As we approach the Fourth of July, it may be useful once more to assess the state of this nation of immigrants. Does the melting pot still melt? Are hyphenated Americans having those hyphens lengthened into barriers?
Few words have become more burdened with meaning in recent years than "diversity." Depending on the viewpoint of user or hearer, it can be wonderfully positive or utterly negative - a synonym for pluralism and tolerance, or a euphemism for unequal treatment.
Center stage for intellectual wrestling over diversity is the American campus. Diversity is an active ingredient in admissions, curriculum changes, faculty hiring, and social life. At most colleges, the idea of opening doors to people from diverse ethnic backgrounds and both sexes has become an article of faith.
But that faith is seriously challenged. The Supreme Court has just let stand an appeals-court ruling that affirmative action on admissions to the University of Texas Law School amounts to reverse discrimination. The University of California's Board of Regents seeks to change affirmative-action admissions and hiring policies. At private Dartmouth College a conservative student-run review criticizes recruiting of inner-city minority students, suggesting the policy could weaken the college intellectually by neglecting other promising youth.
Political sparks fly in discussions of diversity, but that's nothing new. Diversity is, and has been for most of the past two centuries, a fair one-word description of American society. People of diverse backgrounds and beliefs were already here in 1776, including the first immigrants, Native Americans, and Africans, enslaved or free. Others have streamed in from all parts of the globe, coming with different cultures, languages, and traditions - and common hopes and aspirations.
The country has repeatedly struggled over diversity, and in response politicians have often tried to control it through means as varied as poll taxes and immigration restrictions. That effort continues as Americans are swept by another wave of concern that the doors have opened too wide.
The doors that may count most, as the information age advances, are those to higher education. The American Council on Education (ACE), tracing minority participation in higher education, recently reported a remarkable 25.9 percent increase in minority enrollment between 1990 and 1994. Gains were made by blacks, Latinos, and American Indians, the groups that lag most in educational achievement. But these groups still account for only 16 percent of enrollment at four-year colleges, significantly below their 23 percent showing among high school graduates.
Figures like those can either encourage or discourage, depending on whether the emphasis is on how far the country has come or how far it has to go. The ACE study warns that momentum could be halted by backlash against affirmative action.
But another kind of momentum is picking up on campus: the inclination of people with influence in academic circles to embrace diversity as a theme in learning. A Ford Foundation project on campus diversity has funded programs at dozens of campuses designed to build an appreciation of diversity among faculty and students.
Using a Ford grant, the Association of American Colleges and Universities last year published a report, "The Drama of Diversity and Democracy," that eloquently argues a higher-education duty to "educate Americans for the diversity of their society." The report's authors see the interplay of diversity and democracy as critical for all students to understand - and as critical to the country's continued democratic evolution and unity.
That position is hard to fault. But working it through in the classroom is a delicate task. What's the right balance between exposing past intolerance - whether slavery, extermination of Indian tribes, Jim Crow laws, or discrimination against Chinese immigrants - and recognizing the genius of American democracy for growth and improvement? Between appreciating the contribution of varied cultures and recognizing that the principles of democracy and human rights, while universal in import, had primary roots in Europe and Judeo-Christian history? Between the importance of the individual and the contributions of group identity?
Diversity poses all these juxtapositions, and more. When does the stress on diversity become a stress on difference, slipping over into separate housing and even separate courses for particular groups - into a virtual re-institutionalization of segregation? Minority professors may be good role models, but the knowledge they impart should be of interest to all students. Black studies, or women's studies, shouldn't be academic ghettoes, but subject areas of interest to anyone who wants to have a thorough understanding of history and society.
If it's handled right, the end result of a hard look at diversity and democracy should be a stronger empathy for others. A democratic nation depends upon the teamwork of individuals who understand and appreciate each other.