Wednesday, January 26, 2011

On The Idea That Merit Is Actually A System: An Intervention On Behalf Of Affirmative Action

These remarks were delivered on Saturday, January 22, at the Third Social Justice Leadership Conference, organized by students at Zenith University.  I appeared on a panel about affirmative action policies and academic admissions with colleagues Alex DuPuy (sociology); J. Kehaulani Kauanui (American Studies and Anthropology); and Sonja Manjon, Vice President for Diversity and Strategic Partnerships.  The panel began with remarks by Theodore M. Shaw, Columbia School of Law and formerly head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  The conference followed a keynote by Geoffry Canada, of the Harlem Children's Zone, given the previous evening.
On left, a self-identified "victim of a hate crime."  Credit.

The analysis that follows was shaped by what I observed in the fall of 2009 during a conflict provoked by some of our students over Zenith’s affirmative action policies; it was also shaped by the impressive response of other students to that provocation. As I watched these discussions unfold,  I wondered:  Which students were put in the position of justifying themselves as merit-bearing subjects entitled to an excellent education? Which students assumed that their merits were obvious, and that their presence at Zenith was not subject to debate?

As a result of these thoughts, I want to examine a word, as it relates to the role affirmative action plays in education. That word is merit, a thing we are told is part of something called "the merit system."  Merit is a word I particularly dislike. Every time I hear it, I am quite sure that something dishonest is going on that needs to be attended to.

The thoughts and analysis that follow are grounded in the following experiences and beliefs:

  • Reflections on my life’s journey as a white woman, a beneficiary of affirmative action and a person whose accomplishments have grown over time in a way that does not always correlate with the assumptions of others about my merit;
  •  A grounding in queer studies that causes me to question all systems – like the merit system -- that codify and normalize us;
  •  My familiarity with critical race studies and feminist theories of intersectionality articulated by scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and Lisa Lowe. Such work, I argue, helps us to understand a long American history in which “merit” is attached to some bodies and not to others. For example, Asians ineligible for citizenship were de facto outside systems of merit to which only members of the national body politic were entitled.  Enslaved people in the nineteenth century United States were not judged by whites to possess merit, honor or wisdom – any of the qualities that might have qualified them as having “rights a white man must respect.” (Dred Scott v. Sanford, 1857), a stigma that attaches itself to African descended people in the United States to this day.
     I am not the only person who thinks merit is a funky concept. In 1996, Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier wrote, in response to escalating attacks on affirmative action from the right, and the failure of liberals to defend these policies with sufficient vigor:

    The present system measures merit through scores on paper-and-pencil tests. But this measure is fundamentally unfair. In the educational setting, it restricts opportunities for many poor and working-class Americans of all colors and genders who could otherwise obtain a better education. In the employment setting, it restricts access based on inadequate predictors of job performance. In short, it is neither fair nor functional in its distribution of opportunities for admission to higher education, entry-level hiring, and job promotion.  

    They go on to explain that most attacks on affirmative action equate merit with test scores and, in the case of admission to institutions of higher education, grade point averages, class rank and other numerical indicators of academic achievement. Fairness, in this discussion, requires assessing whether “treating everybody the same” is truly fair.1

    Sturm and Guinier articulate a familiar, and solidly liberal, critique of our current testing culture, one that has been influential in the admissions process at a place like Zenith since the 1970s.  They go on to suggest alternative forms of assessment that might make the system fairer, correcting the “uneven playing field” that Geoffrey Canada spoke about last night.   By doing so, assessment would rely less on the prior acquisition of what Pierre Bourdieu would call “cultural capital,” a standard that inhibits access for working class students, many of whom are of color and/or new immigrants, from exhibiting their talents or displaying the accomplishments that middle class and wealthy students have more opportunity and support in acquiring.  In other words, affirmative action continues to work because the values being affirmed have been adjusted to measure excellence more accurately across the lines of racial, gender and class difference.

