I spent a couple of days last week in Natchitoches, La., at my old high school, the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. It’s a residential high school for gifted and talented sophomores, juniors, and seniors. LSMSA opened its doors 30 years ago this fall. I was in the first class. The two years I spent there (we didn’t have a sophomore class then) were the real turning point in my life, the first time I felt truly at home in the world. Like many of my classmates, I can’t say enough good things about this school, and how it changed my life and my prospects for the better. It is astonishing to me that this school exists at all, much less in Louisiana, a state not especially known for its devotion to state-supported education. When I think about all the astonishing things LSMSA still achieves for its students, even in this long drought of state funding, and given that its faculty salaries are in the bottom one-third of Louisiana high school teachers overall — well, the Louisiana School looks something like a miracle.
On the drive back home, I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with the journalist Angie Holan, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the PolitiFact project. Angie is a 1990 graduate of LSMSA. A Pulitzer Prize winner! That interview was a nice confirmation of the importance of the school’s work. Other friends from the school are at or near the top of their fields in the military, the academy, and technology. One of the guys in the class just behind mine is now working on the next generation of the Internet. An immigrant kid from the New Orleans area, and now he’s on a team building something that will benefit the world. You hear things like that over and over from the LSMSA alumni community.
What brought me back last week was a project I’m working on for the school’s Foundation. I shot videotaped interviews with a number of current students, talking to them about their experiences. It was a great experience, not only because these kids are so smart, mature, and full of enthusiasm, but also because I could look across the generational divide and see young people who were just like me and my classmates — and who had found, at LSMSA, their place in the world.
I interviewed a diverse range of students — black, white, Asian, kids from all over the state, introverts and extroverts, kids who were oriented towards math and science, kids who were arts-focused, and even a boy who came to the school as a math-science devotee, but who discovered there a special love for vocal performance. Being among the students, I could see the same kind of diversity we had when we were there. Several students told me that one of the best things about LSMSA is how they were exposed to kids who had different backgrounds and beliefs, and had learned to be in community with them.
I discerned that what united this highly diverse group of high schoolers was their common experience of having been smart kids in schools where the community was often unsupportive (or insufficiently supportive) of intellectual pursuits, and where the things that made them distinctive also, in many cases, set them apart from the larger group, and made them objects of marginalization, even opprobrium. This is a semi-fancy way of saying that at their old schools, they were penalized in a number of ways, passive and active, for being smart and interested in ideas and learning, and at LSMSA, they aren’t. The very thing that made many (but not all) kids outsiders at their old schools make them insiders now.
It’s hard to emphasize the power of this, emotionally and psychologically. It was very much my own experience, and I know it was the experience of many, many classmates. I’ve read journalistic accounts of how African-American students who attend historically black colleges feel so much more at home there, and able to achieve academically in ways they may not be able to at a school in which they’re in the minority, simply because of all the unavoidable social anxiety they must endure as a minority. I don’t think I really got that before I thought of it in terms of my LSMSA experience. I do recall that when the Harvey Milk School for gay kids opened in New York City years ago, I instantly understood why a school like that is necessary. To feel that you can let your guard down, that you don’t have to walk around trying to hide your interest in ideas, or your geekiness, frees you to do extraordinary things. You used to wilt; now you bloom.
Once, in college, I found myself in an argument with a friend who thought the whole idea of LSMSA was intolerably elitist. In his view, no special accommodation should be made for academically or artistically gifted kids. They should be kept with the larger group so they don’t get above themselves. He was really adamant and rigid about his egalitarianism, speaking as if giftedness were like money. He thought that the common good, as he conceived it, would not permit the existence of a place like LSMSA.
Clearly I thought he was wrong then, and I am convinced today that this argument is wrong, though educational egalitarianism of this sort remains a powerful sentiment. It makes more sense to me to think of the common good regarding education as bringing out the best in everyone. That is, if we really seek the common good, we would strive to provide schooling (within practical limits, of course) that helps students most fully express and develop their own capabilities. I’m in favor of performing arts high schools, of math-science high schools, and the like (though I would love to see humanities high schools as well), as well as trade-school-style high schools. By compelling kids to go through a one size fits all program, they hold everybody back academically, and in some cases may even cause a level of social anxiety that inhibits learning.
Academically, this kind of thing goes both ways. When I arrived at LSMSA, the school seemed to be under the impression that gifted students are equally gifted in all areas. I had made all As in my old school, and wasn’t bad at math. But suddenly I found myself sharing classroom space with juniors who were extraordinarily good at math. I was a Honda Accord of mathematics, having to share a track with Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I shut down. If the teacher had slowed down enough to accommodate me, she would have dramatically shortchanged the others. But I couldn’t keep up, at all, and, to my discredit, gave up.
Anyway, as a traditional conservative, I agree with diversity as defined by Russell Kirk: ”Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” Actually, that doesn’t really define diversity as much as it is defines an attitude toward diversity. My objection to “diversity” as it is typically conceived in contemporary discourse is that it is a sham diversity. It is willing to accept all flavors of diversity, as long as they’re vanilla. In my field, journalism, you look across a newsroom that appears diverse, according to skin color, gender, and the usual categories, and you find a group of people who look differently, but who embody a remarkable uniformity in thought. Yet they don’t fully understand the contours of the epistemic bubble in which they live and move and have their being, in part because they have been taught that “diversity” means a particular thing — and it’s a narrow construct. It presupposes a fundamental ideological unity, one that is masked by the appearance of heterogeneity.
Well, you can’t have a real community without some underlying unity, which is to say that diversity can never be truly open-ended. I am impressed by the diversity of LSMSA: that it has achieved real diversity built around the unifying principle of collective commitment to the educational mission. But why, you might ask, could that not work in a standard school? Because, I think, not every student there is dedicated to the educational mission, and the concomitant value of esteeming intellectual achievement. The one thing you notice about LSMSA is that there is so much natural order in the school, especially in the classroom. When I went back to visit my old school after my first six weeks at LSMSA, I was startled to see how much time and effort my old teachers had to spend getting disruptive students to sit down and shut up. It made more sense to me, then, why it was not cool to be into books and ideas and good grades at my old school. I suppose high school jackasses, like the poor, we will always have with us, but I’ve wondered if those disruptive kids might have been less so if our educational system had been set up, like in the Netherlands, with various tracks better suited to their capabilities. Why should kids who had no aptitude for higher-level English or mathematics, and no future in college, have been compelled to sit through those classes? They would have been better off in classes taught at their level, and so would the kids who were there to learn, not goof off.
The point I hope you’ll take away is one that is the value of uniformity in building an environment conducive to flourishing in certain missions. I understand why we have black colleges from a historical point of view, but they are hard to reconcile with our liberal way of thinking (which is not to say that actual liberals object to them at all, only that liberals are hypocritical). And yet, I’m glad these schools exist, because I have been inside the experience of struggling to learn in an environment where I felt like an outsider, and was under constant emotional and social pressure. I can empathize with a black student who, for whatever reason, felt the same way, and I am glad that there are institutions that exist to serve those students. Same with women’s colleges, and religious colleges. We are not machines, but organisms; we cannot all thrive equally in the same soil. Because of the light it casts on the meaning(s) of diversity, it is interesting to me to reflect that I had more in common with black kids in my class at LSMSA than I did with most white kids in my classes at my old public school, and would have preferred to have been in a racial or cultural minority at LSMSA than in the majority at another school, because I experienced the school and its culture as a nurturing environment.