Tonight in the faculty meeting at Phillips Academy, we will discuss Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi. (Steele is a distinguished social psychologist; former provost of Columbia; now dean of education at Stanford.) It’s an exceptionally good book on many levels, assigned to the full faculty by the Access to Success working group at Andover. The social science he presents about stereotype threat is deep and revealing; the personal narratives are compelling; and the ideas for concrete action at schools are constructive.
Steele’s book should be required reading for anyone who works in a school. More broadly, anyone who cares about the present and future of American democracy should read it. The topics that he takes up — the risks associated with stereotype threat and implications for education, politics, and identity — belong at the top of the list of important issues that we face as a country.
It seems fitting to be having this conversation tonight, on the 50th anniversary of James Meredith’s registration at Ole Miss. Yesterday’s lead story in the New York Times (by Adam Liptak) also highlighted the important new challenge to affirmative action that the United States Supreme Court will hear this term. (From the story: “On Oct. 10, the court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345, a major challenge to affirmative action in higher education.”) It’s unfortunate that we are still struggling at the level of admissions of diverse communities; the discussion should be much further along than it is today.
Instead of arguing about the rules for admissions and whether our campuses should be truly diverse in the first place, the conversation should be about what schools should do once we have highly diverse communities. This issue is crucial to the future of Andover and our educational program. It’s not enough to admit students from a broad range of backgrounds; it’s essential that we are intentional and effective about how we enable all students to succeed and enjoy their time at schools, including but certainly not limited to Andover.