Through my long teaching career, the byword for promoting student success has been “inclusion.” Inclusion in class discussions, debates, laboratory investigations and the general conversation of inquiry that makes the academic world go ’round. My task, in short, is to create a classroom community out of a wide variety of personalities — a handy trick, considering varying ages, races, socioeconomic levels and personal challenges. But I think most educators would say a positive outcome is worth the effort.
In this light, is it any wonder that I am appalled by the eruption of alternative, race-based and “other”-based graduations trending in schools across the country? Harvard, for example, had its first separate commencement ceremony for black graduates in May. This was followed by a separate graduation for Latino students. The University of Delaware staged a so-called ” lavender graduation” for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. And Columbia University separated out its first-generation graduates with a special graduation in their honor.
Who would have thought segregation would become fashionable again and that it would be promoted by the bastions of liberalism — colleges and universities — which, in recent history at least, have been at the vanguard of the fight for equality, inclusiveness and community?
Ah, there’s the rub. In order to rationalize the balkanization of the student body into competing factions, each striving to feel “special,” one has to re-define “equality.” After all, it is the stock and trade of academia to manipulate language. (Consider the re-labeling of students as “customers” — a feint to suggest that students have more influence over school policy than they actually do and that courses are little more than a commodity, like lard or buckwheat.) The enthusiasts of segregated graduations insist these events foster equality by highlighting the efforts of students who have had unique struggles, such as, in the words of more than one speaker at the Harvard commencement, ” the struggle to be black at Harvard.”
At the risk of sounding cynical, if I had to choose a problem with which to grapple, being a minority at Harvard would hover somewhere near the top of my list, akin to the struggle of deciding what to do if I found a million bucks in my mattress.
The enthusiasts of segregated graduations rationalize that these events do not really represent segregation because they favor the segregated; as opposed to historical, old-timey segregation that disfavored these same groups. Therefore, it actually empowers them.
Nice try. But in truth, segregated graduations raise the issue of the broad brush, in which every member of a segregated group is assumed to share the same — adverse — experience. Has every black at Harvard experienced a “struggle”? Has every Latino been marginalized? Has every LGBTQ student at Delaware had such a miserable experience that the only affirmation they can find is among like-labeled students?
These are fair questions, and I realize that at certain schools I could be tarred and feathered by uncompromising students and faculty for even raising them. But I prefer to hold out certain hopes. That “diversity” is not a euphemism for “segregation.” That inclusion and community are not sacrificed on the altar of political and social fashion. That segregated graduations are not the leading edge of a wedge opening the door to further fracturing of the student body into special ceremonies for veterans, combat wounded, diabetics, the morbidly obese, cat versus dog people and conjoined twins.
If there is one thing I have learned from my students, it’s that each of them has a unique story, which includes unique challenges. For some, it is chronic illness. For others, it is unsupportive families, cruel poverty, geographical isolation or some catastrophe from which they are trying to recover. I also have noticed that these events are common to all of us, without regard to race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. We are, in short, in this together. When we graduate, let us celebrate together.
Robert Klose is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association’s annual award for opinion writing. His novel “Long Live Grover Cleveland” won the Ben Franklin Literary Award.