    Geoffrey Canada has a related critique, but a different solution. He objects to the power of merit systems because so many children are excluded from acquiring merit through no fault of their own. Mr. Canada -- whose masculinist metaphors, overwhelming concern for boys and explicit blaming of women unsettled me as I tried to attend to his remarks -- but believes in the essential correctness of conventional merit systems. They represent, he argues, the "high standards" to which all children should be held. His solution is to direct the same basic resources to all children, regardless of their economic circumstances,resources which do not come from the state but from private philanthropy and the business sector. This strategy “levels the playing field” and allows us to then have the same high expectations of all children. Children then succeed or fail on their own merits.

    Canada's view of democratic inclusion might be characterized as a neoliberal compromise, and not a transformative solution. More generally, the private non-profits that work to ready a few children for higher education rely on the following premises:

    ·      That because our resources are limited, we need to direct them to children, who still have time to acquire merit;
    ·      That the multiple generations of adults related to these children are too damaged, have become part of the problem and do not merit saving;
    ·      That it is possible to create a more inclusive middle and upper class through projects that select some children for cultivation and then make them visible to elite institutions like Wesleyan;
    ·      That some children, sometimes the siblings and neighbors of those children who have been selected, cultivated and made visible to elite institutions, are left behind because they have no civil right to access private resources;
    ·      That the state has proven itself incapable of the task of assisting the poor, and people of color in particular, and that state transformation is undesirable or impossible.

    And yet, when it bypasses the state and adopts a corporate framework for competitive excellence, community action raises some red flags. There is a reason why the rest of us don't rely on Bill Gates, Facebook and the Soros Foundation to guarantee our civil rights:  projects sponsored by the private sector are not required to be democratic in the larger sense that the Constitution might guarantee.  Projects like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which do a tremendous amount of good, nevertheless work within a very conservative value system.  This value system recognizes that merit translates into privilege, that it must be earned, and that in the end, the circle of privilege is a closed one.  Thus, in this model "progress" requires only widening the circle of merit -- not critiquing our idea of what constitutes merit in the first place, or understanding why certain bodies -- women, of color, queer -- have such a difficult time being perceived as meritorious even when they do meet the highest standards. 

    Both the liberal and the neoliberal approach, however, by focusing on what constitutes merit and how one acquires it, are vulnerable from the left, a critique which I would like to outline below:
    • That it is fundamentally unjust to withhold access to an excellent educational institution by creating hierarchies of merit.
    • That affirmative action was, at its inception, a liberal compromise that allowed us to revise the racial order without talking honestly about racism; to revise the gender order without fundamentally disturbing patrairachy; and to not discuss homophobia at all.
    • That radical experiments like open-admissions at New York’s City College in the 1960s were responded to by a liberal state, not by an effort to prepare and invest in all students in the Five Boroughs to receive an excellent education, but by creating barriers of cost.  This began a process of economic exclusion from higher education that has accelerated dramatically in the last two decades;
    • that the blackening and browning of all public schools has loosened the commitment of policymakers to financing education, and strengthened the influence of private schools over educational policy.
    Finally, I would like to say that I don’t think it really matters what happens to the admissions policy at private colleges like Zenith, although it is important to the future of the institution itself to continue to grapple with its contradictions.  But what happens to affirmative action as a national policy, and one that has a huge impact on access to public institutions of higher education, is terribly important.  However flawed it is, in a society that is not in any way post-racial, it is necessary.  Given the unequal distribution of educational resources along the lines of race and class -- not merit -- a distribution that becomes more unequal as public dollars devoted to education shrink, support for affirmative action measures that recognize the effects of inequality are imperative.
    1. Susan Sturm and Lani Guinier, “The Future of Affirmative Action: Reclaiming An Innovative Ideal,” California Law Review (July, 1996).


    LouMac said...

    I'm too tired to say anything that is remotely deserving of proximity to this fabulous post, so I'll just ask if you can start running the country, like tomorrow, please?

    Anonymous said...

    Thank you for this. This is one of the best articulations of why affirmative action still matters that I have read in quite a long time. Can I share it with my students?

    Anonymous said...

