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Diversity: beyond issues of fairness?

Paul Grobstein's picture

Welcome to the on-line forum associated with the 2008 senior seminar in Neural and Behavioral Sciences at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges. Its a way to keep conversations going between course meetings, and to do so in a way that makes our conversations available to other who may in turn have interesting thoughts to contribute to them.

Thoughts this week about

and our conversation based on them ...
James E. Arnold's picture

Linear vs divurgent processes

I have a deep concern about the lockstep movement towards highly similar modalities of thinking. Unfortunately, when you have a very high degree of conformity and consensus, you do not have the span of thinking to solve problems that require diverse thinking. The Einstens, Edisons, George Washington Carvers, and Rimski korsakovs are not part of a highly regimented way of doing things. In order to solve looming scientific crisis it is absolutely necessary to also develop minds capable of exponential leaps. Without tolerance we are in danger of weeding out the unbiased child who anounces the emperor has no clothes. Our nakedness reflects our intolerance.

Amelia's picture

In group vs. Out group and Diversity

While humans are an extremely diverse population, there will always be groups that we either identify with or don’t identify with in terms of our picture of ourselves. After last week’s discussion on diversity I kept thinking about how productivity may be different in either diverse or not diverse groups. I agree that diverse populations (in thinking, culture, etc.) will be more productive as a group and from my own experience I’ve found that I am more comfortable throwing out new ideas or thinking in a broader sense when I feel as though everyone is coming from a different background (of thought etc.). The sense of being judged seems to be diminished and there isn’t a feeling that one person’s ideas are superior to anyone else’s. I think in a homogenous group people will be more productive in terms of agreeing and working more quickly, but they will be unable to have certain viewpoints and some ideas that people do have may not be expressed because they feel as though they may be looked down upon for not having as ‘good’ of an idea. People want to identify with the majority, since this is often seen as superior, and then downplay ways that separate themselves from the dominant view. By doing this, we lose different viewpoints and ways of thinking since people (who as we determined are very different from one another) want to repress how they are different.

I had a problem with the article saying that people in homogenous cultures are more comfortable and less afraid of their neighbors (and maybe more productive). While these people may feel this in the particular sub-culture, the in-group out-group bias would most likely be much stronger and the feeling of being uncomfortable and more afraid of their neighbors if their neighborhood suddenly was combined with another would be much greater than in an already diverse group of people. This would lead to the entire society as being less productive since the two groups would not interact with one another and would lead to tension, as people have described (Rwanda, Serbia, etc.). As I said in class, I didn’t notice diversity when it was there but notice it now when I feel like I’m in a less diverse environment. I believe this was because where I went to school there wasn’t a feeling of any type of group being superior to one another, but simply different.

To be comfortable we need to see all diversity as equal and not superior to one another. This issue gets back to last week’s discussion of disability when we think of genetically engineering a child. Today many parents are terminating pregnancies when they find out that their child would have Down syndrome. While this is often viewed as a disease, it could in fact be seen as diversity in the human population. By eliminating this we are making the difference even greater. If designing a child goes beyond this, the group differences will become more obvious and in this cause more tension (as spoken about before).

Lastly, I wanted to comment on the issue or mental vs. physical diversity. While I agree that we shouldn’t just lump the two together, I think we need to acknowledge that physical diversity is going to lead to different experiences by different people. These various experiences and cultures in which they grew up can lend itself to mental diversity that may indeed correlate with physical diversity (whether it be race, gender, where we live, or something else). Experiences and culture certainly influence how people think and are an important aspect of the diversity of human society.

atuttle's picture

Defining limits of social diversity in "Institutional Organisms"


Picking up on the topic of maintaining neurodiversity in socially engineered populations (i.e., academic or business communities), several people have brought up intellectual diversity as a defining criterion of determining who can “make the cut.” Ian did a good job of explaining the limits of diversity by reframing the NASA problem in terms of “degrees of diversity.” As we mentioned in class, every single person is unique and different from the next, in terms of both physical and experiential components. In trying to build a select group, however, some differences are in fact more important than others. To productively contribute to building a rocket, for example, the scientists selected had to have the necessary training and experience to effectively communicate with one another to generate new ideas. Thus, I believe that Kara’s point about communication being a basic tenet of productivity is valid.

As Liz B. points out, colleges like Bryn Mawr and Haverford also selectively limit diversity in several areas. Thinking back to our applications, it was obvious that benchmarks of general and acquired intelligence were important (think SAT I and SAT II subject tests), as was our demonstrated ability to communicate effectively and creatively with others (as shown by our personal statements and hypothetical “what would you do for a day with five dollars” essays). These institutions strive for diversity in many ways including race, religious background, socioeconomic status, etc. in order to enrich students’ social experiences and make them more well-rounded. I agree on a fundamental with this approach in terms of creating a more productive environment.

That being said, however, we must recognize that as “social groups,” businesses and colleges are competitive. Kara B. raises the question, “where [do] we set the limit on diversity?” In the case of schools like Haverford or Bryn Mawr, members must demonstrate proficiency in specific areas (in this case, in areas of intelligence and advanced thinking abilities). Furthermore, Kara B. points out that communication is a fundamental part of a productive community. Using biology as an analogy, organisms have evolved various ways to carry out the processes necessary for life. While these strategies differ among specific organisms, they all ultimately complete these basic life tasks. I would argue that the same process is necessary for the survival of social institutions. It does not matter that a student has learned different ways to solve problems, as long as she is able to ultimately understand and solve the problems presented. Thus, a student who is not able to understand and apply the knowledge she has learned will not survive in the social institution.

The issue thus moves from “what limits on diversity” to “measures of diversity.” Standardized tests and job interviews are ways in which gatekeepers to competitive social groups make decisions about admitting new members. These benchmarks are often static, however, and fail to reflect an individual who has developed alternative ways to meet the basic criteria of these institutions. As future members of social collectives, it would be in all of our best interest to develop more dynamic ways to identify diversity while simultaneously maintaining the basic standards necessary for the survival of the social organism.

