My cousin Nathaniel suffered from Duchenne muscular dystrophy from his early childhood until his death in 2007 at age 21. He was, as anyone who ever met him could attest, a remarkable person—witty, optimistic, and disarmingly self-aware. One anecdote about him stands out.
Nathaniel attended a summer camp that made extraordinary efforts to include him in as many activities as possible. The camp installed ramps on its ramshackle bunks, set Nate up with a counselor to shadow him, and made every effort to find ways for him to participate in sports—Nate loved sports—with all the other campers despite the fact that he used a large, motorized wheelchair.
One day, Nathaniel decided he wanted to play basketball. That seemed to his counselors a bridge too far. They told him it was one thing for him to be a designated base runner when playing softball, or even to take a handoff as a halfback on the flag-football field. It was quite another to reinvent the game of basketball for someone whose disability prevented him from dribbling, passing, or shooting.
“It’s true. I can’t dribble, I can’t pass, and I can’t shoot,” Nathaniel replied. “But I can set a great pick.”
The story embodies the best of a concept often labeled “inclusion.” Nathaniel did not want to change the rules of the game for everyone to accommodate him. He wanted the opportunity to participate to the extent of his abilities, just like anyone else. And he wanted to do so within the framework of the game. The fact that he would be playing in a faithful version of basketball is what made it worth his participating in the first place.
Let us call this Collaborative Inclusion. Under its tenets, it is a desirable social goal to allow the entry of as many kinds of people as possible into our institutions. All can contribute to the extent of their abilities, and all are treated with respect. Collaborative Inclusion applies to all kinds of people who may lack access to education, jobs, or other goods, whether they face barriers because of their race, sex, disabilities, or something else. It encourages building ramps next to the stairs, letting Jews join the tennis club, and treating your gay colleagues as equals. Crucially, though, it does not ask institutions to change their most important constitutive characteristics, such as the rule that a basketball player must dribble the ball.
As Harvard Law School professor Kenneth W. Mack has put it, this form of inclusion means increased participation but not alteration. However, not all are satisfied with participation, and defenders of Collaborative Inclusion are often lulled into supporting something quite different and far less appealing. Recognizing that not all movements that go by “inclusion” are equally desirable is crucial to understanding the ongoing danger posed by the tidal wave of inclusion activism that threatens to advance a radical, intolerant, homogenizing worldview.
Under the guise of Collaborative Inclusion, which is rooted in values of equality, opportunity, and dignity, a second model often sneaks by. Let us call this one Imposed Inclusion. It is rooted in values of equity, result, and social justice. It’s concerned with how different identity-based groups experience advantage and disadvantage in the aggregate. While Collaborative Inclusion aims to honor the uniqueness and potential of each individual and differentiated social institution, Imposed Inclusion tends to homogenize people and institutions. It subordinates the value of individual achievement to equality of outcome and fails to recognize the good in institutions that must exclude people or ideas that will not advance their mission.
The core tenet of Imposed Inclusion is that if any kind of participation produces or perpetuates inequalities, it has not gone far enough. For example, if the rules of the basketball game produce disparate outcomes between people who can run and people who use wheelchairs, the causes of those outcomes—the prohibition against traveling, or a scoring system that rewards height and jumping—must be changed to accommodate, or include, all participants.
This is the inclusion referred to by the new progressive mantra of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. As Mack put it in 2018, “perhaps diversity—having different groups of people within the institution—does not lead to full inclusion unless the institution itself is altered in some fundamental, and generally controversial, way.” In the context of schools, where the push for inclusion is especially pronounced and susceptible to waffling between these two types, “inclusion means that the basic, purportedly neutral ground rules under which the school operates must be rethought.”
American schools—K–12 administrators, teachers, and education policymakers—have embraced Imposed Inclusion with zeal, often shocking parents who would have been fully on board with Collaborative Inclusion. The most notable example comes when school systems seek to eliminate advanced tracks because they can produce disparate racial outcomes. Such was the case when San Francisco, rolling out its new math standards in 2015, eliminated the option for high-achieving eighth graders to take algebra, a move intended to “narrow racial gaps in advanced math course-taking,” according to the Fordham Institute. Rather than pushing promising students of all backgrounds ahead, policymakers chose to tinker with the machinery of schooling itself until it spit out a more equitable outcome. According to the Fordham report, they failed: “The reform is exacerbating inequalities—as families with resources now enroll their students in more expensive tutoring, summer courses, and private schools to accelerate their child’s learning.”
