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Affirmative Action and the Idea of A University

ISSUE:  Winter 2004
The verdict is in. After a protracted national discussion, conducted ultimately in a courtroom but also in letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, magazine articles, television talk shows, and countless dinner tables, the Supreme Court on June 23 validated the principle of affirmative action for admissions at the University of Michigan. The Court thus confirmed the reasoning of Justice Lewis Powell in the Bakke decision of 1978, which outlaws racial quotas but argues that universities may consider race in the interest of achieving a diverse student body. It is a verdict I cannot greet with a shrug. My interest in the outcome is both personal and professional, since I am part of the minority of Ann Arbor residents and of faculty at Michigan (having taught there intermittently since 1976) who had hoped the courts would decide otherwise. I say this with no lack of feeling for minority students who might not have been admitted without affirmative action. Nor do I lack respect for the Court’s decision: the law is the law. The problem is that there are issues surrounding affirmative action that, even with all the legal wisdom of Solomon, will not go away. The decision has opened up a fundamental divide between ways of perceiving race in this country and hence differing routes toward racial equality. And in concentrating on diversity as the essential characteristic of academic life as it pertains to race, the law has sidestepped the larger question, for which “diversity” is only a partial answer: what are the nature and purpose of a university? The law has settled something, but not everything.

Twenty-some years ago, I sat in a lawyer’s office while my husband explained his version of an alimony dispute. His avuncular lawyer turned a trained legal mind on the “she said, he said,” discarded almost all of it, and pulled out the few details that had some connection to divorce law. It was a revelation. From then on (especially when paying by the minute) I learned how the law sees things. The law is a distiller. It abstracts from messy, confusing, and emotional situations only details relevant to legal principle. We feel that we have reached the heart of things. But sometimes the law sidesteps issues, oversimplifying and thus distorting the true complexity of a situation. When this happens, we end up saying that the resolution may be legal, but not ethical.

The specific problem facing the so-called elite universities in regard to admissions is that the pool of academically qualified minority students (identified by Michigan as black, Hispanic, and Native American) is too small to translate into the number of such freshmen they would like to enroll. As a country made up almost entirely of immigrants (voluntary or not) we are continually asking ourselves: what does it mean to have persons of different races and different countries living together as citizens? What ideas and attitudes ought to shape our interactions? Ought some immigrant groups, such as African Americans, to be treated differently from others? Our national experience in fighting the Civil War and in combating segregation laws during the civil rights movement attempted to answer these questions. They are crucial not only for understanding the past but also for charting the future. For better and worse, the university had become the place where such questions came to a head, until we had to ask the legal system to figure out how and on what basis we should take race into account when selecting students.
During the oral arguments before the Supreme Court on April 1, the justices asked questions about quotas, termination dates, the definition of a “critical mass” of minority students, and the nature of the state’s “compelling interest” in enrolling them. All these terms, pertinent to legal arguments, were introduced under the rubric of “diversity,” an educational goal accepted by both plaintiffs and defendants. Diversity, so the argument goes, is not only good for the university; it’s good for the country—especially for minority students who might otherwise be denied the social byproducts of a university education—status, greater earning power, and leadership. The legal debate, then, has been about means, not ends: plaintiffs asked whether affirmative action is the best, or even the only way to achieve racial diversity in the university. Defendants, now victorious, said it was. Other questions, however, remain unaddressed. What does achieving diversity have to do with the idea of a university? What are the nature and purpose of a university?