~Alex Tuttle

Haverford '08

ehinchcl's picture

diversity as well

Like Elliot, I wasn't able to attend last week's session (we were at a conference with our lab in Utah), so I think I will probably repeat some of what was discussed in class but hopefully will touch on it in a new (diverse?) way.

i think one of the most interesting quotes put out there, that didn't get much feedback from all the above discussions was the one that was apparently posed by andrea: "why if its so (biologically) advantageous is diversity something with struggle with so much?" I think this is a really interesting question to pose... do we struggle with diversity because we have "higher" mental function? interestingly, if you read some literature discussing other species, animals also seem to have problems-- take the very simple example of pack behavior in wolves or clans in chimps. These have been described as furthering their own genetic pool (if your family lives so do genes related to you, hence darwinian heritance), but isn't this too a form of animal attempt to homogenize their surroundings? Okay, so i understand that this example is a bit of a stretch, but i think it brings up a very important issue about how we believe that problems with diversity (and the struggles therein) is partially a social construct (which brings us back to last weeks ideas about society as an all encompassing force).

if we talk about this in terms of the "designer baby" example: what defines the traits and characteristics we want in our child? society does. if society said all of a sudden that life past 40 wasn't worth living, then would having a child with a disease that hit past 40 be so bad? probably not. (admittedly, another extreme example). I think this is quite scary, because it means that the 'line' about what is acceptable to choose in your child, and how much power you are allowed to have, is defined by a volatile constantly changing entity- society. I really feel that many of these things are a matter of choice, and therefore it should be the child's right to choose-- ex. cochlear implants should be a choice on the part of hte child not the parent. however, i understand this idea brings up problems of its own because then what about the severe diseases which affect ability to function (both mentally/physically). its a complex issue that I struggle with-- and Im not sure there is any right way to approach it or one right answer.

lastly, i just wanted to touch on the fact that I think professors grobstein's points are really relevant here-- our advances in science and technology have been amazing and shouldn't go to waste. however, i think they should be used to FURTHER the diversity, through understanding-- ex. what brought it about in the first place, if/why it is necessary for survival, etc. its really important that we realize that diversity is around for a reason, and we can benefit from that more fully if we create an accepting space to do so.

Elliot Rabinowitz's picture


I could not attend last week’s class, but from the articles and previous posts it seems there was plenty to talk about. Though I am not sure what was and was not discussed, I definitely have some thoughts concerning a number of the ideas that appear to have been brought up.


Alex A. and some other people in their posts discussed how it can be “uncomfortable to confront diversity,” often because it forces people to deal with other people that are different than themselves or other issues that they do not understand or know how to explore. I agree with some of the previous posts and readings explaining that helping people discuss diversity (whatever kind) can be beneficial to that group of people as a whole and to the individuals within that group. And while making it comfortable may be “nice,” I do not necessarily think it’s the most effective way to grow and learn. For the most effective change and growth to come out of a conversation about diversity, people need to take risks and push themselves outside of their comfort zones. People need to not be afraid of making mistakes or saying something “wrong.” If a person takes that risk but is simultaneously open to learn or change their ideas, then others can offer their own diverse opinions. Maybe this will lead to a more productive group of people (as discussed in many people’s posts). However, I think it also creates a society in which people value each other’s differences and, therefore, no measurable objective standard (such as productivity) is necessary to justify the importance of diversity.


Another topic that many people have mentioned is the reduction of one’s diversity to one or a couple of (often physical) traits. I especially like how krosania discussed this topic in the end of her post. At Haverford, I have definitely had experiences where I feel like specific aspects of diversity are given greater importance over others, especially while working on some committees. This frustrated me exactly for the reason krosania suggests – assuming that one aspect of a person completely shapes that person’s identity and makes them completely “different” seems to miss the point. I’m not saying that people do not value their differences that those differences do not help form one’s identity. Physical surface differences (e.g. race, religion, etc.) are important in creating diversity, because people do often use stereotypes and make surface judgments. However, I think it is also (and maybe more important) to help each other learn to analyze how these surface differences have actually helped shaped one’s identity. I guess this leads me to value diversity of experience, which is much harder to gauge by just a few convenient labels.


This leads me to another idea brought up by Dan and others before him about ethnic cleansing. Unfortunately, it appears to be the same thing as before – the reduction of one’s diversity to one trait. Unlike before, where we sometimes over-value this oversimplified diversity and promote it based on these crude judgments, here we see examples where the reduction of one’s diversity promotes the elimination of those “different” people. In this attempt to create a “homogenous society,” people appear mislead by focusing on one surface trait and then forming a judgment on that person by solely considering that one trait. By eliminating this trait, a less diverse society will be created. However, the resulting group of people will be by no means homogenous. It will then be only a matter of time until some other trait is termed undesirable, different, and necessary to be purged from the collective society.


I’d like to finish this post with an excerpt that I found particularly interesting from the last reading (Jennifer Delton’s Why Diversity for Diversity's Sake Won't Work). This passage specifically concerns the relationship of choice and race. I’m not sure this area was discussed on Tuesday and would be interested to hear what others think.

“Never has color been so complicated, tenuous, and dependent on regional context and personal choice. Tiger Woods looks black but refuses to identify as such. Dominicans who are white in New York City are identified as black in upstate New York. Hip-hoppers who look white or Asian call themselves black. Current scholarship emphasizes the fluidity of racial and ethnic identity, scolding those who still believe in discrete racial categories. It seems that everyone has complicated notions of race and ethnicity except the various committees charged with increasing minority hires. They seem perfectly satisfied with traditional, physical definitions of black, white, and Hispanic. As is the case with art and obscenity, they know race when they see it.”
tlogan's picture

On Diversity

As we discussed in class on Tuesday, there is no easy definition for diversity; it can be placed within the realm of the genetic, physical, experiential, and so on. My personal feeling is that diversity is not solely one of these, but rather diversity exists in the absence of homogeneity. I also have to put forward the opinion that there is not hierarchy of diversity, in that one should seek one type of diversity preferentially. I felt that the example of the body as a summation of a diversity of cells as inadequate to discuss the topic, or at least the mental/experiential aspect of diversity. Cells in the body are diverse, however, they do not experience their diversity in the same way a mind experiences it. I believe someone brought up the idea that diversity begets diversity, in that personal background affects experience, and thus mental diversity. Alex T. (I believe) brought up the need not to discount diversity of experience, a point with which I agree. Just the scope and breadth of the discussion was indicative of the vastly different experiences we have had as a class.


