Homophily-phobia

Liam Julian

"Homophily." The word means "love of the same," and it recently landed in the New York Times Magazine's 6th Annual Year in Ideas, listed directly after "Hidden-Fee Economy, The" and directly before "Human-Chimp Hybrids."

There's nothing particularly new about homophily; we've long known that, generally speaking, opposites don't attract. People tend to associate with others who are like them. But what drew the Times Magazine's attention is how markedly homophily has increased in the information age. Technology--often touted as the great integrator, the catalyst that will cause anachronistic walls of separation to crumble--is actually helping people separate themselves from others in myriad ways (see here, here, here, and here).

Similarity breeds connection, and despite there being no shortage of paeans to integration, people have a definite and observable inclination to self-segregate (see here, for example). Unsurprisingly, schools conform to this trend. When parents are allowed educational choice to send their children to any number of schools, racial diversity doesn't seem to be a primary concern (see here and here).

When choosing either diversity of choice or creating diversity within those choices, people pick the former. And our increasing homophily is, in large part, related to the vast array of choices and niches society now offers (see here). Where choice exists in education, separation occurs--conservative parents tend to choose "back to basics" schools, while liberal parents choose "progressive" schools. And such values-based classrooms will often look racially, religiously, and culturally homogenous.

How to adapt? It's a question currently racking the brains of nine Supreme Court justices and countless scholars. But beyond the legal murkiness, one thing is crystal clear: If the United States is intent on protecting "integration" and "diversity" in public schooling despite the forces working against them (i.e., people's preferences), it's undeniable that government paternalism will need to grow even more muscular. Not a positive proposition.

Further, while homophilic tendencies have always been strong, the nature of society's segregation is changing. Americans have long self-segregated by race, a separation still visible in everything from neighborhoods to middle school cafeterias. But 21st century America is also seeing socioeconomic classes grow more firmly stratified (see here). Which leads one to think that schools, rather than concentrating only or overmuch on racial integration, will need to start worrying about economic integration, too (some have already done so). How very convoluted things become.

But what if our schools, aware of people's tendencies toward homophily, decided to stop fighting against the tide and chose, instead, to ignore it? What if our schools devoted their efforts toward creating the best parts of integrated classrooms inside racially isolated ones? They would find that the oft-touted benefits of integration (the ones we can measure, anyway) don't stem from arranging a classroom cornucopia of races, classes, etc. as much as they do from creating environments that reflect values and cultures associated with higher socioeconomic rungs.

KIPP does it (as do many other charter schools). Its schools are about as racially and socio-economically isolated as schools can be. But KIPP fosters in its classrooms a "culture of achievement" that replicates those found in pricey private schools. Not only do KIPP students achieve academic success, but no one seriously thinks that the schools' graduates are harmed because their classrooms weren't "diverse."

On the other hand, many students are absolutely harmed by attending integrated schools where no culture of achievement exists. And nobody seriously suggests that America has done well by those kids just because we've created for them classes with the right racial or socioeconomic variety.

The culture of a school matters, especially to youngsters who are developing the life habits they'll carry with them down the road. And while diversity can be wonderful when it occurs, variety offers little when it's couched in a culture of low achievement and low expectations.

If the societal trend is toward more homophily and crafting evermore niches, public acceptance of artificially integrated schools seems unlikely. It's far wiser for policymakers and leaders to work within people's preferences, rather than work against them.