I have taught poetry and modern literature to undergraduates in Ann Arbor frequently, ever since I arrived as a graduate student myself in the fall of 1976. Like most faculty, I have tried to sort out my reactions to the admissions policy that places some students and not others in my classroom. To my mind, the university should aim at the disinterested creation and dissemination of truth, however many qualifications we give to that word and however different the approaches the various disciplines may employ. The university ought to be admitting students who can best serve those ends. The students are generally on the receiving end, the professor the creating, but the two experiences are interchangeable and fluid. Chaucer says of his exemplary Clerk of Oxenford: “gladly would he learn, and gladly teach.”
Despite the flurry of recent publicity surrounding the court case, there hasn’t been much of an ongoing debate about affirmative action: most of us in the university community have been on the receiving end of policies set by the admissions staff and central administration. Only one professor on campus, Carl Cohen, a philosopher, has consistently spoken out against the official position. Faculty as a rule are not involved in admissions; others present them with what they hope are the best students possible. And discussions about race in admissions are peculiarly prone to arguments ad hominem. It is difficult to raise objections without being labeled at best insensitive and at worst a racist. Every decent well-meaning faculty member wants deserving students to succeed and would like to see more minority students in that category. While aware that we are all advantaged and disadvantaged in different ways, most faculty (like most Americans) also realize that the route to the academic life is usually easier for white students, especially of the middle class. It feels good to have the power to help somebody you perceive as having a tougher time in life, and it is hard to make a fuss about a policy that is trying to do that.

Barring passage of a voters’ initiative in Michigan, affirmative action will continue, though it must be achieved subtly, along the lines of the law school’s practice of considering race as part of an individualized assessment rather than the undergraduate college’s quantitative policy of assigning points for race. In this way, affirmative action need not, as the plaintiffs claimed, violate the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause or the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For top administrators all over the country, the Court’s decision has validated the party line on affirmative action. Not for one minute would Mary Sue Coleman have been offered a move from Iowa to Michigan or would Lee Bollinger have jumped from Michigan to Columbia if, when asked about such policies, they had paused and said: “It’s something the community needs to think about.” My husband and I, who have passed through a number of the “elite” schools in the country (Stanford, Harvard, Dartmouth, Carleton, and the University of Virginia) read the same editorials celebrating minority enrollments in every alumni magazine, as if there is nothing to question and nothing more to say.

And yet the Supreme Court Justices themselves seem to be aware that their decision, though a necessary conclusion to the court case, is not a final answer to the issues raised. The vote allowing the law school’s practices to continue was as close as it gets, 5-4. More important, during the oral arguments, when Kirk Kolbo, counsel for the plaintiffs, brought up the “Constitutional command of equality,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor commented, “Well, but you are speaking in absolutes and it isn’t quite that.” In writing for the majority in the law school case, Justice O’Connor relied on context, mindful of amicus briefs from businesses, the military, and other schools of higher education, and, in the end, reflected what seemed to her the consensus of the elite in this country. But she also implied uneasiness with the policy by writing, “we expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.”

Years ago, when teaching freshman composition, I introduced students to the technique of acknowledging the opposition—a way to make your own arguments more reasonable and comprehensive. In that spirit of civilized discourse, let me recap the arguments I hear explaining why affirmative action is necessary for the time being. These arguments seem to me concerned less with what a university “is,” and more with what it looks like. Admissions policies try to create a freshman class that mirrors the makeup of four categories in U.S. society—black, Hispanic, Native American, and “others”—without resorting to a quota. Defenders of the policies have an image of racial diversity and they want the university population to meet it. They point out that other kinds of diversity and nonacademic criteria are already countenanced in the university-athletes and alumni’s children, also persons from remote areas and those with special competence as musicians, leaders, etc. Apparently some “diversity” can be safely ignored: being Asian American, being over 65, or wanting to join ROTC. The original idea for affirmative action in the 1960s was that while everybody was running the same race, not everybody had the same starting position. Affirmative action is society’s last chance, its proponents argue, to move the pieces (or bodies) around on the playing board, handicapping some, so that all 18-year-olds seem to have the same start. Admissions officers, to give them their due, are also thinking about what the university should not look like—a self-perpetuating caste or class system—which is almost what was happening when I was applying to colleges in the mid sixties, from a very good public high school in central Massachusetts. Our graduates went everywhere—Oberlin, Amherst, Mount Holyoke, Duke, the Naval Academy—except Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Alumni children and graduates of prep schools filled those schools disproportionately, and people from public high schools were effectively excluded.