Throughout the discussion the same idea kept popping into my head, but I was unable to fit it in to the discussion, somewhat of an alternate example to that of Paul’s NASA example. Just as diversity creates a synergy that is beneficial for the whole, homogeneity can do just the opposite. When one examines cases of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Serbia in the mid-1990s or Rwanda in the same period, one can see that the groups that perpetrated and planned the killings were built around a singular purpose: creating a homogeneous state. Essentially, extremism begets extremism, which in this case was a lack of diversity of opinions; as there was no moderate voice to counterbalance the extreme push towards violence. This domino effect begins with ignorance and fear of others, thus the need for a push to have diversified institutions. I do feel that our educational systems, especially those which will generate our leaders, need experience with diversity as much as our institutions need diversity of experience.

Andrea G.'s picture

Diversity in the classroom

At the end of class on Tuesday, we had started an interesting debate that I'd like to hear other people's opinions on.  There were some arguments against the idea of having "too much" diversity, especially in the classroom, because there was the potential for becoming too homogeneous.  One example given was that teaching all children in the same classroom on the same level would inevitably bring the "smart kids" down to the level at which the material is being taught.  I've had a lot of personal experience with situations like this, and I don't believe that it's true at all.

I came to Bryn Mawr from a fairly large public school system, that, while it prided itself on its high school students' many achievements, never seemed to care at all about improving elementary or middle school educations.  For this reason, it took until ninth grade for our classes to be separated based on achievement level.  Before high school, everyone took essentially all of the same classes, taught on the same level, at an average pace for the majority of students to learn as much as they could. 

Now, there are probably a lot of people who would argue that this is a terrible thing, that kids should be split up so that everyone can learn at more or less their own natural pace.  I certainly wasn't a huge fan of the way our classes were organized - I was bored a lot in class before high school.  That doesn't mean, however, that we're "bringing down" the intellectual level of the students who happen to learn faster.  Sure, it's possible that if my school district had started having honors classes in 6th or 7th grade instead of 9th, they'd have a lot more National Merit Scholars or send more kids to Ivy League schools.  But really, being bored in school and not having to spend a lot of time on my homework every night gave me the opportunity to read, and learn, much more than I would have been able to otherwise.  Groupings in the classroom don't have to impede anyone's education outside of school.  I'm sure we'll discuss topics like this more in class this week, but that's just my two cents on the matter.
Jessica Krueger's picture


My comment will not be as "enlightened" as the others because I cut out early for health reasons, so I hope at least someone mentioned the Putnam article.

While not entirely germane to the topic of diversity, I must admit I was a little let down by Putnam. Not that he found this effect, but that he waited so long and did so much more research to find another cause simply because the results flew in the face of his morals. Had he found that diversity increased social capital, would he have sought another cause for this effect or would he have stopped in smug satisfaction without investigating so thoroughly other potential causes for this particular effect.

I had always thought of science as a “just the facts, ma’am” field which lay beyond reproach or at the very least beyond the scope of politics and subjective morals. But stories such as these make me wonder if other scientists are sitting on presumably “un-PC” data for fear of promoting viewpoints they don’t necessarily agree with. What does such a practice do to the objectivity of science? How can on ethically use results to drive policy decisions, such as how to integrate individuals of diverse backgrounds, with such a subjective and context-specific skew to the data?

I actually discussed this in my own personal blog a few months ago, and I invite others to read it and the comments which follow.

Jenna's picture


I think talking about the importance of diversity from a productivity perspective was very interesting. I believe that diversity can increase productivity as shown in the NASA example; however, the only problem with this system is that all the people participating must be open to working in a diverse group. We spent some time trying to separate the moral aspect of diversity from the productive one, but I think it is impossible to separate them completely. People will only be productive in a diverse group if they all appreciate one another. If a racist man was supposed to work with someone he thought was inferior this pair would probably be less productive than either man alone since they would probably spend more time fighting than problem solving. This leads to the difficult question of why there is racism to begin with and what causes some people to hate diversity while others embrace it. Until this question can be answered and everyone can learn to accept people who are different it won’t matter if diversity is more productive because nobody will work together.


Another thing which I found particularly thought provoking was how our discussion shifted to eugenics and designer babies as a way of our society trying to limit diversity. I think there is a very fine line between preventing illness and trying to limit diversity. While I believe it is a parent’s right to screen pregnancies for certain severe defects, I don’t think it is necessary to screen for others. Although limiting defects is a way of limiting diversity I think it is acceptable in the situation where the parents would be unable to take care of a disabled child. However, this is where I personally draw the line and I recognize that it is different for everyone. This is an important discussion to have because it is happening right now and I recognize that it could be easy to move from severe genetic defects to smaller less important ones and then to “designer babies.”


Similarly, we talked about the hypothetical problem of developing into two different species if designer babies were allowed, specifically between the upper and lower classes. However, if a rich person says that they would never consider dating or marrying someone of the lower class and also would never come into contact with someone from a lower class in some ways they are already different “species;” if you consider the definition of the same species organisms which will produce offspring. To bring this back to my initial thoughts, this shows the importance of recognizing the morals behind appreciating diversity because without that people could be much closer to being different species than we think.