    I am glad to see that you have some kids at Zenith who can think for themselves and have resisted the PC brainwashing -- namely the original student demonstrators against affirmative action. Was it Jefferson who envisioned an aristocracy of achievement based upon an equality of opportunity? That's what I think we should be working toward.


    Tenured Radical said...

    I don't think well-reasoned arguments are all about "PC"and that is just as dismissive as saying the anti-affirmative action students are just parroting a conservative party line. Or just citing a Founding Father, as if that ends an argument.

    As to Jefferson: he imagined equality of opportunity among a small slice of the population, I'm afraid, and was ambivalent to negative about expanding those opportunities. We should recall that one of the banes of the early Republic was white working people pressing into territory that they had no legal right to, and that the early presidents worked hard, and failed, to prohibit that.

    It's quite clear that his slaves, common white men, and women were not included, nor were his biracial children, who he did not educate or free as some slaveholders did.

    Interestingly, Native American men were included in Jefferson's vision. Jefferson developed a plan for Cherokee men to have individual landholdings, because he believed that if they were to become "civilized" through the virtues of small holding, they would become white.

    Unfortunately, working class white Americans and southern plantation owners found this to be unacceptable. In part, this was because the Cherokee became slave holders, which violated a system of slavery hardening around color, and in part because (if one can project backwards) they found it an unacceptable elevation of Native interests, a kind of "affirmative action," if you will. They were impervious to the argument that Native people had been harmed by colonization, and that this harm needed to be repaired so that Native people would not sink into further destitution.

    The Cherokee nation, and the landholders who sustained it, were dealt their final blow under the white working man's president, Andrew Jackson.

    Tenured Radical said...

    Anonymous 7:32 -- please do distribute to your students, and invite them to comment if they like.

    Anonymous said...

    Now, TR, let us remember that Jefferson was a creature of his time, as were all the founding fathers. It was the idea, not the originator, that I was advancing. You should be addressing the idea, but as usual, you go off on a tangent.

    And when you hold these conferences, and say all the right things, isn't your audience (and aren't you yourself) products of the system you rail against? Reminds me of the Victorian British "Socialists" who were attacking the system while simultaneously living off of its proceeds. It may make you folks feel good, but who does it help, really?


    Anonymous said...

    As for repairing the harm done to the Cherokee and other Native Americans, how many of them have you accepted at Zenith, whether under the banner of affirmative action or otherwise?


    Anonymous said...

    Would you agree that affirmative action gives way more consideration to race and gender than it does class? And, on a related ossie, when search make so-called "diversity" hires, how often do you think they ask questions about the candidate's socioeconomic class? My guess is never.

    Flavia said...

    I love you, TR.

    Anonymous said...

    Further supporting the notion that most contemporary versions of affirmative action are really neoliberal "steady-the-ship" adjustments rather than radical political action is the abundant social epidemiologic evidence suggesting that pathways to social inequalities begin extremely early in life.

    Actually, excellent evidence suggests that social strata can determine a great number of inequalities well before someone is even born, given the robust correlations between social status of people and that of their grandparents.

    Thus, the evidence I am aware of suggests that if we really want to do anything about the staggering and increasing inequalities in the U.S. and in the developed world (let alone the developing world), we would need to invest an enormous amount of social and cultural capital both before children are born and then extremely early in the life cycle.

    Affirmative action programs, of course, do neither, and therefore have little effect on the "densely woven" patterns of disadvantage that accumulate across the familiar social fault lines (race, class, gender, income, status, occupation, sexual orientation, etc.). If we wanted to do much about those patterns and their effects across the life span, we'd have to do a whole heckuva lot more by way of collective action than affirmative action programs for incoming college students.

    This extends, by the way, to considerations of education, which is well-demonstrated to have significant and robust correlations with health through the life course, but which, to have a significant effect, would have to be invested in and supported from very early on in the life span (and preferably before birth, actually, as in, e.g., intensive prenatal education, which is known to have significant effects on long-term health outcomes).

    So investing in education for marginalized social groups at the point of entry into college does very little to address the profound and structural inequalities that widen the social gradient.