Proponents of diversity realize that the preferred look for a student body isn’t going to be achieved by itself. In order to enroll minority students in proportion to their numbers in the general population, rather than in proportion to the pool of students with the highest academic qualifications, the admissions staff has to put race up front and privilege it. Oddly enough, they argue, that is the only way to learn not to pay attention to race. Society’s ultimate goal is a kind of race blindness: to see not a black doctor but a doctor who happens to be black. Race is supposed to be an irrelevancy. It is desirable that we see people as human beings, not according to stereotypes based on skin color. According to Lawrence Summers and Laurence Tribe, President and Professor of Law at Harvard, respectively (writing in the New York Times), students in a diverse environment learn that “imagined differences often turn out to be only skin-deep.” The logic goes something like this. We need to see minorities as doctors, lawyers, and professors so that young people have role models and so that the rest of us constantly see minorities are doing a competent job. You have to see it to believe it—or to ignore it and concentrate on whether or not he or she is a good doctor. The proponents of affirmative action are pushing a paradox: that in order for race to be ultimately irrelevant, race must first be very relevant.

The policy of affirmative action, then, is based upon a particular understanding of how we will progress to a more nearly perfect society. It is based on a way of understanding human psychology. And it is based on a particular definition of a university, valued not so much as a place where learning is an end in itself, or truth is pursued wherever it may lead, but as an institution whose degrees symbolize practical advantage in life status, higher income, and the like. Justice O’Connor’s opinion cited the large number of lawyers who find their way into public life in this country. Glen Loury, lead author of a brief supporting the University of Michigan, wrote for the New York Times: “Elite higher education is the primary place in America where access to influence and power is rationed.” In accepting these arguments, the Court’s reasoning reflects a utilitarian mind-set. Affirmative action policies are designed to reach a particular goal—inclusion of “underrepresented minorities” first on university campuses and later in the power elite running the country. One Ann Arbor group favoring affirmative action calls itself BAMN: by any means necessary. Supreme Court Justices, of course, are more scrupulous, insisting that a policy be “narrowly tailored” for a specific end.

But in focusing on the practical results of an elite education, the Court still ignored the fundamental nature of a university. The most important thing that all students should have in common is a certain quality of mind and commitment to reasoning with it. The ideal university is a meritocracy of the mind. It makes sense that we want it to be filled with the best thinkers, just as we want the best violinist for the Detroit Philharmonic and the best center for the Pistons (the pro basketball team in Michigan). By its nature, the university is an instrument for racial justice because nobody cares what color your skin is, only how well you can think. The laws of thermodynamics do not change according to the ethnic group that is learning them. What does matter is that each student learn the subject well. It matters that engineers be able to build a bridge that won’t fall down. It matters that students believe they are graded fairly, on the basis of their achievements and the learning they have demonstrated. I do not grade an essay based on the ethnicity of the writer or on how many drafts it has gone through; I grade the written achievement. I and many of my colleagues block out names so as to minimize prejudicial expectations. Students can abuse the ideals of the university by having others do their learning for them, by buying term papers or cheating on exams. But ideally, a degree is supposed to stand for intellectual achievement. That is the root of the status that carries over into the workplace, and without it, the status is empty. But universities are under pressure to relax their meritocratic standards and to misspend their intellectual capital. Affirmative action policies exert this pressure by requiring the university to substitute social and political goals, however laudable they may be when taken by themselves, for intellectual ones. The substitution is dangerous.

