Friday, March 23, 2018

Amy Wax for the Truth

Penn Law Professor Amy Wax has done it again. She spoke truth to power. She refused to continue to mouth pious platitudes about the academic performance of groups that are admitted to law school by a different set of standards. Students who are admitted to fulfill diversity criteria do not do as well the other students. They suffer what other authors have called a mismatch. 

Wax told it as she saw it. And as many other people see it. But we are not allowed to say in public and in polite society.

For her pains Wax was denounced by her dean and disallowed from teaching first year law courses.

Jason Riley explains:

During an interview in September with Glenn Loury, a black economist at Brown University, Ms. Wax remarked on the academic underperformance of black students at Penn Law.

“Here’s a very inconvenient fact, Glenn: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely, in the top half,” said Ms. Wax. “I can think of one or two students who scored in the top half of my required first-year course.”

Riley continues that the facts about affirmative action students have long been known and are beyond dispute:

Moreover, the evidence is overwhelming that students (of any color) who do not meet the normal standards applied to other students at a school tend to have lower grades and graduation rates. That’s not because they are less intelligent or less capable, but because they have not been prepared for the pace and rigor of an Ivy League institution. Affirmative-action policies in higher education regularly set up bright students—students who otherwise would be excelling at less-selective schools—to fail at elite colleges, and the proponents of these policies become indignant when you point out the obvious.

The obvious is a fact. People who whine about their love of facts refuse to allow Amy Wax, a distinguished law professor, to discuss the facts. They are not interested in reality, but in advancing their own oppression narrative. They believe that the best way to help victims of oppression is to pretend that they are better than they are. Why? Because life imitates art and if you create a strong enough fiction the real world will naturally imitate it.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed Wax herself weighs in on these issues. She attributes it all to our identity politics, and especially to the fact that the proponents of affirmative action are incapable of recognizing that their policies are failing… and are failing the students they are supposed to help. Pretending that a minority student with inferior test scores will naturally be able to compete with students who have vastly better test scores is the grand illusion behind diversity hires. It becomes the doctrine of equal outcomes. If outcomes are not equally distributed across different victim groups, then this counts as a sign of endemic bigotry.

What are the facts? Wax explains:

Another reason measures of academic performance are hard to ignore is that students often expect equality of results and—especially in our identity-conscious world—issue loud demands for equality in group outcomes. When that doesn’t happen, frustration and disappointment ensue, followed by charges of racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination….

Those accusations are bound to provoke concern from the accused, especially those who deny that bigotry is the chief cause of certain inequalities by pointing to possible alternatives—including group disparities in qualifications, skills, performance or life choices. Keeping key documentation about the sources of disparities out of view does not prevent people from discussing them and their consequences. They are a regular topic of conversation behind closed doors, in offices and hallways, around kitchen tables, in living rooms and in private correspondence.

Explaining underperformance has become an industry in itself. And yet, explanations are of little value. No one ever improved his performance because he has at the ready a set of socially acceptable excuses for underperformance.

The problem is, we have gotten to the point where we believe that outcomes are merely social constructions and that the way to improve minority performance is to say that minority students are performing well. It does not matter whether they are. The point is to force everyone to say that they are. Because, by the terms of this cockeyed theory, if you can convince everyone to think and to say something, then it will magically become true.

It’s like the story of the Emperor’s new clothes… with Wax playing the role of the young boy who declares that the Emperor is not decked out in imperial finery. Today the boy's declaration would get him pilloried. 

Minority law students and lawyers are praised in public and disparaged in private. They are being lied to. Presumably, it bloats their self-esteem. But it also tells them, because they know that they are being lied to, that they are not being held to the same standards as everyone else. This means that they are being treated with condescension. No one cares, because the consequences of telling the truth are too dire. It’s easier to go along.

Wax explains the big lie.

… these conversations may not take place publicly or even be acknowledged openly. My students know that. So do working lawyers and judges, and everyone else trying to run institutions, decide cases, serve clients, and make a buck. So do employers and other citizens, including many people, young and old, from around the country who have deluged me with letters, phone calls, and emails setting out forthright, common-sense observations, such as this one: “The facts about the comparative performance of the different groups on [for example] the bar, medical boards, SATs, MCATs, LSATs etc. are well-established. Viewing these facts as offensive will not make them go away.”

If you are praised and told that you are brilliant while producing substandard work, what motive do you have to improve? Why not sit back and profit from the con? Surely, Wax is correct to say that everyone talks about these facts in private, but what makes us think that the recipients of this condescension do not know that they are being used as props to sustain a narrative.

Were you to ask why we have fallen into this intellectual abyss, I would suggest that it’s a byproduct of the Obama presidency. Isn’t it the case that we are not allowed to speak ill of the last president, that we are obliged to suggest that everything he did was great and that anyone who dares undo what he did is a monster. Since we are all obliged to lie about the Obama presidency, taken by many to be more a gesture of atonement than a recognition of qualifications and accomplishments, we must also lie about everyone else who belongs to a victimized group… which ends up being a majority of Americans.

Wax suggests that it’s about time that we get back in touch with reality.

The mindset that values openness understands that the truth can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, doesn’t always respect our wishes, and sometimes hurts. Good feelings and reality don’t always mix. But there is a price to be paid for putting the quest for psychological comfort over openness on matters central to how our society is organized. While some people benefit from the favored view, others lose out. People accused of bigotry and discrimination—claims that are more pervasive than ever—are understandably unhappy about being deprived of the ability to defend themselves by pointing to alternative reasons for group differences. Hoarding and hiding information relevant to such differences, which amounts to predetermining a verdict of “guilty as charged,” violates basic principles of fair play and gives rise to justified resentment.

It’s an old philosophical argument, one that goes back as far as Plato, that teaches us that we create reality by interpreting it or thinking it or perceiving it. Thus, in order to recreate a new reality we need but all think differently. And in the current state of American intellectual dysfunction we have come to believe that we should do so through politics, by exercising our power and forcing everyone to recite the same message from the same hymnal. Of course, this spells despotism and totalitarianism. Naturally, those who want to force everyone to sustain the politically correct orthodoxy spend much of their time sanctimoniously standing up and leaning in for democracy:

That belief that political force determines objective reality has characterized totalitarian regimes world-wide and throughout history—regimes that are responsible for untold amounts of human misery. That mindset is dangerously inconsistent with the kind of free society Americans have painstakingly built and defended over many centuries, at the cost of blood and treasure. Perhaps we no longer want such a society. But we relinquish it at our peril.


Sam L. said...

I wouldn't say that "the fact that the proponents of affirmative action are incapable of recognizing that their policies are failing…", I would say that they are deliberately ignoring that fact. Cognitive dissonance, doncha know. Can't admit it. Wouldn't be prudent.

Kansas Scout said...

another excellent posting Stuart.