    And while I tend to sympathize with those who are suspicious of collective state action as a remedy for these ills, I also believe, to paraphrase Churchill, that such action in the interests of social justice is absolutely the worst form of intervention imaginable save for all the other ones that have already been tried. How else are we going to make the kinds of enormous structural investments needed to generate the social and cultural capital that might be required to compress the social gradient?

    I see no alternative but for the collective, assuming such a creature can even be said to meaningfully exist in the U.S., to opt-in, in Simon Szreter's terms.

    Tenured Radical said...

    Anonymous 11:51 --

    It strikes me as a highly unprofessional, although probably not illegal, thing to do to ask someone about their class origins. It is a bit like saying, "Hey, you look a little gay! Are you gay? We would love to have a gay person in the department!"

    It's interesting to me that this is the assumption that always emerges in this debate,regardless of what a progressive has to say about it: that women and people of color who benefit from AA/diversity policies are assumed to be people with "privilege" who are cheating those working class (white) (men) who just can't catch a break.

    This is what I mean about how merit attaches itself to some bodies and not to others: it's like, if merit were working properly, there should be some white guy who might be working class in every position occupied by a woman or person of color.

    What makes people like you so sure of this?

    Anonymous said...

    Class is actually the elephant in the room for affirmative action. If I am a poor white male, should I have to pretend I am gay in order to get into a decent university? At least when they went by IQ and SAT scores, these folks had the same chance as all you other "disadvantaged" folks.

    And, TR, even if society achieved the great goal of "equal opportunity" you know what would happen? Some folks would do better than others, because some folks are smarter, more skilled, more socially adept and/or more talented than others. And that, to my way of thinking, is as it should be. Equality of opportunity is great; equality of results is a nightmare.


    Tenured Radical said...

    1. Gay is not an affirmative action category.

    2. The vast majority of people of color in this country are working class.

    3. 70% of the students at Zenith are white.

    It is simply not to the point of anything I said in the post for a successful white man like yourself to respond by fantasizing about himself as the object of discrimination unless he masquerades as gay.

    Anonymous said...

    I was born with a penis and my skin is what they call "white." After my soon-to-be father got out of prison for shooting his first wife in jealous, drunken rage, he met my mother, who dropped out of school when she was in the eight grade and found work as seamstress, getting paid to do piece work. My father's alcoholism only grew worse until, one night, when I was six, he shot himself in the head. My mother then withdrew, becoming a recluse. Now, I'm not exactly the image of privilege. Should I benefit from AA? Does/should take into account class? I myself would love for a search committee to ask about my class background. If only I could wear my history on my sleeve.

    Anonymous said...

    TR, you are misreading my post. I was a national merit scholarship finalist in Mississippi in the 1960s. Had I been black, I would have gone to Harvard or Yale (probably would have passed on Zenith). As it was, I did OK.

    If most black folks are working class, then it should ok for them if we base affirmative action on class rather than race, and we won't be discriminating against poor white folks in that case, right?

    And from what I have seen, gayness does seem to be a de facto affirmative action category at many of our "better" institutions (including, apparently, Zenith, when it comes to getting on the faculty there).


    Tenured Radical said...

    Jack: How many faculty do you think are gay at Zenith? How many faculty do you think were hired solely because they were gay? Can you name some names?

    And my memory is that you went to the Harvard of the South, although if the Harvard of the North had accepted you, would you be better off than you are? And how would you know? Everybody doesn't get to go to Harvard, but most of us who go to fine universities have a good chance to excel all the same.

    As for you with the tortured background, Anonymous, I'm terribly sorry about your life, but your understanding of affirmative action is different from mine. Would you really want a search committee to know those things about you? Really? Wouldn't you rather talk about your scholarship like everyone else does?

    Anonymous said...

    “Given the unequal distribution of educational resources along the lines of race AND class,” do you think that a poor white male from an undereducated family also deserves to benefit from “affirmative action measures that recognize the effects of inequality”?

    Tenured Radical said...