The easiest thing in the world is to look around, notice who is like you in terms of features and customs—your immediate family, extended family, tribe or clan—and band together on that basis. What makes America unique is that we are trying to break away from this “groupthink,” what I loosely call tribalism. This is not easy. One way to accommodate difference is to know who you are, narrowly but profoundly, and because of that, to respect the particular loyalties of “others.” To be an evangelical Christian or fundamentalist Muslim is not by definition to be intolerant. Or we can look to the model of the great trading cities of the world, like Kashgar in far western China, with its two-thousand-year-old Sunday Bazaar and the confluence of Uighurs, Ran Chinese, Russians, English, and anyone else traveling the Silk Road from Xian to Venice. Americans used to honor the idea of the melting pot, currently in disfavor in the academy. But what we don’t want to replace it with, either in the universities or in the country at large, is the clashing of separate identities that we have come to fear as balkanization.

To be an American is an idea; it is not based on sharing surface characteristics like skin or hair color. As Americans, we abstract—in the root sense of pull away from—the particularities of ethnic and tribal identity, which are based on what a small group of people have in common with one another. Instead, we hold to an idea of what all people, all races have in common. We all, every single person, regardless of place of birth, social class, or skin color, have the same inalienable rights. The key word in the Declaration of Independence is “all” for its inclusiveness: “all men are created equal.” In religious vocabulary, all human beings have a soul and all are equal in the sight of God. When affirmative action counts people in or out of the freshman class, in part, on the basis of what they look like or on the basis of narrowly defined ethnic identity, it moves us in the wrong direction. The policy emphasizes what some persons have in common with some others, rather than what we all have in common with one another. That does not lead to racial justice; it leads to racial segregation.

One frequently heard defense of affirmative action is the need for more than a token presence of minorities on campus, so that they do not feel singled out as representative of all members of their race. With a “critical mass” of minorities, the idea is that they can blend in, and fellow students will realize that each minority person is also an individual and that not all minorities think alike. While such policies may make minority students more comfortable, however, they can also have the unintended consequence of segregating them. There is proportional representation in admissions; but once on campus students are not forced to integrate. There is no proportional representation of minorities in dorms. Once admitted, integration presumably takes care of itself. Except that it doesn’t. Walk into the “fishbowl,” the large central entry and congregating area in the building at Michigan where most humanities classes are held. Groups of black students laugh and talk almost exclusively with one another. When I was at Stanford in the early ’70s, the administration was turning former fraternity houses into theme houses for ethnic groups, a practice that continues on campuses today. Feeling “at home” with others like themselves, students mingle less and less with others unlike themselves. Diversity and integration are not synonyms, unless we work harder to make them so.

Understandably, the defenders of affirmative action don’t want to admit anything negative about it. Rather, they say, people who oppose the policy want to turn back the clock, whereas “affirmative” action is the route to progress. Let us be fair: opponents of affirmative action also want racial progress. But they think we took the wrong fork in the road when affirmative action policies became prevalent. The social pathology we are all fighting is to be conscious of race inappropriately—to censure or reward persons for an irrelevancy, an accident, something they cannot control—rather than for who they are and what they achieve. The means of affirmative action do not square with these ends. I continue to believe that if we want ultimately to conduct our lives with the understanding that race is only skin-deep, then we do not want to be mindful of race as we conduct our public policy.

It’s not what’s up front but what is underneath that makes the crucial difference for race relations. We need to redirect our attention from the superficial truths of skin color and the customs of social class or ethnic group toward the “real” truth that lies beneath it. “I saw Othello’s visage in his mind,” says Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play. To use the cliches of the academic profession today, we don’t want to look at a person and see race, gender, and class—we want to see a person first, idiosyncratic and “tribal” details later. We want a world where, as Martin Luther King said, we pay attention to the quality of a man’s character, not the color of his skin. That idea is both the end point and the direction we have to go in if we are to create a future for many races and many skin colors in this country. It’s an old idea that has undergone many general permutations. It’s loosely “platonic,” giving value to the essence of something or to immaterial reality. It’s the gist of religious teaching (nondenominational) that speaks for a soul as the essential spiritual being of everyone of any race. It’s the gist of the song I sang in Sunday school, noting that Jesus loves “all” the children of the world. “Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in his sight.” It’s the core of Dilsey’s wisdom in The Sound and the Fury when she defies the grumbling of the members of her church for bringing Benjy Compson, unlovely looking and an idiot, to the service: “de good Lawd dont keer if he bright er not.” This platonic idea of the core value of every human being is the best and maybe the only antidote to racism.

