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Diversity a critical part of education

Opinion Column

It was graduation weekend at George Washington University, where Steve has taught for the last 23 years. At a brunch for students and their families, one group stood out: a half-dozen women in brightly colored hijabs, traditional Muslim headscarves. They were there to support and celebrate Aliya, an honors graduate who also headed the Muslim Students’ Association on campus.

We thought of that scene this week when the Supreme Court issued its ruling in the University of Texas affirmative action case. Liberals were pleased that the court left standing the university’s system for promoting diversity; conservatives were encouraged by the directive that lower courts review the system and subject it to “strict scrutiny.”

Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund summed up the import of the ruling: Affirmative action remains legal but must meet a “sharper and tighter standard” to survive future challenges.

Most of the commentaries, however, gave scant notice to a key point. All but one justice, Clarence Thomas, upheld the core doctrine advanced by the court in previous cases: Diversity — in all its forms — is an absolutely critical virtue in higher education.

Aliya benefitted from a GW education and is headed for a bright career in public policy. But the rest of us — her fellow students, her teachers and the professionals she will work with in the years to come — also profit from her presence.

Just one example: Aliya invited Steve to give a talk last semester on the treatment of Muslims in the U.S. media. The room was crowded with students, many wearing headscarves, and the discussion was one of the most simulating he had all year. It never would have happened without Aliya and other Muslim students organizing themselves and focusing attention on their concerns.

Critics often see affirmative action through a very narrow and distorted lens — as a gift or a favor to one person at the expense of another. That’s simply wrong. Diversity enriches the educational experience of everyone, even those who oppose affirmative action.

Attorney General Eric Holder got it right when he said after the court’s decision: “I am pleased that the Supreme Court has followed longstanding precedent that recognizes the compelling governmental interest in ensuring diversity in higher education. The educational benefits of diversity are critically important to the future of this nation.”

Steve sees those “educational benefits” every day. Many of his students are relatively privileged suburbanites from outside New York or Philadelphia; smart and generous, but limited in their worldview and life experience. So think what they learned in a writing class from Jackie, an African-American from inner-city Chicago who described her upbringing this way: absent father, disabled mother, raised largely by an aunt and grandmother in a family home that then burned to the ground.

The significance of her story transcends her race. Jackie also wrote about the role of religion in helping her overcome adversity. In the relentlessly secular world of a university, her faith — as well as her skin color — contributed significantly to the “educational benefits” she brought to campus.

Then there’s Maha, who grew up in California, a U.S. citizen with a Jordanian mother and Egyptian father. She wrote about what it was like to be a dark-skinned Muslim woman traveling alone, stopped and searched and humiliated at virtually every airport she has ever flown through.

Everyone in the class, her professor included, learned something important about what it was like to see the world through her eyes. (She now works for the U.N., running health clinics in Palestinian refugee camps on the West Bank during the day and teaching yoga at night.)

The benefits of diversity were also visible in a class Steve taught about media and politics during last year’s election. Bryan, the son of Cuban emigrants, talked about writing press releases for Marco Rubio, the young senator from Florida. Maya, an African-American, surprised the class by describing how many of her friends were disillusioned with President Obama.

Kaitlin, an evangelical Christian from Southern California, kept quoting her mother and reminding her classmates that not everyone shared their East Coast liberal mindset. So did Sinead, the daughter of a New York cop who headed the college’s Young Republicans and worked her way through college tending bar.

Diversity remains an essential part of a complete education. The court has mandated a robust discussion on how to achieve that goal. But only the means are in question, not the end. Let a thousand hijabs bloom!

Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.