As we enter a new school year and face a looming presidential election, I have been reflecting on one of my favorite lines from Alexis de Tocqueville: “In democratic countries, the science of association is the fundamental science. Progress in all the others depends on progress in this one.”
Our diversity makes excelling at the science of association both more important and more challenging. Diversity, after all, is not just about the differences you like. Engaging difference means learning about, relating to, and contending with people whom you find interesting, whom you appreciate, whom you learn from and love — but also those with whom you are very much at odds.
I propose two paths forward.
In my recent “The Chronicle of Higher Education” article, I highlight learnings from my podcast conversation with Kwame Anthony Appiah, a prominent social philosopher on pluralism and the writer of the weekly The Ethicist column in The New York Times Magazine. His 2006 book, “Cosmopolitanism,” defined a diversity paradigm that is very different from the current DEI model. Cosmopolitanism centers on curiosity and cooperation: Can people of various faiths, with their fundamentally different worldviews and long history of conflict, practice the science of association and build a nation? For Appiah, the answer is yes, but it takes work, especially the work of taking a deep interest in other people’s practices. I believe this curiosity is essential to building a healthy diverse society.
My second suggestion arises from recently watching the first two seasons of “The Bear” on Hulu. As I wrote in “The Chronicle of Philanthropy,” this series about building a restaurant should be shared and dissected by all of us in the nonprofit world. It is a show about a group of people building that much maligned and most necessary thing – an institution. As de Tocqueville noted two hundred years ago, the quality of our democratic life is inextricably tied to the quality of our civic life. The quality of our civic life is inextricably tied to the quality of our civic institutions. So let us operate our civic institutions like our democracy depends on them, because actually, it does.
Diversity work should be about creating spaces for people from the broadest possible range of identities and belief systems to constructively encounter one another. Civilization, including campuses and nonprofits, is defined by living and talking together, what de Tocqueville calls “the science of association.” This requires both individual curiosity and institutions – like campuses, nonprofits, and other workplaces – that foster the growth of knowledge and cooperation across difference.
This year, as every year, I am curious about your stories, and I am excited to engage in the holy work of institution-building together.