Saturday, October 20, 2018

Bret Stephens Opposes Affirmative Action

The debate over affirmative action in university admissions ought by now to have been settled. Two decades ago Shelby Steele explained that when minority students are given preferential treatment-- aka privilege-- they, and anyone who resembles them, are treated as inferior, as tokens, as not belonging where they are.

More recently, Stuart Taylor and Richard Sander wrote a book about mismatch, about the fact that admitting underperforming students into schools where they cannot compete against the overachievers does them no favor. It diminishes their ability to receive a good education and consigns them to the bottom of the class… even though in another school they might have been nearer to the top.

Affirmative action hurts those it is trying to help. Another great social experiment gone awry.

This morning Bret Stephens opines about the current court case over affirmative action in Harvard University admissions. As you know, the school is being sued by Asian students who have been rejected in favor of minority candidates who have far lower test scores and who are far less able to compete with their classmates. Stephens does not mention the work of Steele, Taylor and Sander. I noted it to provide some context.

Given that Stephens is writing for the New York Times, his views will certainly have a significant influence:

The very people who ordinarily championed affirmative action as a cornerstone of a decent society — for giving a needed leg up to the systemically disadvantaged — had no trouble understanding the other dimension of the policy — an unfair preference for the unqualified. They knew that “affirmative action,” whatever its benefits as a form of social engineering, was a synonym for mediocrity.

A synonym for mediocrity-- he means that the students who have been admitted under affirmative action quotas are not only comparatively mediocre, but that everyone else knows that they are. If their appearance does not give it away, classroom discussion will.

Grades, you probably know, have been inflated to the point where, outside of STEM subjects, they are nearly meaningless. You probably also know that when Lawrence Summers became president of Harvard and questioned the grade inflation in African-American studies, he was immediately denounced. By now, given the fact that underperforming students are more likely to take courses in the Humanities and Social Sciences, these will likely be dumbed down. lest affirmative action participants fail ... thus depriving the best students of the best possible education.

Stephens notes that those who profit from affirmative action do not really profit:

They also knew the insult’s insidious psychological power to wound. To be told that you are an affirmative action hire shakes the ground under your feet.

Of course, where the number of admissions slots is fixed, if you include more underqualified members of a minority community you are going to exclude more overqualified members of another community.

All this confirms what most thoughtful people should know already about affirmative action: that what is supposed to be a powerful method for inclusion is an equally powerful method of exclusion. If you’re going to say yes to Jack, you’ll have to say no to Jill. The world of college admissions is a fixed pie.

While half the country is currently railing about something called “white privilege,” the truth of the matter is that the candidates who have been unfairly excluded from Harvard are invariably Asian:

What distinguishes the Harvard suit from past legal challenges to affirmative action is that it shows that the people the policy harms aren’t privileged and unsympathetic white kids. The injured are other minorities.

Nor is this a matter of second-tier white students duking it out for the last available slots against standout minorities. The Asian-Americans rejected by Harvard are outstanding candidates being penalized by hoary stereotypes about having ferocious work ethics but not much else. Internal Harvard documents refer to them as “busy and bright” and “standard strong” — reminiscent of the way a previous generation of Jewish students were dismissed as “average geniuses” who were not “clubbable.”

As it happens, those who suffer from affirmative programs are those the programs were designed to help:

Still, I can’t help but think that critics of the plaintiffs are right in at least one respect: Those “busy and bright” kids who aren’t going to Harvard will be fine. Most will still get into great schools and have good careers. They might rage against an institution that turned them away unfairly. Yet deep down they’ll have the satisfaction of knowing their own worth.

Will that be equally true of those who, thanks to affirmative action, did get in? I wonder. Perhaps the deepest damage affirmative action does is to those it embraces, not those it rejects. It isn’t a pleasant thing to live with the sense that your achievements aren’t quite real— and that everyone secretly knows it. It’s corrosive to live in the clutch of someone else’s lie.

But, doesn’t the same reasoning apply to all diversity programs?


David Foster said...

The other question, and one that I would consider as at least equally important, is **why do we choose to give Harvard, Yale, etc such a disproportionate influence in American society"?

It wasn't always this way. In 1969, Peter Drucker (Austrian, lived in Germany before coming to the US) wrote:

"It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman."


"One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…"

American society today is a lot closer to giving Harvard Law, etc the privileged status of a Grande Ecole than was the case when Drucker wrong.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you for the links... these are clearly very important points.

Sam L. said...

Why do Democrats undermine minority people? Passive aggression?

"As it happens, those who suffer from affirmative programs are those the programs were designed to help:..." That should be "help", as in a lie.

"But, doesn’t the same reasoning apply to all diversity programs?" Yes. Yes, it does.

Ares Olympus said...

Stephens makes a strong argument, and race-based criteria seems especially odious. And he didn't even mention Elizabeth Warren's native American heritage claim in her application to teach to Harvard Law School, and their embarrassing promotion of her as a "woman of color." He did mention his own "conservative quota" status at the NYT as being a “affirmative action hire”. What does a student do if another student says "You're only here because of the color of your skin." There's no way to escape that stigma, no matter how high your inflated grades stay.

On the other side, I do see a value in diversity, and a value of including the brightest students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, mainly by poverty, even if they didn't have the same advantages as those in better schools, and will have to work twice as hard just to stay even with their better prepared rivals.

And probably the solution I'd use to the predicament of achievement gaps is a lottery system. So if you're in the top 1%, everyone will want you, and if you're in the top 10% you'll also get dozens of schools trying to recruit you. But if a school say has a 50,000 student limit, and there are 150,000 qualified students applying, you can't be 100% sure which ones will work the hardest or which ones are most deserving, so after minimum thresholds are reached, a lottery might be "most fair", and students who get in through the lottery will know they were lucky, not special, and they're being given a chance to prove themselves just like everyone else.

Anonymous said...

But a class filled with nothing but Asian students raised by Tiger Moms would be dull as hell.i actually sort of understand Harvard’s reluctance to admit nothing but kids with 4.0 gpas, who play some sport and volunteer at approved nonprofits. Many Asian-American kids are good at following directions, getting teacher approval and no much else.