Then there’s “equitable grading.” The Wall Street Journal recently noted how school districts across the country are aggressively adopting this practice, which deemphasizes homework completion and test performance in order to give “opportunities to all learners.” This explicit change in expectations is having exactly the effect one would expect from a system designed to challenge no one and push all students to an equitable middle. “A pre-pandemic study” cited by the Journal “showed a decrease in Ds and Fs under equitable grading—and a decrease in the number of As awarded.”
Inclusion has become an increasingly common justification for leveling down. Supporters argue that enrichment programs exacerbate disparities between privileged and underprivileged children and are fundamentally un-inclusive because they disproportionately reward “white” or “cisgender” ways of thinking. As the director of education policy at the New York ACLU put it while arguing for an end to New York City’s gifted-and-talented program, existing curricula are “too narrow, Euro-centric, and test-obsessed.… Every kid is more engaged when they see themselves and their culture reflected in school.” Disparities emerge, in this view, not because of differences among children, but because of mismatches between children and curricula that arbitrarily privilege dominant groups.
This accusation of “cultural bias” in ostensibly neutral institutions is now a staple of the movement to do away with standardized admissions tests that yield “inequitable” outcomes. (Rarely do these “biased” systems reward WASPs, mind you; Asians now primarily suffer the brunt of Imposed Inclusion.) These tests supposedly fail to sift out the best and brightest; they just reflect non-universal ways of thinking and reward those who share them. Collaborative Inclusion would aim to help more students ace their SAT, but Imposed Inclusion insists that the SAT is the problem.
Such ideas have gained tremendous cultural steam and are fast being baked into our national discourse on a range of issues beyond education. A form of Imposed Inclusion is at work, for instance, when progressive activists and prosecutors fundamentally alter the criminal-justice system because its proper enforcement creates undesirable disparities. In the service of equity, progressives have “defined deviancy down,” to borrow Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s phrase. Rather than trying to prevent criminal activity, advocates of a more inclusive society have perversely aimed to make the system conform to the individual. Just as changing the rules of a basketball game detracts from what makes it worthwhile to begin with, changing the rules of the criminal-justice system detracts from what made it worthwhile, as antisocial behaviors are recoded only as subjectively disfavored and therefore not worth prosecuting. Violators are no longer punished, not because they have learned the rules, but because the rules have been tailored to their behaviors.
It is in the context of religious institutions that Imposed Inclusion has presented its fiercest and most controversial challenge to places resisting “equitable” treatment of all kinds of people. Though it may not appear so, Imposed Inclusion and its goal of altering institutions to be more compatible with minority factions is also behind the firestorm developing at Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of modern Orthodox Judaism in the United States. (Full disclosure: I am a part-time employee of YU, but these are my opinions alone.) Several students calling themselves the Pride Alliance who seek to form an LGBTQ club at YU have sued the school for denying their application for official school recognition, which YU, in consultation with its religious leadership, says it cannot do as an institution committed to Orthodox Jewish doctrine. A trial judge has ruled in favor of the students, and YU has appealed, claiming that New York’s compelling it to admit the group is a violation of its First Amendment rights.
YU would have been able to countenance a Collaborative Inclusion approach. It has affirmed its policy of welcoming gay students as equal members of its community. By all accounts, it is committed to treating all its students, no matter their identities, with respect, and providing access to its unique fusion of Jewish tradition and modern higher education. That is, unless you change the definition of “respect” and “access” to include a requirement that the school endorse ideas and behaviors it considers contrary to its mission of religious education. And YU insists that allowing the club would be doing just that.
Participation was not enough for the Pride Alliance, and one suspects it was never the goal. As one of the plaintiffs has openly and repeatedly admitted, the goal of would-be club members has been to force a “cultural change” around sexual ethics at YU and in the Orthodox community. The Pride Alliance took the issue to court because it demanded that an Orthodox institution alter its institutional DNA to accommodate them. Mack predicted their attitude well before this fight arose: “Inclusion,” he wrote, has “required the transformation of some of the fundamental rules that governed educational institutions themselves and of the larger society that surrounded them.” Movements that once championed toleration and acceptance now demand obedience and compliance. Inclusion hardly seems an apt term for what looks frankly like renovation. But whatever it’s called, it’s central to the project of homogenizing all institutions according to the progressive view of the human person and the good.
What the plaintiff students don’t recognize—or don’t care about, or care very much about in a destructive sense—is that a YU forced to profess what it considers untrue will no longer be Yeshiva University in anything but name. What the school offers currently is an educational model that cannot readily be dismembered limb by limb. Without its code of sexual ethics, or uniform adherence to its Orthodox interpretation of the Torah’s tenets, Yeshiva University can no longer serve its purpose of providing higher education rooted in Orthodox Jewish moral formation for students who want to receive it.