Mawrtyr2008's picture

Racism as an Example


Your thought in the first paragraph about the possible limitations of diversity in the NASA example really made me think about how we define "productivity."  While it's important to remember that a racist mindset can stubbornly persist despite repeated exposure to people who contradict the stereotype, it's equally important (not to mention heartening!)  to remember that those attitudes can change.  

Your example interests me because it calls into question our expectations of productivity.  Maybe the problem here is actually our assumption about which outcomes of a conversation deserve the label of "productive". To me, a conversation in which two racist people argued actually  might be very productive in that their attitudes of how an "individual = the whole" group might change.  However, we as observers haven't recognized this outcome as inherently productive because we're focusing too much on finding the answer to the problem that they're solving.  Your post helped me realize that there are actually many kinds of productivity that can result from diverse encounters.  Maybe we could, as many teachers do, re-label at least this one as a "learning opportunity" rather than an "opportunity to find the answer to a problem".

Thanks for your thoughts! 

Paul Grobstein's picture

Neurodiversity and education

A "learning oportunity". Nice lead in for our upcoming discussion of brain and education ....

  • Should education have as an objective changing attitudes about diversity so that differences are regarded as assets rather than threats?
  • Does education adequately serve this objective currently?
  • How might it be altered to better serve it?

Perhaps even more interestingly ...

  • Does education currently enhance or diminish neurodiversity?
  • Should education enhance or diminish neurodiversity?
  • What practices do/would contribute to either objective?
Apropos of our last conversation, I just finished reading A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World by Susanne Antonetta. Interesting book, stylistically ("My husand, Bruce, reads this and says, Tell them it's a bipolar book"), in terms of content ("I have manic-depressive disorder, and one of the major changes my life has character has been ... just having people I can talk to. Really talk. Of the people I'm closest to ... one has the form of autism known as Asperger's Syndrome. One has multiple personalities ...."), and in terms of message ("neurodiversity ultimately describes everyone, like racial diversity", "Have you ever noticed that 'normal' people cannot think about the possibility thta everyone's mind is 'vastly and mysteriously different from my own").
kbrown's picture

Communication as the limit for diversity

Hey guys. When I was thinking back to our discussion last Tuesdsay I found it interesting that the group kept coming back to the question of where we set the limit on diversity. I think most would agree that it is beneficial to have different opinions and backgrounds represented in such a place as a college, and that likewise this may have some link to the degree of racial or religious diversity present on a campus. However, where do we draw the line of diversity?  Many argued that theoretically if we strive for more diversity, especially when talking about mental diversity, we must also include diversity of intelligence. What is the difference, some may ask, in accepting students who are unable to perform at high levels in academics under the assumption that they will provide a type of intellectual diversity, and accepting students of different backgrounds to provide for "opinion" diversity? And along those lines, and bringing up something someone mentioned I think during our broken brain discussion, who is to say that people who speak different languages would not also provide a degree of diversity? It is easy to see how this type of diversity might prove to be a seperating and confusing rather than a uniting and creating factor. However, I don't think that these examples undermine the entirety of the diversity = productivity equation.

It seems that there should simply be a limit set on this equation, a set population of individuals for which this equation could ring true, and I think that limit is the ability for communication. The reason that diversity which increases productivity cannot work for populations of individuals who do not speak the same language is the simple lack of ability to communicate. The benefits of diversity in problem solving tasks would not be present in a group in which they were unable to speak and understand eachother. However, if these people were solving a math problem, or a problem in some more international set of symbols, one might assume that the language issue would dissapear.

This takes us to our next issue, however; that of intellectual diversity. Let's say that the group of individuals is in fact solving a mathamatical problem, but the type of diversity present at the meeting is that of intellectual diversity, that is some display a very high level of mathamatical understanding and ability and others are not able to understand even simple mathamatical concepts. This is not to say that those who cannot understand mathamatical concepts are "stupid" but simply that in this particular subject they are not proficient. Clearly in this type of setting the group would not progress because those who were able to understand the problem would not gain any benefit from those who did not. I would argue that the same applies to a college setting. Because the object of this type of academic grouping is to communicate ideas (both from professor to student and among students) and to learn, those who were not able to communicate at this intellectual level would not serve to benefit from or give benefits to the community as a whole. For diversity to increase productivity, those in the group must be able to communicate not only with the same language (math, speach or otherwise) but also must be able to communicate on the same level. When the group is within the limits of ability to communicate, I see no reason why the equation suggested by Page would not ring true in almost any setting. 

krosania's picture


I was really intrigued by the idea that was raised in our discussion of diversity being helpful in some situations and harmful in others.My gut reaction is to not want this to be true, but I refuse to believe this is just because political correctness tells me it mustn’t be true. It just doesn’t make intuitive sense to me because I honestly don’t think I can think of a situation where diversity in some form is not useful. None of my friends are very much like me in terms of background or personality, and this is something I really appreciate. Our conversations are always interesting, and I get really useful advice on problems I’m having because my friends are able to come up with solutions I nevr would have thought of. Also, as frustrating as it can sometimes be, I am really glad that in all of my classes there are many students that offer vastly different perspectives from my own. Our Senior Seminar is a perfect example: how boring would the last two classes have been if we all thought about these issues in the same way? The important thing to remember is that any group that comes together for a particular purpose, be it friendship or education or work or a community-based project, will always have more in common than they do differences among them. The commonalities provide a means of communicating with and relating to one another, but the differences are what cause people to grow in these situations, and to create something outside of themselves that they would not have been able to alone or with others exactly like them.

All that being said, I think we get into trouble when we assume that people from different socioeconomic or ethnic backgrounds automatically must have different outlooks on life. Here in the bi-co, I’ve encountered several examples of people from different countries with different experiences resulting in very similar outlooks on life and the world. When we assume that differences in race or religion can automatically provide a formula for creating “neurodiversity” in a work environment, we are taking a shortcut and wind up missing the point. It is of course important to have a team that consists of differing perspectives, but the only way to really know this is the case is to get to know the people under the labels that are put on them based on their physical appearance. Otherwise you are just using people as tokens and trying to create the appearance of diversity for external reasons that have nothing to do with increasing productivity.

natsu's picture

Your post made me think...

