Jordan LaBouff, University of Maine. Originally posted in Bangor Daily News January 3, 2018.
Recently, the Bangor Daily News spotlighted Associated Press data showing that Maine classrooms are among the least ethnically diverse in the nation. This lack of diversity represents a serious problem for the future of the state — educationally and economically.
Reactions to conversations about Maine’s homogeneity typically range from concern to dismissal of the fact as obvious or unchangeable or to suggestions that Maine has other valuable types of diversity. Classrooms in the state often are considerably diverse when it comes to economic background, but opportunities for meaningful cross-ethnic or cross-cultural interactions are limited for our students. Although ethnic and cultural diversity in the classroom represents a considerable challenge in Maine, it is a critically important opportunity for growth and development in our children’s classrooms, in our communities and in our state’s economy.
As an educator, I get the chance to see the value of cross-cultural relationships for my students firsthand. When my classes are more culturally diverse, they are more successful. Students are better able to understand and appreciate multiple perspectives on a question or problem and learn to adapt to different styles and habits of communication — skills that serve them well in the classroom and the workforce. Beyond the powerful personal benefits of these relationships, I see that students with considerable cross-cultural experiences such as studying abroad or living with a roommate from another culture frequently leverage the benefits of those experiences into more successful internships, jobs, or small businesses they start themselves.
A wealth of evidence supports my experiences in the classroom and demonstrates the educational benefits of culturally diverse learning environments. Importantly, more diverse classrooms enhance education for all students, specifically promoting some of the most important products of education — critical thinking, problem solving and intellectual self-confidence. Further, the opportunity to interact with peers of diverse cultural backgrounds helps all students develop skills like adaptability and collaboration across diverse approaches to a problem that help students succeed beyond the classroom. Just as important, diverse experiences help promote understanding, empathy and the ability to cooperate with different kinds of people.
Beyond these benefits, diverse educational experiences help address many of Maine’s greatest challenges. Maine’s population is decreasing and rapidly aging, creating significant workforce shortfalls. Further, Maine’s critical industries, like forestry, are in a period of change, demanding significant innovation and investment to reconstruct them into industries that can attract and retain talented workers.
Creating more diverse educational experiences can help Maine companies innovate in response to international pressures and make them even more competitive in an increasingly globalized market. It also prepares Maine students for successful careers in any industry in or out of Maine. Groups of national and international employers specifically call for diversity in education because it produces more successful and adaptable employees with stronger skills in leadership.
Diverse educational environments come from diverse communities, and diverse communities thrive. A recent National Academy of Sciences report finds, “many important benefits of immigration — including economic growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship — with little to no negative effects on the overall wages or employment of native-born workers in the long term.”
Maine communities should welcome people from diverse backgrounds because it will produce more innovative and successful ideas, help address our state’s workforce mismatch, and help our state establish leadership in developing new industries. Cities like Nashville and Dayton, Ohio, which have worked to create welcoming environments for immigrants to diversify their communities, are reaping tremendous economic benefits from a multicultural workforce.
There is no question that diversity in education and in the broader community is challenging. It complicates social interactions and can make communication feel more difficult. Those challenges, however, produce communities that are more innovative and successful, like Bangor’s own Innovative Neighborhoods Projects. Racially diverse groups may feel communication is more challenging, but they often actually share more information with one another than less-diverse groups, leading them to make better and more accurate decisions.
The communities across the country that are most successful and growing are those that actively work to diversify their communities by creating policies that support immigration, developing multicultural centers and other organizations to help support immigrants, and promoting cross-cultural educational opportunities for Maine students. Maine’s lack of diversity represents a central challenge for our future, but Maine can once again be a national leader by seeking active solutions that welcome immigrants into our schools and our communities.
Jordan LaBouff is an associate professor of psychology and honors at the University of Maine in Orono. He is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.