Put more broadly, there is no guarantee that an institution can compromise its code and alter its mission and then continue to provide the service that made it desirable to begin with. The problem with alteration, especially when done against the institution’s will, is that it might just be a gentle form of erasure, making all institutions more or less alike, each dedicated to the propositions favored by the most “inclusive” progressive orthodoxy. That is why the guarantee that an institution would be able to maintain its fundamental character—even if it would have to undergo some degree of change—is central to Collaborative Inclusion.
Consider, for example, how women won their hard-fought access to elite colleges. Universities integrated on the basis of an equality argument bolstered by the promise that Harvard and Princeton could still be themselves at their core—as academic powerhouses, despite the social and cultural shifts that would change the campus experience at a less foundational level. Though it surely upset many students and alumni who wished to maintain the “boys’ club” character of these campuses, admitting qualified women struck at the heart of the institutions’ self-conception as educational institutions. In other words, the case for Collaborative Inclusion rooted in excellence and fairness outweighed concerns about Imposed Inclusion’s revolutionary capabilities.
As this example illustrates, the line separating the two types of inclusion is thick in theory but thinner in practice. Distinguishing between the two requires understanding what elements of an institution are fundamental, making them unique and worth sustaining in unaltered form. Reasonable people can argue about that point. And they may disagree on what social values—such as anti-discrimination—outweigh an institution’s right to maintain its character. These are not easy questions, and dealing with the onslaught of inclusion-based attempts to change institutions that do unpopular but important things—traditional religious education—will begin with realistic thinking on two key points.
The first may be a bitter pill to swallow: Is it worth maintaining our openness to Collaborative Inclusion if it is inevitably going to slip into Imposed Inclusion? Without clarity or consensus about what Yeshiva University is for, the line between participation in it and alteration of it will remain debatable, and YU’s fundamental attributes will remain subject to harm. A wise policy may be simply to defer to leaders of the institution in question, to avoid the risk that something hard to build will be cavalierly destroyed. Yet that invites a moral-hazard problem. Institutions acting in good faith may choose caution and exclusion where inclusion would do them no harm; many more may act in bad faith and exclude for immoral reasons,or just because they can. The bitter pill is that this may be the side on which we must err until the bulldozing of institutions that dare to be different is no longer so central to our zeitgeist.
Letting go of Collaborative Inclusion in favor of a stricter standard would be a difficult choice, indeed, and anyone prepared to take this step must also ready himself for the opprobrium he is inviting upon himself. We are unaccustomed as a society to thinking of Collaborative Inclusion as containing any kind of trade-off or negative potential consequences. Opening institutions to previously disfavored individuals is good for the institutions, good for the individuals, and good for the public. Some of the greatest liberal triumphs of the past hundred years are victories for Collaborative Inclusion, with racial and sex integration embraced now by nearly all Americans after millennia of exclusion being the norm across the world. Yet, like most good things, it is only good on balance. Inclusion, even at its best, shifts authority for who may speak about what is in an institution’s best interest from the institution itself to the public. Whether that is wise will depend on the wisdom of the masses.
This brings us to the second key point, which concerns our vigilance in defense of a pluralist culture. Do Americans have any remaining appetite for institutions that buck dominant cultural forces or affirm the truism that people are not all alike? Can we have sports that reward the athletic, programs for the gifted and talented, and universities that dissent from progressivism’s idea of how to cultivate character? Or are all institutions destined to be everything to everyone? In pursuit of ideals of openness and fairness, we have become accustomed to the idea that all people should have access to all opportunities. But the danger of pushing for more and more access is that the opportunities can become so open that they lose their distinctive character and cease to provide their specialized functions.
Excellence and exclusion are thus frequently intertwined, as in the case of promulgating traditional Jewish sexual ethics that require Yeshiva University to put its foot down on the Pride Alliance’s application. No other institution is in a position to inculcate the Modern Orthodox view on such matters. YU’s capitulation would therefore reflect cultural forces stamping out not just dissent but a particular niche worldview. Unfortunately, failing to recognize that YU is both uniquely charged and also only one university in a vast, pluralist landscape of higher education, some of YU’s own students have tried to usher that destiny along.
It’s tragedy enough that Imposed Inclusion is being advanced openly by some Orthodox Jews with little appreciation for how easy it is to destroy and how hard it is to build an effective educational institution. That the worldview they have embraced aims to flatten our nation’s rich diversity of coexisting cultures is quite another. We cannot expect all young people to be as wise as my cousin Nathaniel was that day on the basketball court by asking to contribute to the game only according to its existing rules. Ideologues will insist it is no different to change the rules of the game to accommodate their skills, identities, or need for affirmation. But adults attuned to inclusion’s different types should recognize the catastrophic danger lurking beneath.
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