    What makes you think that they don't receive consideration for that under the actual admissions policies, as they are applied by universities? Why don't you go look at a few and tell me what you think?

    I also think the current exchange thread is about a philosophical difference about how to ameliorate sexism, racism and class prejudice in American society, given the fact that a rightward turning US is basically unwilling to fund public education. What I find particularly odd is that in a country where we know that three times as many people of color grow up in poverty than do white people, somehow liberal policies designed to address the consequences of that become the culprit for "racism." Or that there are so many self-identified white males (and females) that are sure that their seat at an elite university, or their job, has gone to an "unqualified" person of color. This is just vitriol, it is false, and it should stop.

    The politics of resentment are so much easier than the politics of change, aren't they?

    The point of this post is, in fact, that like most liberal solutions, affirmative action is highly imperfect an does not disrupt the use (and replication) of race as a category that carries its own burdens. But if conservatives want to end these policies, why not replace them with something that extends equal benefits and opportunities for all? Get off your cans, end the war and tax breaks for the wealthy, and extend a quality education to all children, regardless of race?

    Anonymous said...

    I've never been asked about my socioeconomic class or the education level of my parents (and I thought you suggested that asking such questions would be inappropriate). I'm only suggesting that class be considered in addition to race and gender (which would mean having to recognize the disadvantages that poor white males face), and voicing my suspicion that it receives much less consideration. I simply want to know if you agree. I'm not one of those people you call out for believing their "seat at an elite university, or their job, has gone to an "unqualified" person of color." And I agree that this has to stop. But, if we want to truly confront the complex issues that the intersection of gender, race, and class confront us with then we also have to ask some tough and possibly uncomfortable questions - for example, how do we weigh the obstacles faced by a poor white male from a severely undereducated family and community as opposed to a minority from an upper-middle class, college-educated, and financially successful family who went to the area's best schools, had money for tutors, and whose parents were intimately familiar with the culture of higher education and therefore could provided sound advice and guidance? Which of these two are likely to do better on those pencil-and-paper tests?

    Tenured Radical said...

    I think that it differs from place to place, but for example, at a school like Zenith, the emphasis in admissions is on evaluating an individual in hir "context." In other words, has that person made the most of hir opportunities? Information on the table includes family income, parents' occupations, marital status and education, and school district. Race is an optional check-off.

    Hiring at Zenith is different. There, the emphasis is on reaching out to make sure that the pool includes the best scholars and getting people into the applicant pool who might think that Zenith is too white, too elite, too far from Texas -- whatever -- to apply, even though they might bring something intellectually unique to the job that would be valued. But then you hire based on your best estimate of who, again, will make the most of the opportunity to be a teacher-scholar.

    Tenured Radical said...

    And btw? It's illegal to ask someone about their race, so why would anyone ask about your class background? If you think it is relevant and advantageous, and it arguably might be in certain situations, bring it up in the interview.

    Personally, I have always been furious at the level to which -- because I look and am WASPy -- many of my colleagues of middle-and working-class origins make snide remarks about what they presume is a wealthy and patrician background that has given me a privileged path to my work as a scholar. But you know what? That's life. The state wasn't invented to protect us from getting our feelings hurt.

    Anonymous said...

    I guess you don't have to ask, since you already have that info
    ("Information on the table includes family income, parents' occupations, marital status and education"). But you're still dodging my question about poor white male from undereducated families. Is it possible in your universe for a white male to be at an unfair disadvantage?

    Anonymous said...

    TR, I am all for diverting some of the money we are wasting on "national defense" to education -- though I don't think it should go toward subsidizing the already privileged at elite universities. Perhaps something along the lines of developing good distance education for all would be more appropriate, more effective, and more democratic. See the book "Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses" for a description and assessment of some early examples at this. This approach would eliminate any kind of "admission test" at all, make the best use of gifted educators' time, and give all students an equal chance. Perhaps tutoring and makeup sessions could also be handled in this way. I know, it doesn't solve all problems -- no getting around hands-on lab courses for instance-- but I think it is a promising approach that deserves more support. I am so tired of "admissions committees" that many (including some folks leaving comments here) perceive as being unfair. I agree with you that we need to give everyone a decent crack at a quality education, and this seems one approach that might just do that!