To applaud this idea is not to say that physical characteristics, idiosyncrasies of personality, everything that is “up front” and contributing to a unique individual, don’t matter. We are by nature, this time according to Aristotle, social and political beings. Sharing some characteristics and particularities with others is comforting and brings us out of our essential loneliness. But to make progress in race relations we need to think about what unites us, whether we call it character or soul, even though it is abstract, not “up front.” The future is at stake. If we dwell on the ways we are unlike one another, then we will continue to try to make the world “look” right, with racial gerrymandering. That brings up never-ending questions: what race? In what percentage? Even the Supreme Court wondered: for how long? We are not creating or disseminating truth. What we are doing is social engineering, tangential to the purpose of a university. That the policy makers doing it are well intentioned does not make it right.

There are two false analogies often used by defenders of affirmative action. The status of women in graduate admissions is often thought to be similar to that of minorities. It is not. There is a sad but crucial difference. Admitting women to graduate and professional schools in greater numbers was a matter of dropping prejudicial ideas (you’ll drop out and have children; we should save the space for a man who has to support a family) and of not discriminating against them. On the basis of test scores and other academic credentials women could easily compete. Universities discriminate in favor of minority students, however, only because the traditional academic requirements are not met. The situation in military academies is another false analogy, despite the briefs filed in favor of affirmative action by retired officers. The purpose of military academies is different from that of universities. Like a university, they have a goal of disseminating academic knowledge—the same math that students learn at Michigan. And they create knowledge specific to the military, the art of warfare. But beyond that they have a specialized goal not explicitly shared by the University of Michigan—to train officers who can lead others in war. To serve that end, which is explicitly practical and political, they need to train a diverse group of officers. We do not in a democracy want to perpetuate an officer class whose racial makeup is noticeably different from that of the recruits they lead into battle. The crucial difference for universities here is that they may be training leaders for society, but only as a byproduct. Many well-educated students do not fit the type of the leader; many do. The primary function of the university lies elsewhere.

Just as the army trains soldiers, the universities train minds. Both institutions are meritocracies. In today’s volunteer army, young soldiers interviewed by the New York Times report their satisfaction with a “more level playing field,” where they can move up according to their achievements. Many approach adulthood with few advantages in life, certainly not parents to pay college tuition, and they see the army as a path toward an education and a way to make something of themselves. The military is moving in the right direction—where members are neither rewarded nor held back solely for reasons of race. The university, however, has been sidestepping the importance of merit both before and after admissions. How do we recognize it? How do we measure it? One of the more notorious details of the old point system, soon to be replaced, was that only 12 points were awarded for perfect SAT scores, while 20 were added for being an “underrepresented minority.” Hence the “plus factor” given to race was less a little nudge, all other qualifications being equal, and more a large boost in order to overcome academic deficiencies. Supposedly, proof that everyone who is admitted is qualified to do the work lies in grades or graduation rates. But these are imperfect measures of true quality. I find a large range of academic ability in an ordinary classroom, from students who write coherently to students whose work is almost indecipherable as English. And the not-so-well-kept secret of university grading is that it’s not very strenuous. Grading is sloppy at either end of the spectrum; it’s difficult to flunk out and it’s easier than it should be to get an A. Even graduation itself is an imperfect measure of quality; one wonders what is going on during four years of undergraduate education if we still need affirmative action for entry into professional schools. It is unconscionable for universities to admit minorities with lower academic skills at the outset and then metaphorically drop the ball—either in social terms, like integration, or academic ones. We in the university can do more to pursue the ideal of identifying and nurturing academic merit. The health of an institution comes from setting policy so that the ideal is always kept in mind, even as we realize we do not always achieve it.
Here is where the ideal of meritocracy intersects with another ideal. People do well as students—training their minds—not simply because of “aptitude” but because of character. In this respect, the universities ought to be nurturing values that are social and political, not narrowly academic. “Racial justice” is an important subset, if you will, of much larger values. Universities ought to be encouraging a myth about human experience—the idea that cause creates effect, that effort leads to reward or punishment. I use the word “myth” carefully; this view of what life is like is not an absolute truth, and anyone can look at his or her life and sputter, “But, but.” Life is surely made up of things we cannot control and cannot change; we are all of us put upon by accidents of birth or environment. But the best social policy is one that discourages people from dwelling on the ways we have been victimized and encourages and supports people to make what they can out of what has been given them at birth. Living a life is like making a quilt, a metaphor pulled out of one of my longtime pleasures. Most patchwork quilters have a grab bag full of material of different colors and prints. These are like the givens of a life. It’s what you do with the fabrics, arranging and stitching, what you contribute with your own imagination and effort, that results in the quilt. The problem with university admissions comes from emphasizing what students are simply given and cannot control—and in that category I include alumni parents and far-fetched geographic location as well as skin color.

