August 17, 2009

The "Stat Effect"


That's the word quite a few colleges champion as one of their assets, another addition to their crown jewels, if you will. In one way, that makes sense-- most students attending college expect to enjoy new and varied experiences and learn about the rest of the world. Students from smaller towns, especially, look forward to being educated about different cultures. Meeting other students from different walks of life and religions and civilizations helps them achieve that goal.

But there's another side to this coin...

And it's that sometimes it becomes about the numbers. We're all familiar with this debate: Some people think that Affirmative Action programs are taking over, that a strange kind of opposite racism is creeping in, etcetera. And I don't think that that's a cause anyone needs to champion; I think we have enough trouble fighting the old-fashioned kind of racism without christening another. But I do think that in this "enlightened" day and age it's very sad the lengths to which a college will go to make those numbers look good.

The "stat effect" has been around for thousands and thousands of years. Make everything look good for the numbers and your audience will bow down and accept your word. Street sellers in ancient Egypt used that trick; don't be surprised that the oh-so-sophisticated colleges of today do the same. If a college has so many international students attending and so many "minorities" and so many white kids, ah, that's a good balance. That's a good school.

And trust me, I wouldn't be going to a school if it wasn't diverse. That's one of the reasons I picked Dartmouth. I'm looking to expand my horizons and meet new people who can lend me a different perspective on life. I'm a writer and that's what I do- learn more about people so that I can speak to them, speak to our common humanity. So it stands to reason that diversity, the truth and not the numbers, is something I love. Incidentally, Dartmouth's stats are awesomely diverse, of course...

But my point is that we need to keep our eyes open about just how nice the numbers are. Diversity is a beautiful and amazing thing, but we don't want it to become about the stats. For one thing, those numbers make us think about what color we are, and that separates us. I'd almost think about advocating the absence of stats in this case- after all, our college class is one hundred percent human, not just fifteen point nine percent Asian American, eight point two percent Latino, eight point seven percent African American, five point five percent Native American, eight percent international students, and fifty-three point seven white/Caucasian (a.k.a. a mix of every other nationality on Earth).

...One hundred percent human. Let's remember that.

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