Kara- I found your post interesting and what you wrote about your friends made me thinking about my own friends.  First I was thinking about the friends that I have here at Bryn Mawr and realized that, like you, they are all very different in background and personality.  When I bring a problem to them, they tend to offer different ideas and perspectives, and I find that very interesting and helpful because it makes me rethink my own perspectives about the issue.  Next, I thought about my friends in Japan.  While my friends in Japan are all Japanese and not at all ethnically or racially diverse, I would say that they are still different in personality and thus tackle issues and problems in different manners.  Finally, I thought about my friends here AND my friends in Japan and realized that the within group difference that I first noted was nothing compared to the difference I felt between the two groups.

During class, there was a lot of discussion about how we tend to only think about diversity as racial or cultural diversity etc., and there was some discussion on whether we could truly put these differences aside and just think about diverse thinkers. While people can certainly be different-minded even when they come from the same culture, it seems to me that we tend to be so much more different in how we approach problems when we come from different cultures (this is probably touching on what Ian wrote about “degrees of difference”) because of the different education that we receive.  By education, I don’t just mean what we learn or what we do in the classroom, but also what we learn   from our parents, the media, and all the people in the society.  In the past when I was talking to some friends from home I have brought up issues that I had been really struggling through, together with my friends.  What I have found interesting is that in the majority of the cases, my friends from home didn’t even understand why we felt that the issue was such a big problem!  So, I guess what I am wondering is, if we are all agreeing that something is important enough to take the time to think about, are we really all that different?   

aamen's picture

Diversity and Difference

As several people have commented on, I was also very interested in how difficult it seemed to be for us to separate mental and physical diversity in our discussion.  In considering why this might be, it seems to me that to some degree more physically obvious diversities may lead to different ways of thinking, and therefore mental diversity.  We’ve talked some in class about the biopsychosocial model of behavior – clearly there must be genetic (biological) factors that play a role in determining an individual’s personality and styles of thought.  However, it also seems to be true that an individual is in part shaped by their experiences.  Diversity in terms of race, socioeconomic status, and religion (the more obviously forms of diversity that we talked about) certainly must shape the experiences that a person has and how others treat or react to them, and therefore probably helps to shape how they approach situations and solve problems.  Because of this, it would make sense to me that a group of people from varying races, socioeconomic backgrounds, etc. would also be a mentally diverse group.  

I do find it interesting how uncomfortable some people are made by the issue of confronting diversity – for example, teachers who were uncomfortable during the diversity training that we discussed.  I imagine that diversity training would involve confronting the more obvious diversity issues rather than explicitly discussing diversity of thought processes.  I think that it is really the idea that someone else sees things or thinks about things in an entirely different way that makes people nervous – people are uncomfortable with what they don’t know or understand.  I also think that people tend to assume that people who look like them or who have had similar life experiences to themselves think in the same way that they do.  Therefore, possibly more obvious differences make people nervous because they take them to be indicative of differences in mental processes.  


I personally believe that diversity is crucial for our success as a race.  It is easy for me to believe the economist’s equation relating productivity to diversity (mental diversity, specifically).  In a more general sense, it seems to me that diversity is nature’s way of securing survival.  In the past, when environmental factors have changed making it impossible for a species to continue to live as it has been, certain previously inconsequential traits may begin to be selected for, allowing the species to evolve and adapt to the new environment.  All of the  moral issues that I see with ‘engineering’ the human race aside, I think that in doing this we would potentially be eliminating certain genetic variability that may seem worthless or even negative now, but that could be crucial in the future.  

Marissa Patterson's picture

Diversity and Changes

Wow, everyone has had quite a few interesting things to say about the idea of diversity. I wanted to think a bit about what Emily said, because I wonder just what the difference is between doing a procedure before birth to end cystic fibrosis and one to end deafness. She mentioned that the important distinction was that CF causes a shortened lifespan while deafness does not. Now I admit freely that I have not done any research, but Im pretty sure that advances in medical treatment have increased the average lifespan for someone with CF to about 40 years. I do not know if the lifespan for someone who is deaf is shorter or not, but I wonder if there is any type of increase in accidents caused by deafness. We rely so much on our hearing, think about car horns or even a shouted "STOP!" from a parent.

What is the difference, then, (or is there even a difference) between doing a procedure to change the genes of a fetus, doing a procedure to correct hearing in utero, and putting in a cochlear implant the day a child is born? I am still unclear as to why you can do a procedure to allow a child to hear, but only to them--you cannot affect their genetics to prevent that child's children from having to undergo the same type of procedure.

I was also interested by the comment about "being the diversity" in a situation. I was wondering exactly what that meant, and whether you had to be the apparent diversity (such as in race) to "qualify". Often as a Jew I feel like "the diversity" but in other situations I am "diverse" because I am from the midwest, or because I am straight, or because I went to public school or for such a wide variety of reasons. I wonder if anyone is ever NOT "the diversity" in a situation for some reason.

Also (though this relates more to last week and is also really cool) I wanted to share this link

It is about blind children learning how to use echolocation to "see" the world around us....says a lot about disability/ability!

natsu's picture

Defining diversity, defining productivity

During this week’s discussion, a couple of people brought up some issues on diversity in educational settings which I found very interesting.  As I mentioned, I think that it is important to think about what we mean by productivity before we can decide whether or what kind of diversity leads to productivity.  Looking at Bryn Mawr, I think that diversity of race and nationality is important because the goal of our college is to produce people who will make a meaningful contribution to the world.  Liz and Professor Grobstein started a discussion about whether this kind of diversity is important in educational settings, not just diversity as in people with different types of thinkers/ problem solvers.  Though I certainly think mental diversity promotes a more exciting learning environment, I personally think that it is also important  for any institution to have students and scientists that have diverse beliefs, backgrounds and life experiences, because these differences can push people to define and redefine what productivity is.  What do we mean by meaningful contribution?  What is it that we really want to produce?  I believe that discussing these questions with a group of people who do not necessarily agree with each other is what pushes people to really think about their arguments and actions, and whether their efforts will really lead to something that is beneficial for our society and our future. 

