George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America was written during a recent period when we could hear the chant “We are the 99%” in the background. I read the book weeks ago, and as I talk with students on campuses across the country, I imagine that they come from families represented by the people Packer profiles in one of the most enlightening books I’ve read on our diverse and “multi-culture.”
Packer probably would not want his book described with terms such as “diverse” and “multicultural,” as those who only think of people of color who have been historically underrepresented in the middle class and in higher education when they hear these terms might turn away.
When I’ve spoken with educators about the cocurriculum and learning outside the classroom and suggested that civic learning, democratic engagement, and social justice would be natural themes for collaboration between academic and student affairs, some immediately become defensive and talk about how there is already enough attention given to diversity and social justice through special programs and clubs for underrepresented students. They follow this with the lament that students who are either less academically and/or financially able get all the attention and support, while students in the middle are neglected and left out.
What I like about Packer’s book is that if we think of students in the way each person is profiled – those representing struggling farmers who want to be entrepreneurs, Wall Street fund managers, factory workers, workers in Walmart, and billionaire executives in Silicon Valley – we might have a more accurate profile of our students and their real diversity. This is a diversity that defies stereotyped groupings and calls on educators to get to know students as individuals as well as part of the group with whom they choose to identify.