Starting with Third World Orientation and through to the Gay Alumni Association, college seems to be place that people separate themselves. And the colleges are going along.
As I visit colleges with my son, who's a high school senior, one of the things that strikes me most is segregation -- admittedly voluntary segregation -- in living arrangements. Most schools these days seem to have "special interest houses" of various kinds: Veggie House, Substance-Free House, houses where students speak French. Sometimes, the "special interest" is more along religious or ethnic or racial lines.
Here are examples from actual college brochures. The identities of the schools have been omitted because the practice is so widespread that it doesn't seem to make sense to single out a few schools.
* "The W.E.B. DuBois College House emphasizes the African-American experience through literary discussions, dance, music, drama and art and offers academic and personal advising."
* Bayit House . . . provides students with a Jewish communal living experience. Residents of the house sponsor programs aimed at informing the community about the many issues of Judaism, its culture and its political perspectives. A kosher kitchen is maintained by house residents."
* "The Women's Residential College offers undergraduates a cohesive and intellectually stimulating community in which to explore women's issues. Members examine the present and future roles of women (and men) through activities such as fireside discussions, meals with faculty, and educational and cultural trips into [nearby large city]. The college has attractive common areas and room for 50 female residents. Men are encouraged to join WRC as associate or nonresident members."
Beyond separate housing, the colleges have created institutions "The Multicultural Learning Resources Center" and programs such as "Minority Peer Counseling." And the separation extends to the classroom, where students can major in Black studies or Jewish studies or Latino studies or women's studies.
What makes the issue particularly vexing is that no one of these things is necessarily wrong. College is a time to think about and shape one's identity.
"Ethnic studies" are legitimate areas of instruction and research, if conducted with academic rigor.
Outside class, students who want kosher food should be able to get it. A Korean Students Association has worthy purposes. New minority students may encounter problems for which the help of minority upperclass students is valuable. There's certainly nothing wrong with a desire to "examine the present and future roles of women (and men)."
Still, all of this leaves me profoundly uncomfortable. College is a time for shaping identity, but it is also a time for preparing to live in a multicultural world, a world where "diversity" -- a favorite word of college brochures and tour guides -- doesn't come so compartmentalized.
Schools may feel they need to offer special "ethnic services" to compete for students, in the same way every campus seems to have a new athletic center and a new arts center. But in attempting to build diversity among the student body, they have created a situation which pushes students to ghettoize themselves.
I wouldn't argue that colleges need to lay off tenured professors in women's studies, ban the Asian Student Association, close Umoja House. American society was never really a melting pot, and colleges don't need to be.
But I would ask: What are you doing to bring people together?
M. William Salganik edits the Perspective section of The Baltimore Sun.