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Awareness of and sensitivity to social class, economic class, ethnicity and gender have been important goals of the academy and of honors for the past few decades. During this time the academy, which has always been the domain primarily of the middle and upper class, has reached out to help those whom they call “the disadvantaged.” Typically, academics see such attempts at outreach as acts of generosity or social consciousness, a kind of noblesse oblige. The truth is that attracting students from different social classes as well as ethnicities and nationalities brings at least as much benefit to the college as to the students we recruit. The benefit to an honors program is even greater than to its home institution. Given the emphasis in honors on small classes and discussion-based instruction, representation of the full range of social and economic perspectives is essential to effective education.
In the past, I have been associated with honors programs at homogeneously middle- to- upper-class institutions. At every one, the staffs of the programs have recognized the need to expose the students to diverse perspectives and lives. One way this concern was addressed was inviting a Native American storyteller to spend the evening with a group of students and faculty members. It was a great event, and ten years later I remember vividly— as probably the students also do—some of the stories she told and the insights they afforded us into the differences between our cultures. However, as I have recently realized, this diversity was artificial in nature: an outsider was brought in to the program in order to create a diverse experience, and then she left. In both kind and outcome, this experience was different from the natural diversity of an honors program composed of students with many different perspectives.