Paul Grobstein's picture


A very rich conversation last week, as evidenced by the thoughts already posted here. A good followup to the previous week on "broken brains?", and a good foundation for the coming week on brain and education.

I very much share Stephanie's thought that thinking about diversity in terms of "fairness" can be usefully supplemented by thinking about it as well in terms of ... what it is good for/not good for in day to day life (I'm not sure "productivity" quite captures this, but its close enough). And I think Rebecca's and EmilyA's point is an important one as well ... humanity has a long history of presuming that some forms of humans were better than others and acting to try and eliminate those thought to be less good. The struggle between efforts to make things better (and more homogenous) and .... belief in the value of difference is an old one, not one that first appears with advances either in genetic manipulation or in brain science.

In this context, it seems important to entertain the possibility that advances in biology and neurobiology might be used to gain greater insight into the origins and significance of diversity, rather than as new tools for "optimizing" individual humans. And here I do think it is useful to think about the generalization that all successful biological systems, ourselves included, are in fact systems that function well precisely because of the diversity of their components . And, more specifically, to think about the benefits of "mental diversity". Maybe, though, in this class, we could find a term that is more encompassing? As a neurobiologist, my inclination is to suspect that the physical and the mental are much less clearly separable than is usually thought. So how about we talk about "neurodiversity"? With the clear understanding that "neurodiversity" is a function not simply of genes but of life experiences as well. And that neurodiversity is not only or even primarily a function of group differences, but is a property of individuals which may in turn contribute to group identities. As Danielle says, "Each person is their own sub-group of diversity".

The questions that then arose had to do with the balance between "efficiency" and "productivity", the significance of "intelligence" as measured by test scores and the like in comparison to other aspects of neurodiversity, the importance of communication/coordination, and the issue of whether there are limits to the range of diversity that can contribute to productivity. These aren't simple questions to answer but it does seem to me they represent at this point a potentially much more promising way to think about diversity than the traditional fairness approach (cf The Brain, Story Sharing, and Social Organization).

And, of course, they set an interesting context for next week's discussion of brain and education. Does education as it is currently practiced increase or decrease neurodiversity? What would we like it to do? Looking forward to that conversation, and to hearing more about what others heard/took away from this one.


Paul Grobstein's picture

psychoneuro public policy

A couple of relevant recent articles include The First Ache (NYTimes Magazine, 10 Feb 2008), about pain and its handling in infants/foetuses, and My Cortex Made Me Buy it, (NYTimes 9 Feb 2008), that cites a recent paper on comsumer behavior. One or the other might fit into a scheduled session, or encourage some changes in our schedule?

I've updated our course home page to include these on our "of interest" list, and will continue to do so during the semester. If others notice things relevant to our general topic, note them in the forum and/or send me links to add to the list?

Danielle's picture

Understanding Diversity


How can we accurately define diversity when the human race is completely heterogeneous? The homogeneity that we as humans share is that we are all from the same species and all possess a degree of biological order that supersedes other organisms. As people we continuously search for the one characteristic or belief that makes us homogenous. In actuality we are all completely different from one another. Although we have similar biological components, the way in which we respond to different drug treatments and interact in our daily lives proves that our biological machinery is very heterogeneous. Even within a group of what we call homogenous individuals there is some degree of variability. This is especially noted in identical twins who both have the same genetic material but end up developing into two very distinct individuals. Our understanding of what diversity is and how it is identified is distorted.


We think of diversity as many sub-groups all possessing homogenous qualities and traits, and when all combined we have one large diverse group. The concept of diversity, groups people based on similarities but neglects the fact that we as individuals are all extremely diverse. Each person is their own sub-group of diversity making us an extremely heterogeneous species. The bio-diversity noted among humans, sets them apart from other species that possess homogenous physical and biological characteristics.


I think the idea behind our fascination with diversity is strongly correlated with our highly ordered biological machinery. As humans we feel more comfortable placing everything into categories since we are such a highly ordered species. Within ourselves, we have the innate desire to group people based on specific characteristics that we value as individuals.

Ian Morton's picture

Diversity from individual variability

Hi Danielle,

I think you make a good point that we should not forgot that individuals are all different, and hence diversity is therefor always present. Stemming from this you make the point that we tend to view diversity as various subgroups of homogenous individuals, and I agree with you that this is a narrow-minded way to conceptuailze diversity. However, without discounting the importance of individuality, I think it is key here to recognize the importance of degrees of diversity. For instance, in the NASA example, while the team selected of the top-scoring individuals was diverse in the sense that everyone of the members was unique, it is important to recognize that the degree to which they were differenct was not significant enough to promote greater productivity/creativity. Essentially I am arguing that while individual variability implies a basic level of diversity, what is central to the notion of diversity = productivity is the degree to which individuals vary. While a "homogenous" group of people are individually diverse, they remain "homogenous" in the sense that despite individual differences they are very similar on some general level.

Note: I am not trying to say we should think of people/groups of people in terms of their general similarities.  Rather I only want to suggest that the general similarities may have a greater effect within the social system.

Emily Alspector's picture

Blurred lines..

To me, talking about diversity is such an interesting topic because, as was made apparent in last class' discussion, there are many ways to define it. It can be seen in a biological, social or even anatomical sense. Like Rebeccca W., I was also very interested in the conversation about how our bodies contain nothing but diversity and seem to function perfectly well (most of the time..). I think it's important to note the obvious differences between physical diversity and mental diversity, as Liz has above. I think our ideas of diversity, be it through race, religion, hair color, cell size, or anything, are examples of physical diversity. What is key in this idea of productivity is mental diversity. It interests me that we struggle with separating the two, and assume that someone who is physically diverse might also be mentally diverse (addressed in Delton's article).

