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Caltech Social Issues

Paul Dieterle, Contributing Writer

I came to Caltech from a high school with both deep-seeded racial disparities and uniformly positive relationships between white students and students of color. This may seem paradoxical, but it wasn’t. Sure, there were discussions between parents and administrators that cut along racial lines, but the relationships between students were positive -- even constructive. When Trayvon Martin was killed in the winter of 2012, both black and white students staged a walk out. Looking back, it’s obvious why race relations -- for lack of a better term -- were so positive: the teachers and administrators encouraged and initiated a constant dialogue.

The same, I’m sorry to say, cannot be said for Caltech. Let me be clear: Caltech is neither socially regressive nor progressive. The demands that Caltech places on students are such that students’ primary concern is finishing problem sets, not discussing social issues in a semi-public forum. But if part of Caltech’s task is to take students from a variety of backgrounds and provide both a scientific and social education, then the institute has clearly failed at the latter. In my experience, the main location for discussing complex social issues are house email lists and facebook -- woo technology. Such discussions can augment a larger, in-person conversation but they will never suffice on their own.

Yet, even in light of the above, is it clear that the status quo causes problems? It is. At the very least, the awkwardness with which Caltech students discuss race and other social issues indicates that to many of us, such conversations are infrequent. Moreover, there is a small but non-negligible number of students who have anachronistic (to put it politely) views -- particularly relating to race and gender -- and could benefit from an open dialogue. It’s also worth considering that conversation is a form of mental exercise and that failure to discuss difficult social problems can lead to an erosion of values; indeed, during my time at Caltech, I have thought and spoken along racial lines in ways that I never did before. 

Clearly, providing a social education is difficult and tenuous, but there is a clear administrative benefit to doing so since race and gender are intimately tied to questions about diversity in academic institutions. Additionally, intensive nonscientific discussion and debate help break the monotony of equation solving and code writing that I believe tarnishes students’ opinion of Caltech and leads to low alumni donation rates. Hence, it is clearly in the best interest of the Institute to provide a continuous and inclusive social dialogue.

The question then becomes one of implementation -- how do we initiate these changes? To be sure, there are a number of laudable organizations on campus that concern themselves with social issues -- these include the Title IX Committee and the Diversity Center among others. However, these organizations are not wide enough in scope and don’t capture enough student participation to be the lone change-makers. Title IX, for instance, represents a federally mandated minimum set of guidelines that a school must follow in order to guard against overt discrimination. Thus, unless we believe this minimum is also the best we can hope for, Caltech must have its own initiatives that act in parallel.

Because student bandwidth is largely saturated by the classroom workload, it’s logical to explore the curriculum as a vehicle for social education. In particular, I believe that Caltech (with heavy involvement by the Diversity Center and others) must undertake a rebuilding of the humanities curriculum, since these classes provide the perfect vehicle for conversation about social issues. My experience tells me that Caltech students like discussing social problems, but mostly dislike social science and humanities classes; in that case, why not add more of the former to the latter? It is true that smaller humanities classes already encourage conversation, but in my experience the discussions tend to be text-centric and often lose track of larger social narratives. An ideal curriculum would allow students to engage with faculty members who are professionally interested in relevant issues like voter fraud, school budgets, and historical attitudes about race.

Finally, as students and alumni, we must own our part of the problem. We should strive to be active participants in our classrooms and houses while at the same time endeavoring to move beyond these familiar (but artificial) social constructs. There are interesting perspectives to be had from administrators, faculty members, and students in every corner of campus. The best student advocates already talk to these people, but this strategy must be adopted more widely if we are to have a meaningful impact on our own educational environment.

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