Op-Ed: A Dalton Student Talks Diversity

August 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm

Julian Gerson will be a sophomore at The Dalton School and is a staff writer on the school’s paper, The Daltonian.  He also has his own blog called Attempted Humor, where he writes about his daily life in a comedic manner.

As a student who attended a diversity-promoting school for nine years, I am familiar with a learning environment consisting of people from varied racial and social backgrounds. For a while, I believed that all schools promoted diversity and that every student learned in a manner that encouraged equality.

Incoming high school sophomore Julian Gerson praises the diversity of the student body at The Dalton School but is critical of the diversity-focused curriculum of his previous school. He is a staff writer for The Daltonian. Photo courtesy of Alison Gerson.

However, as the Wall Street Journal’s recent article concerning change at the Dalton School pointed out, other private schools are only now beginning to embrace diversity. As the article attests, Dalton’s incoming kindergarten class will be made up of 47 percent students of color, a huge leap from 5 percent in 1995 and a victory for a school that has long been predominantly white. Heading into my second year at Dalton, I am just as excited as others to see the school growing into a varied and unique place, but cautious about the changes that the focus on diversity might have on the school’s curriculum.

From my perspective, the main difference between The Dalton School and my previous school is that classes at Dalton seem taught without a social agenda. Before Dalton, everything that I learned in history or English was structured around diversity, something I found limiting. It seemed that crucial lessons were being skipped or shortened in order to focus on the school’s overall message of diversity.

For example, in eighth grade, while learning about the civil rights movement, we only read from the perspectives of those being attacked and those protecting them, not the perpetrators. While I am not defending those that committed atrocious crimes, a one-sided approach to the topic limited my fellow students and me from fully grasping the importance of what we were learning. While the approach did have noble intentions and granted me a deep appreciation and respect of diversity, it ultimately abused it by using it to obstruct students from gaining a deeper understanding of history.

Before I came to Dalton, I was satisfied with my old school, where I was encouraged to use my imagination, write freely and to always keep diversity in the forefront of my mind. Diversity there was encouraged through exhibits, assemblies and heavy attention paid to each other’s uniqueness. However, diversity began to dominate the classes and eventually everything we learned had to be, in some way, linked to diversity and social equality.

In my opinion, at a certain point (after the fourth grade), a curriculum, especially in the humanities, needs to be more rigorous, focusing on grammar and world history from an unbiased perspective, something the focus on diversity made impossible. While I only attended my old school until the eighth grade and therefore have no knowledge of its high school’s curricula, I never experienced that kind of education there. Unfortunately for my fellow classmates and me, my school never altered its diversity-centered curriculum.  Nor did it offer the full academic challenge that I needed.  That’s why I applied to Dalton.

At Dalton, the learning process has been completely different. When studying a certain topic, such as slavery, we read accounts from both the slave and the slave-master’s point of view.  It is often difficult to learn about the uglier characters. Yet doing so is crucial to a comprehensive understanding of the topic. This balanced method of learning has been particularly rewarding and in my opinion, sets Dalton apart from schools that teach in a more uneven manner.

Therefore, while the prospect of additional diversity in the student body excites me, I cannot help but think back upon my days at my old school, where diversity ruled the curriculum and was inappropriately used as an instrument to interfere with balanced learning. Diversity can be a powerful presence that inspires and motivates, as long as it is used in its rightful place as a tool for social change, not a structure for a curriculum.

It is a remarkable achievement that Dalton has managed to create a socially and racially diverse kindergarten class.  One can only hope that this will inspire other elite private schools to do the same.  In my experience, having classmates from backgrounds different from your own can encourage new forms of learning and lead to a better understanding of the world and of other people, a knowledge that can prove invaluable later in life.

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