Jennifer Morton in Aeon Magazine: "How Elite Education Promotes Diversity Without Difference"

Jennifer Morton in Aeon Magazine: “How Elite Education Promotes Diversity Without Difference”

Associate Professor of Philosophy Jennifer M. Morton has published an essay in Aeon Magazine, examining how institutions of higher education can help to produce a more “diverse and representative elite”. Morton argues that conversations on this topic have been “too narrowly focused on the demographics of elite institutions,” as encapsulated by recent criticism of the admissions practices at the likes of Harvard, Oxbridge, and Sciences Po. According to Morton, elite institutions tend to transform students from underrepresented groups, such that “they are likely to become less representative of the outsiders that they were”. She discusses how her experience teaching at CUNY’s City College of New York has influenced her view that non-elite institutions may be much better suited to producing upwardly mobile graduates who can effectively represent the demographic groups from which they originate.

An excerpt from Morton’s article is copied below. To explore Morton’s thoughts in this arena in greater detail, look out for her forthcoming book Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility (Princeton University Press), to be released in Fall 2019.

“. . . Instead of imagining elite universities and colleges as black boxes into which ‘diverse’ students are deposited, later emerging ready to shape our society, we should understand more about what happens within these institutions. We must ask whether the prevailing dynamics are more or less conducive to producing students enriched and empowered by educational experiences that make them better representatives of those who are often excluded. Not all institutions do an adequate job of creating such environments.

If we are concerned with creating a representative elite, we shouldn’t just look at the racial or economic background of its future members, but also at their educational experiences. If, for example, we want to foster policy discussions that include a broad range of perspectives, we must do better than turning to a room full of Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates. Instead, fill that room with graduates from places such as CCNY or the University of Hull. These students are much more likely to have educational experiences that can contribute different insights for a more representative elite.

I do not intend this argument as a disavowal of the fundamental democratic principle that leads us to affirmative action. Representation matters in a democratic society. A diverse elite is better able to advance the interests of all sectors of society. Unfortunately, the way that this principle has been practiced is too narrowly focused on the demographics of elite institutions. Instead, as I have suggested, we should consider whether the education of those in the elite has done a good job of furthering their understanding of a diverse swath of society. Some universities do better at giving students this type of educational experience. It is time to recognize that they are the essential way towards a more truly representative elite, one that incorporates not just diversity but real difference too.”