    Anonymous said...

    Think about what Wikipedia has done to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I think that good courses offered on the web, along effective use of social media such as facebook and twitter, could effect the same transformation of the current unfair educational system. We may be in the first stages of an educational revolution. Surely even a tenured radical would love that!r


    j.c.s. said...

    TR, i am proud to have been one of your students. whenever i read your thoughts, i yearn to go back to school. or at least, your class :) thank you!

    Science Lurker said...


    "Transformation of the current unfair educational system" is everyone's goal, but I think it will be a long time before on-line courses and social media can get anywhere near the feeling of learning in the charged atmosphere of an ideal slac classroom -- students challenging each other, seeing each others' "aha" moments, learning from each others' questions.

    It's not just the lectures that make the desirable colleges desirable. Some lecturers are notoriously bad (not you, I'm sure, TR, but think of the reputation of Organic Chemistry most places). It's learning with and from other engaged learners -- in class, in study groups, in the dorms, on the bus to varsity games. The goal of the admissions office (whether or not they meet it, or do it in the fairest way) is to build the community that can sustain that charged atmosphere, at least some of the time.

    Simulating that from the laptop in your bedroom at home . . . sorry, separate is never going to be equal.

    Comrade PhysioProf said...

    Some lecturers are notoriously bad (not you, I'm sure, TR, but think of the reputation of Organic Chemistry most places).

    The best lecturer I had as an undergrad was in orgo. Second best was physical chemistry.

    Isabel said...

    "What I find particularly odd is that in a country where we know that three times as many people of color grow up in poverty than do white people,"

    what is your source for this? The last I checked numbers for black and white children were about equal. If you include the working classes there are more white people.

    Also, you didn't answer his question. The answer is yes of course poor white and lower class males are at a great disadvantage in life, as compared for example to someone like rich sexist bully "Comrade" Physioprof.

    Anonymous said...

    Science Lurker, forgive me but I think you're whistling past the graveyard. There is web real-time meeting technology that can make it seem that you're sitting in the seminar room. There will always be brick and mortar classrooms for the privileged, but soon there will be a rich, inexpensive, convenient non-elitist alternative for the rest of us, and I say it can't come soon enough!

    When I was starting out my career almost 50 years ago at the Army Research Office, we saw film of Richard Feynman giving several physics lectures at CalTech. I have never forgotten it, but think what it would be like to take a coursef in a web-based virtual classroom with the modern-day equivalent of Feynman. Some day students who have graduated from virtual high schools will be able to take their pick of courses from the top educators in the country, and they will be able to interact real-time with both their instructors and their fellow classmates. And this day will be here very soon.

    AYY said...

    Just wanted to clarify a few things. You wrote that he panel was "about affirmative action policies and academic admissions."
    Does that mean it was a panel that was advocating affirmative action, or does it mean something else? Was the panel an attempt to respond to the "provocation" of the affirmative action bake sale?
    Was everyone on the panel a supporter of affirmative action? If so, do you know why no one critical of affirmative action was on the panel, and do you think the students would have benefited from hearing an opposing view?

    Kate N. said...

    A fascinating and challenging post, TR. Particularly from my vantage point in the UK, where we don't use Affirmative action, do operate an educational system reliant on merit, and our difficulties ARE around class and socio-economic dis/advantage.

    You might find this report, about high school pupils' views of achievement and merit, interesting. I did, and a useful challenge, as an upper-middle class white woman, who has had her battles, but advantages also. I think it offers fascinating insights into the views of young people who feel they have succeeded largely on their own merit, and the contrasting views of those who haven't been the beneficiary of socio-economic advantage:

    Tenured Radical said...


    The panel was part of a student conference, ergo, the students who organized the conference decided who would be on the panel and what perspectives they would benefit from. However you cut it, this is not a case of Commie faculty brainwashing the students.

