On December 9, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments (uhhh, again) in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case about affirmative action. At issue: what measures (if any) can the university use to increase diversity if those measures disadvantage white students?
The case provoked all the expected outrage, especially when Justice Scalia made a half-informed comment about the effects of affirmative action on minority students’ ultimate achievement. However, while listening to back episodes of the Amicus Podcast, I heard a different comment from Chief Justice John Roberts.
“What unique perspective,” he asked, “does a minority student bring to a physics class?”
The lawyer for the University of Texas, not surprisingly, was tongue-tied. (Not exactly part of prep for the case, eh?) A casual internet search revealed many non-response responses explaining why diversity is important and why physics needs underrepresented students to succeed. (That second link, if you’re curious, is a letter from almost 2500 physicists to the Supreme Court.) The Atlantic has a lovely piece about Einstein’s journey to discovering relativity and how it relied on philosophy, but the piece still could only hint at an answer to Roberts. Somehow, none of these responses actually answered the question!
That’s where I’m stepping in.
Unique Perspective #1: Communication
The job of a physicist is centered around two things: making new scientific discoveries and communicating those discoveries. A discovery that is not communicated is useless. Physicists write up their work in academic journals and give talks at conferences. For many of them, the bulk of their academic employment will be based around teaching physics classes. Those who go into industry must communicate with coworkers, management, and the public on a regular basis.
Successful communication requires being able to phrase your work in a way that can be understood by those of many different backgrounds. In lab settings, in group projects, in presentations, it provides a key benefit to learn how to communicate with those who don’t share your background.
Unique Perspective #2: Applications
Many people taking physics classes are going on to think about applications of their work to the real world. Perhaps they are engineers and will be building bridges. Perhaps they are going to work at NASA or SpaceX or Blue Origin and will lead space exploration. Perhaps they are going to work in nanotech, or semiconductors, or… you get the idea.
In all of these cases, applications to the real world are essential. They must design technologies to be used by other people. They must think about how the bridges they build interact with the communities around those bridges. Diverse perspectives allow students to better understand the applications of their work, how it will be used, and how to design it for maximal benefit to society.
Unique Perspective #3: Cultural Support
For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that there’s a physics student who gets into UT and she’s be the only Black student in her class. She’s doubly underrepresented: one of few women, and the only Black student. Her learning will be negatively impacted because she has no one to talk to about those struggles. There’s no one who can understand the lack of role models or the biases she faces. If she comes from an environment that is not middle- or upper-class, there is no one with whom she can discuss the culture shock not just of attending the university, but of physics, which has its own cultural norms.
This student, although admitted on her own merits, is getting an inferior education to others because she does not have a supportive peer group. This is preventing her successful education, because her class lacks the perspectives of other students that will help her succeed. Without diversity, the University of Texas cannot do its job for her, cannot give her the service for which she is paying tuition.
These are not the only reasons I support affirmative action in educational settings. However, as someone who has designed numerous educational programs in math and science settings, I have sought diversity of viewpoints and backgrounds not for a social justice purpose, but because that is how I can provide the best educations for my students and create the products that students will want. As the country becomes more diverse and as students enter a globally competitive marketplace, access to diverse viewpoints is an essential part of a good education.
To put it in the starkest terms, denying the University of Texas the tools to create a diverse class will decrease their educational effectiveness and put them at a competitive disadvantage against other educational options that offer greater diversity.