On another topic, having recently visited the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, it is difficult for me to not equate much of our discussion on eugenics and "designing" a child to my experience there. Many of the Holocaust victims were mentally challenged, and people across Europe were convinced that they were doing these people (children and adults) a favor by killing them because of their inability to care for themselves or their lower intelligence. I would say that even the idea of selecting for dwarfism in a child is going over the line of appropriateness when it comes to gene alteration in an unborn child. For some reason (and maybe someone else can comment on this), I find it more acceptable, socially and morally, to offer a child a cochlear implant rather than adjust the child before its birth. But, if genetics research can help to prevent a child from being born with a fatal illness, like cystic fibrosis or some other disease where the patient often doesn't live to adulthood, that seems like a worthwhile intervention. Dwarfism and deafness will most likley not cut the child's life any shorter than a child born with hearing or without dwarfism, and it seems like that is the line that is getting blurrier due to what we as humans "want" in our children. We are forgetting that the ultimate goal is survival, and instead we run the risk of exploiting our scientific advances to make sure we have a brown eyed daughter with long straight hair.

One last point I would like to make is that we must respect both physical and mental diversity in the workplace and in our social lives. Regardless of facts and figures and algorithms, our race will not survive if we can't cooperate and acknowledge our differences. An interesting example that counterpoints the "higher race" argument that was brought up in class was the example of the bird species whose genes were too similar for effective reproduction, leading to their extinction. It's important to keep both of these stories in mind, and that we shouldn't strive for complete diversity or complete homogeneity, but to keep a safe middle ground where mental and physical diversity can thrive.

ebitler's picture

Mental Diversity


In thinking about the discussion from Tuesday night, I keep coming back to Andrea’s initial question of “Why if it’s so (biologically) advantageous is diversity something that we struggle with so much?” For me the obvious answer is the historical context of diversity in this country. A group of people working together to find a solution to a problem is likely to be more effective (although not necessarily more efficient) if they are able to approach a problem from different perspectives; in other words: if they’re more mentally diverse.


But in our culture “mental diversity” isn’t the type of differences that come to mine when diversity is mentioned. Diversity usually brings to mind differences in race, ethnicity, social economic status, and cultural background. Considering American history and the difficulties that have existed in our melting pot society, along with the ability to identify people by race, economic status, etc. using visual cues (however accurate or inaccurate), it’s not surprising that these are the thoughts associated with diversity. And it’s those thoughts and the historical context of struggles of groups of people that make it difficult to talk about diversity. Given that context, it might explain why we kept turning back to the moral arguments as well.


Argument for Mental Diversity

I think that given the term “mental diversity” it may be a little easier to talk about the type of diversity that makes a company or a classroom more productive. I certainly don’t agree with every thought or opinion in our class, and while sometimes I may feel like some opinions are outside the spectrum of what I consider reasonable, I definitely believe that our class is more productive for have a range of view points about our discussion topics. It wouldn’t be very productive (or interesting) if we all sat around saying “I agree” the whole night. Additionally, I’m finding that I am agreeing with thoughts and opinions that I just wouldn’t have considered had they not been brought up, and I think this also serves as evidence for me that mental diversity equals productivity.


Thinking about mental diversity, I tried to consider how such a term could be applicable for admissions officers of a school or someone hiring for a company. I realized that often what enables people to think differently is in fact their diverse personal history, which does in fact largely arise from experiences related to religion, ethnicity, economic status, etc. I don’t see that as an argument for maintaining diversity as an antonym for these qualities but rather as an argument for maintaining those qualities that enable mental diversity. That is to say that I don’t think that as we promote diversity in more social settings that eventually all qualities are going to blend together and be one. I think instead that it’s important to celebrate what makes us different so that we can integrate those differences into our ways of thinking (like going to Jewish summer camps, which I remember someone mentioning.


I think that college admissions directors (at least at smaller schools like Haverford and Bryn Mawr) are getting pretty good at looking at the different qualities that someone can bring to the table beyond test scores. While the initial ability to communicate at a certain level is necessary for efficient productivity, the diversity is definitely necessary for productivity, also. Hopefully this is something that can become better integrated into the hiring process (especially as some of us are looking for jobs…). And further more I see this as an argument to admit boys with slightly lower scores until the applying demographic shifts for colleges. After all, the admissions criterion/process is different for Haverford and Bryn Mawr and I think it’s the awareness that the schools host students with different perspectives that led to the Bi-Co (although the initial gender difference was pretty obvious) and it makes the Bi-Co a productive organization with greater mental resources.



Mawrtyr2008's picture

Diversity and the Brain

Since diversity and telescoping levels of complexity are two of many characterizations of biological systems, is it really surprising that struggle with wrapping our minds around all that diversity entails? Some buzzwords that better helped me understand what we mean when we talk about diversity included integration, communication, efficiency, conflict, and value of difference. One troublesome part of talking about diversity seems to be that these words mean very different things when talking about local diversity (a group of cells, an individual organism) and global diversity (culture, society, civilization).

It bothered me that our conversation about how genetics relates to diversity ended so abruptly. I interested me that the class spent a great deal of time continuing to debate whether or not it was alright to get rid of various traits in a population. This outcome would lead to one similar to the NASA conundrum with one homogenous group and one heterogeneous group, one less diverse group and one more diverse group. Clearly, the Dreifus article suggests that the heterogeneous, more diverse (perhaps to a fault, as some would have it?) is more desirable because more things are creative in that circumstance. To me, the class’ ambivalence suggests that many of us were not convinced by the Dreifus article’s argument that higher diversity equals higher productivity and that outcome is always desirable.