The implied message from the admissions office is that the world is not really a place of cause and effect. Irrelevancies like race can get you ahead. Life is more of a gamble and matter of luck than something that responds to individual effort. Two truths are told. But I believe it is healthier to dwell on and support effort and achievement, rather than to seem to tell students both white and black that achievements up to age 18 don’t really signify, for better or worse, to tell them that social context—certain parents and certain environments—are really responsible for those achievements or their lack. That is why I, in eliminating affirmative action, would also eliminate preferences for having alumni parents or living in the boonies. Paradoxically, though, the case of the football player or trombone player or student council president is different: the school is considering a learned skill and the discipline its mastery implies, not something for which the students have no responsibility. It’s not an accident that one can play the trombone; it is an accident that one is born Hispanic or that one’s father went to Yale.

What about the need for diversity inside the classroom? The Court explicitly endorsed its educational benefits. In the academy, the lone exception to this endorsement is a new study by Professor Stanley Rothman and others (as reported by the New York Times), which, after polling faculty, students, and administrators, casts doubt on the mantra “that a diverse student body necessarily improves the quality of education for everyone.” One wonders about the historically black and single-sex colleges. Here also we need to divide the humanities from the hard sciences and engineering—courses where one learns facts and those where there aren’t any facts, only individual perspectives. In my profession this reading of the humanities is popular but unfortunate. It leads to the notion that the best interpreters of any literature are those whose ethnic and cultural experience is closest to it. We must hire Asians to teach Asian literature, Caribbeans to teach Caribbean literature, etc. Of course, this only works for contemporary literature (since no one went to an Elizabethan grammar school, anyone can teach Shakespeare).

But do you really have to be a Southern white Roman Catholic female to read Flannery O’Connor? What sort of special diversity does a middle-class white student or a Jewish student from New York or a black student from Detroit bring to Chaucer? What most students have in common when approaching a text written by someone in a culture and time period different from their own is their ignorance. And what they have in common with one another—their age group, their work experience, their daily routines as college students, the TV and movies they’ve grown up watching—is just as striking as their differences in religion, geography, and race. They are all encountering the “other” and that shared experience is more significant than the notion that in the classroom, a particular Muslim or Hispanic approach to Chaucer is more important than the writer himself. At the risk of heresy, I will claim that diversity in the classroom is an overstated virtue. The more important variables are discipline and attitude toward learning. All great literature is a study of another world; the entire university experience is one of encountering new ideas and new disciplines. Is it too much to assume that students who are constantly learning to put themselves in the place of another culture or historical period or character can transfer that sensitivity and openness to human beings right next to them? When universities train minds, they automatically ask students to confront “diversity” in intellectual ways. Isn’t that their special contribution?

