When Lt. General Jay Silveria spoke to U.S. Air Force Academy cadets and staff on September 28, 2017, he used the phrase “power of diversity” to embolden the Academy to treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter their background, gender, skin color, or race. Silveria referenced his comments against the backdrop of high-profile racial tensions across the country and reminded the cadets about the Academy’s diversity where people come from all backgrounds, races, upbringings, genders, walks of life, and parts of the country. “The power of that diversity comes together and makes us that much more powerful,” Silveria said.
This speech about diversity resonates with my experience in attending different kinds of elementary and secondary schools. I have been a white student in a mostly African American school district in Jackson, Mississippi, and I have also attended mostly white Episcopal schools in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Having studied the long struggles of desegregation, my experiences in these various schools cause me to question why there is such a divide in our education system for equal educational opportunity, regardless of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, sex, gender, and academic ability.
Why do we hear of the values of diversity? What are the many educational benefits to learning in diverse classrooms? A report from The Century Foundation by Amy Stuart Wells, Lauren Fox, and Diana Cordova-Cobo reveals, “Students who attend colleges and universities with more racially and ethnically diverse student bodies are said to be exposed to a wider array of experiences, outlooks, and ideas that can potentially enhance the education of all students.” At all levels of education, from preschool to doctoral studies, diverse classrooms produce academic benefits, such as learning how to work cooperatively with people from different backgrounds, encouraging creativity, and promoting deeper learning with critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
Beyond cognitive benefits, there are also civic and socio-emotional benefits to racially and socioeconomically diverse schools, according to research by The Century Foundation. When peers are exposed to different backgrounds, students are more likely to engage in cross-cultural dialogue leading to deeper understanding about other races and cultures. Outside the classroom, diverse educational environments prepare students to function in the real world to become global citizens. Eileen Kugler writes, “Our nation's workforce is becoming more diverse and will continue to do so. Our students must learn how to interact with people different from them--whether as leader, staff, seller, or buyer.” Diversity is important in preparing students for future successes as well as allowing students to better understand the people, places, and events both near and far away from them.
Learning more about the importance of diversity in education can create openings for people to make individual choices to build relationships with others. The challenges of achieving diversity in schools are difficult, but the rewards are numerous. By allowing students to experience diversity through education, they too will learn about the power of diversity.
Mary Emerson Owen
Mary Emerson Owen is an Honors Diploma candidate at the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge. She is a high school senior who enjoys running on her school’s cross country team, visual art, and spending time with friends and family. Her thesis revolves around the importance of diversity in education, also referencing how diversity has grown and changed in her personal life, the Episcopal School of Baton Rouge, and the city of Baton Rouge through a historical perspective.