible.”
The question posed by CJ Roberts, what diversity could bring to physics, ends up being a two-part question in reality. When it comes to learning the known, the only honest answer is not much. The math, the study of particles, the nature of stuff that physics students need to know, gains nothing from differing perspectives.
But the second part of the question is higher order physics, taking the rote lessons to the next level, where students go past the known into the “impossible.” The breadth and scope of the different approaches solving the unsolvable (yes, it’s hardly unsolvable, obviously, but it seems that way to those of us who aren’t up to the task) is where the promise of diversity, the places different minds go, the directions born of widely different experiences, matter.
And you can’t get to the edge of science without going through the routine stuff, learning the physics 101 curriculum so that you have the basis for reaching the place where experience becomes the difference between discovering the next “God particle” and missing it completely.
It’s not, as us lesser minds would assume, just a matter of looking backwards at science already discovered and known, to which students of any color or gender have little to add. It’s the outer limits of science, how to find them, deal with them, imagine them, prove them, where flights of imagination become everything. When the cutting edge is guided by imagination, it’s the difference in perspective that distinguishes everybody seeing things the same from that one person who sees it differently enough to change everything.
So in answer to the question, judge, the black perspective probably doesn’t add anything to the study of electromagnetic fields, but it could very well make the discovery of the next Higgs Boson possible. And you can’t get from here to there without diversity.
If that doesn’t explain it well enough, there is one more thing that came of the inclusion of the faces of different races and genders. These students didn’t seem to give a damn about whether the other students in their groups were part of their tribe, but whether they had ideas that contributed to solutions. From this, they learned that neither skin color, eye shape, sexual organs nor who they find most attractive makes any difference in who comes up with viable answers to intransigent problems. That’s a sufficient lesson in itself.
Brilliance doesn’t come in colors, as the academics wrote, but solving the unsolvable requires a spectrum of thought and ideas, and that may well come from the convergence of all experiences. Without diversity, that potential is lost, and with it the next great discovery in science might never happen.