It is my hunch that a lot of people shrug their shoulders at affirmative action as an imperfect policy for an imperfect and corrupt world. University admissions have always been an unfair game, they say; now different groups are being favored. Many would just as soon see the university bear the burden of compensating for unequal or inferior secondary education across the country because they don’t take the university that seriously. There are many reasons for mistrust, even cynicism—professors who chum out unreadable books, or who pride themselves on being detached from, even contemptuous of, ordinary business and bourgeois life. Many skills for a successful life are not taught in school. Many people have gone through college untouched by great intellectual excitement. Many people devalue the intellectual implications of a degree and dwell only on its symbolism or practicality.

We continue to need a much more far-reaching discussion of the link between racial justice and higher education in this country. Unless universities get their priorities straight—remembering that they are supposed to be primarily training minds in a meritocratic way—they will continue to diminish the unique ways in which they can contribute toward achieving social and political goals. I am against anything, not just affirmative action policies, that puts pressure on those priorities and on the real business of the university—the disinterested pursuit of truth through reason.

Of course, the social experience of encountering persons who are different from you in a residential school is worthwhile. Of course, achieving racial justice is a worthwhile social goal. It is also by definition a multifaceted problem—intellectual, social, political, judicial. But the efforts of admissions offices to create a diverse student body as a way to achieve that goal are inimical to academic standards. To admit some students on the basis of potential academic excellence and refuse others who have demonstrated academic excellence implies a paradigm of success in life as being a matter of luck and birth rather than cause and effect. I point out that it is not payback time; if admission under such auspices was wrong in the past, it’s wrong now. The policies that have tried to ensure not token representation but a “critical mass” of minority students have not resulted in easy integration but its opposite. They move us away from the ideal of color-blindness as a way for races to relate to one another, from Dr. King’s hope that people would learn to judge according to quality of character, not color of skin—an ideal in perfect accord with the university’s functioning as a meritocracy of minds, regardless of skin color.

Although affirmative action is clearly legal, its costs and its flaws will continue to engage thoughtful persons. I see affirmative action as a failure of nerve on the part of the ruling elite: they haven’t the patience to wait for K-12 schooling to improve or the optimism to believe it can. They are willing to engage in an academic double standard in the interest of social ends. Our relativistic and secular university culture rejects the notion that color-blindness, which is set down in the Constitution and reiterated by religion and philosophy, might be taken as an absolute principle, rather than a contingent one, to be adjusted according to the goals at hand. Nor does it accept that such a notion might guide this country into an increasingly complicated, multiracial and multicultural future. They are overintellectualizing, thinking in terms of paradox (we must attend to race in order to ignore race) instead of simple math, where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line (if we start by treating race as irrelevant, we will end there).

It is a national tragedy that more minority students are not properly prepared for university work. What to do to remedy this situation before these students reach the stage of applying to college deserves the devoted attention of all of us. But our universities, while they should offer an education to a broad spectrum of American young people, should be choosing prospective students on the basis of their accomplishment as students. We cannot preserve intellectual capital and the idea of a meritocracy inside the classroom if we keep fudging them at the admissions office. My parting request to university administrators is that they keep asking themselves about the nature and purpose of a university. Its function is not entirely or essentially practical: it is not to engineer social change. The function of a university is to promote intellectual change. The best and most important social byproduct of a university education is not entry into the power elite, but intellectual achievement. Universities are responsible for creating racial justice, but not in the way defenders of affirmative action claim. The way to racial justice leads through a classroom which routinely requires students to encounter the “other,” and which creates a meritocracy of minds, oblivious to skin color.


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Betty Heycke's picture
Betty Heycke · 7 years ago

A fine article. When I visited Stanford recently, I noticed their student paper was littered with "trigger warnings"  --- those little protections against scary encounters with the other.


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