Tuesday, February 6, 2018

IA: Arguing Against Diversity

Last week, the Des Moines Register presented an op-ed by homeschooler, conservative-libertarian writer and millennial political activist Joel Kurtinitis. He's also a co-founder of the U.S.Federalist Party, a contributor to various hard-right publications, and a voice in the liberty movement-- so he was backing Ted Cruz in the last election cycle.

Kurtinitis has some thoughts about public education.

As a dedicated advocate of homeschooling, I tend to stay away from public education issues in general. There’s not much nice to say about an education system that has produced — and graduated — 32 million functionally illiterate adults, and has presided over an overall literacy decline for the last 25 years.
This guy
First, the 32 million number comes from the US Department of Education, but it is the number of illiterate adults-- there's no indication that they are all public school graduates. That number could include flunk outs, drop outs, or even some home schooled persons. Second, the literacy decline is hard to pin down because everyone who writes about literacy likes to define it their own way (functional, proficiency, able to read great books).

But his point-- that public schools suck-- is just meant to set up his main complaint. Currently in Iowa there is a bill on the table that is mostly the same old choicer boilerplate-- let's let students at "failing" schools escape their terrible fate. But this one adds a little extra-- under the bill, districts would be free to drop diversity requirements. See, Iowa had previously passed some diversity rules that counted diversity in choice systems, designed to keep five large districts from being re-segregated as white families fled to private schools. What? You thought segregation academies were only a Southern thing?

The plans had to be re-jiggered so that they were based on income rather than race, giving some Iowa schools a mandate to keep diverse student populations. Kurtinitis is not a fan.

It turns out that impoverished school districts around Iowa have shackled their students to an administrative ball and chain that doesn’t allow students to transfer away for — get this — diversity reasons.

As a long-time practitioner of written snark, I salute Kurtinitis's repeated use of the verbal derisive snort. Unfortunately, he can't back that snort up with any sort of solid argument. (Yes, that kind of snark.)

He claims two problems with the diversity requirements. First, "it creates a financial self-interest for the school district that doesn't take the individual needs of the student into consideration at all." His big gotcha proof is an administrator who "confessed" that allowing "financially stable" families (my favorite new euphemism for "wealthy") to head off to private schools (he uses the word "better," which is a whole other set of unfounded assumptions) would be "absolutely devastating."

Aha! shouts Kurtinitis-- schools dare to want money and be upset when they lose money. What he doesn't consider is why. Do schools want money in order to make their administrators and teachers rich? Nope. Do they want money in order to pass on a profit to their operators and backers? No (because they are public schools). Do the want the money to buy every teacher a Lexus? Nope.

Or could it be that schools need the money to meet the individual needs of the students who can't afford to head to a private school? Maybe they need the money to educate those students with decent resources in a well-maintained building.

Kurtinitis ignores that, and waves the old "We spend X dollars on education and that's a lot." In Iowa's case that's $3 billion, a big chunk of the state budget that Iowa is "shoveling" into education while keeping wealthier families 'hostage." Kurtinitis is using a crude version of Betsy DeVos's argument-- education is just a service provided for individual families, and there is no social value in education as a public good, which means I shouldn't have to spend my money to educate Those Peoples' Children. If they wanted a good education (and health care and food and homes), they shouldn't have decided to be poor.

But Kurtinitis doesn't just object to spending money on public education. He doesn't like diversity, either.

I’m not sure when “diversity” became a religious term, but it certainly is now.  That’s why phrases like “diversity is our strength” can be tacked on to the end of interviews as shown above, just like “God be praised.” It’s a moral, worldview-specific term, not one of objective or mathematical truth. And due to its religious nature, challenging the presuppositions of the term results in insult and derision, not in legitimate debate — as I’m sure this article’s comments will bear out.

Having dismissed the term itself, Kurtinitis will now proceed to prove his own point about the lack of substantial debate about the topic:

Let’s assume for a moment that the notion of “white flight” is real (unjust assumptions at best) and every family moving their kids out of an impoverished and struggling school do so for racial reasons (they don’t). Barring transfer still doesn’t do anything to advance diversity. It just forces a largely minority school to hang out with real, honest-to-God racists.

See, he's just worried about those poor black kids being trapped in a school with racists. That don't exist, because white flight isn't real, and they aren't really racists. (Here's a fun article about how racists see Iowa as "fertile ground"). If Kurtinitis had been around in the sixties, I guess he would have told the Little Rock Nine to just stay home because people were going to say man things to them. "Ma'm" says 1955 Kurtinitis to Rosa Parks, "Don't you just want to move to the back of the bus and stay out of trouble."

Beside the point, 2018 Kurtinitis says. Parents  don't care about all that race stuff, anyway. They just care about "the letters on their report cards." And he wants to unload a pithy truth on us:

Scream about diversity all you want, diversity won’t teach you calculus. It won’t help you with reading comprehension.

As it turns out, Kurtinitis is wrong on this count, too. The research is piling up to indicate that there are social and cognitive benefits to both socioeconomic and racial diversity in schools (you can start here or here). His further claim that diversity won't help you get a job is also specious-- as the US becomes more and more of a mix of many sorts of folks and white folks become a minority majority, the ability to work with folks of many different backgrounds will absolutely become more and more valuable in the job market. Only if your chosen career is Rich Guy Who Sits in Office and Lives in Gated Community will you be able to avoid the need for familiarity and comfort with diversity.

But Kurtinitis is doubling down

An irreligious look at diversity dogma would insist that sitting in a room with people of different races and ethnicities isn’t a valuable or rare skill,

It may insist, but it would be better served to make an actual argument in favor of its view. I recommend that Kurtinitis not employ any of the following:

* Everyone is much happier when they just stay with their own kind

* Society works better when everyone understands their place and stays in it

* No good can come of mixing the races

* I've got mine, Jack, and I don't care what happens to the rest of you

* European culture created everything that matters, so every other culture should shut up and take notes

Except that, absent the various racist and selfish arguments, I don't know what Kurtinitis has left to argue that there is no value in having folks from different backgrounds in a room together. I'd argue that diversity has value to our society as a whole, as witnessed by America's entire history, which is the story of strength growing out of a diverse and rich stew of many peoples. I'd argue that it has  value to individuals who are able to develop a richer and fuller version of what it means to be human in the world, as well as developing a flexibility and background of experience that enables them to move through the world rather than huddling in their own stagnant corner. I'd argue that education has value not just to individuals, but to society as a whole, a public good that we all have a stake in and therefor should all support.

That's what I'd argue. I have no idea what Kurtinitis could muster in response.


  1. He’s pretending that the official motto of the US isn’t “e pluribus unum” — or ‘out of many, one’.

    1. "E pluribus unum" isn't the official motto, it's the traditional one. The official motto of the US is "In God We Trust," as designated by Congress for, as far as I can tell, basically the same reasons they added "under God" to the Pledge.