This problem, however, readily leads to a train of though that I troubled me. I noticed that many people spent lots of time saying “What if…” and then listing some instance of intentional genetic engineering to create a different, perhaps more resistant, perhaps “better adapted” group of humans. Altering the genetic makeup of a germ cell line is defined as eugenics, no matter whether the intentionality behind it is paternalistic, empathetic, or malicious. This practice has been used in American Appalachia in the 1920s, in Europe during the Holocaust and the Bosnian war, and in Darfur, Sudan, just to name a few. These ponderings are not at all thought experiments. These experiments, a practice of systematic alteration of inherited characteristics, have happened repeatedly throughout the course of time.

I would imagine that we would all have very strong reactions to these named instances, and therefore I can’t help wonder about the seemingly ambivalent nature of the discussion in the classroom. In fact, I repeatedly heard people affirming lines of reasoning that were used to justify these atrocities. Rather than place a blanket judgment that conversations that lead to disturbing conclusions are just wrong, I’m interested in what about our brains enables us to compartmentalize two very similar topics. I’m by no means suggesting that talking about these topics is the same as acting on these topics, but where do you draw the line? Would the people who agreed that getting rid of various kinds of genetic diversity ever actually act on their conclusions? More than anything, this conversation seems to be an interesting study in how humans think. What enables some humans to become passionately, violently moved by hearing accounts of civil rights abuses, but also able to discuss them so emotionlessly, so casually in a classroom? Is it the label of “hard science” or “biology” or “neurology”? Is it the distance? Is it some structural characteristic of to brains? Has this characteristic been named or studied before and I’m just not aware of it?

To switch topics, I’d like to repeat a short anecdote that I alluded to in class. I know that any research on memory suggests that I’m certainly manipulating this memory as I contextualize it and recall it, but I think it still applies to this discussion. Last semester, I participated in a Praxis course called The Sociology of AIDS. I interned at a local underfunded, understaffed AIDS organization in Center City, and most of my colleagues were people who became addicted to heroin at a very young age. None of them went to college, few of them can currently support themselves, and most are living in transient housing. I characterize them by these striking differences instead of their many virtues to illustrate that their perspective has been affected by these experiences, and it isn’t a perspective I hear on this campus at all. As my friends can attest, that course was the most provocative, emotionally draining, difficult, frustrating, and also the most productive, creative, and innovative semester I’ve had at college yet. I share this simply to suggest that there can be some reconciliation between Dreifus’ and Jones’ articles. Yes, conversations between diverse participants can be extraordinarily hard, and bring up lots of uncomfortable feelings (Jones) but they can ultimately lead to a great deal of creativity and productivity (Dreifus).

To switch to a more sweeping assessment of our conversation on diversity, at the root of this all, there’s still this intent focus on efficiency that bothers me. As I think the articles made clear, diversity is not conducive to efficiency. Conversations about diversity can be messy, upsetting, roundabout, repetitious affairs with no concrete outcome except a greater understanding of where another is coming from and how that history affects his or her perception of reality. The idea of efficiency isn’t limited to more traditional takes on diversity, like discussions, forums, and symposia that focus on diversity of race, religion, and class. The example of eugenics is also very much an example of increasing efficiency. If embryos were screened to prevent, say, Schizophrenia, excepting an empathetic, paternalistic motivation, much of the impetus is in the interest of efficiency. The lines of reasoning might be these: that eliminating this brain type would waste fewer resources on ineffective treatments, that it would summarily increase the number of productive people, and conversely reduce the percentage of counterproductive people. I see this idea of efficiency as central to a discussion of diversity since right now, I think that American society tends to stress the importance of both, even though they are often at extreme odds. Why do these two values conflict? Must they? Is this conflict something that emerges from individual brains (personality), or something that emerges from many of them (capitalism)? How does our other discussion about disability relate to new ideas of neurodiversity?

Stephanie's picture

many ways of thinking about DIVERSITY

I enjoyed our Tuesday night discussion this week on diversity & productivity. I want to thank Prof. Morris for bringing this discussion topic to our seminar- I agree with Prof. Morris that it is a rare/ new opportunity to discuss diversity in a classroom/ academic setting- at least from my personal experience. I think discussing diversity in this new context is important and can lead to very interesting conversations like those we had this past week.

Throughout our discussion, many of us would fall back to thinking of diversity in a moral sense rather than thinking of diversity as productivity. Why was this? I think we are all so used to thinking of diversity in only the moral sense that when we try to think about it in another sense, like productivity, we often begin to discuss productivity but ultimately seem to fall back to the "moral sense" of diversity. Examining issues of diversity outside of the moral realm is difficult- however, when we push ourselves to do so, we can examine diversity from other important and interesting perspectives.

When thinking about diversity = productivity, I believe the only way diversity can be productive is through effective communication. In order to achieve effective communication I think the differences among individuals need to be respected, differences need to be used in effective ways, and most importantly, clear channels of communication need to be created so constructive discussions can take place rather ineffective debates. When thinking of biological systems, it is clear they are extremely productive and successful because of their diversity. In biological systems (like cells, plants, etc..) there are no explicit rankings, ratings or superiority, however, this idea does not easily translate to the social human being. Our society as humans we also have diversity, which can be productive, but in our society, humans often seem to place rankings and ratings on differences. Maybe our placing of rankings and ratings on differences can sometimes hinder our productivity. When thinking of diversity = productivity, I think thinking about the diversity of cells in body vs. diversity of people in a room are two situations that may need to be thought about separately because each situation poses different challenges for diversity achieving productivity.

Finally, I also wanted to comment on our Tuesday night's discussion of diversity trainings. I mentioned how sometimes schools will organize diversity trainings for faculty or students, but these diversity trainings can affect people differently. Some people enjoy these trainings, but other people may be "rubbed the wrong way" or made to feel uncomfortable. This source of discomfort can be different for each person. Some people may not be comfortable discussing such personal and emotional issues in a work environment. Others may never have talked about these issues before. Other people may have experiences (family experiences, childhood, other life experiences) and have beliefs that may be challenged by the diversity training. I think diversity training is important, however, finding the right way to conduct it is a constant challenge.

I look forward to hearing everyone's comments! See you on Tuesday!