    If you read my piece carefully, what you will note is that I am critical of affirmative action. I am critical from the left, because I think this policy is a liberal compromise that precludes a broader social justice agenda that is explicitly class inclusive. A truly just nation would deliver a quality education to everyone, adults and children, regardless of race or class. It would make the opportunities available at Zenith available at the level of the community college. Another member of the panel took a similar stance.

    BTW, another group of students invited Ward Connerly, a long time conservative opponent of affirmative action, to speak at Zenith in mid-December. So a range of opinions from intellectuals and peers are easily available to students curious enough to appear at these events. And then there would be reading, which one might hope they are all doing.

    The reason I don't respond to the "white man" thing is that class is a factor that admissions offices are free to respond to -- and Zenith's does. White men are not superseded in their rights by any other group. But their unimpeded presence in any given arena, regardless of the quality of their achievements, is not the litmus test for social justice either.

    I also want to emphasize: this blog is not a cable news show, whether Fox or MSNBC. It's not incumbent on me to respond to zingers about complex subjects in a knee-jerk way that oversimplifies the issue at hand. Like all political questions, this one is highly ideological: people disagree.

    By the way, at many D-III schools, there is a powerful affirmative action pipeline for working class white men. It's called football,hockey, basketball and baseball. And regardless of what you have read in the endless reports issued about how terrible college sports are, many of those young guys really do make the most of an opportunity to parlay athletic talent developed at mediocre to poor high schools into an excellent liberal arts education and a good future. And yes, it would be great if we could stop spending so much fucking money on those sports and just bring those guys in through an affirmative action process that did not require them to get their heads beaten in three months out of the year.

    Anonymous said...

    TR, your commitment to providing a Zenith-level education to everyone who wants it is commendable, though unrealistic unless we embrace the technology solutions I have described in other posts here, so we can bring the very best educators in the country to everyone who has access to the internet.

    I myself am very impressed with the level of the community colleges that I am familiar with. They are the antithesis of places like Zenith, because they take on all comers. Many provide paths to four-year degrees to folks who are the first in their family to go to college, and some even provide courses that combine the last year of high school with the first year of college. The introductory science (biology and chemistry) courses from many of these institutions are impressive, and they provide first and second chances to a wide variety of students of many ages and backgrounds. I would like to see more of our public higher-education money concentrated on this sector, which truly reflects the democratic ideals of America.

    Finally, it seems to me that your ideals put you in an untenable position -- preaching egalitarianism in education to elite students at an elite institution. If I were in your shoes, I could not do this without feeling like a hypocrite.


    Tenured Radical said...

    That would be bad, I agree. But I don't feel like a hypocrite. I would feel like a hypocrite if I had all the tools to work at a job, believed in the work ethic as much as I do, and instead went on public assistance.

    I would also feel like a hypocrite if I were a Republican politician always nattering on about excellence in education and then cutting the budget for education so that I could fund a decade-long war in two countries that hasn't helped anyone.

    AYY said...

    I wasn't trying to give you zingers. I was asking real questions that I was curious about and thought might interest your readers.

    You might be surprised to hear this from me, but I think the hypocrisy argument that Jack made gets thrown around too easily. I agree with you and don't agree with him on that point.

    The fact you are teaching elite students at an elite institution doesn't make you a hypocrite because by teaching at Zenith you are not preventing other people from obtaining a quality education.

    Anonymous said...

    TR, I guess everybody has a right to their own conscience. I guess I would feel hypocritical if I felt as you do unless I went out and taught at Podunk County Community College or its equivalent, so I could bring excellence to those who need and deserve it the most, instead of hauling yet more coals to Newcastle.

    The kids at Zenith will get excellence whether you're there or not; the kids at Podunk County, maybe not so much. And by your lights, aren't they just as deserving and "meritorious"? It's been my experience that if you really want to see something done, you often have to go out and do it yourself.



    Isabel said...

    "3. 70% of the students at Zenith are white."

    And what is the socio-economic class distribution? Do the percentages of working and lower middle class whites reflect their representation in the larger society?

    "It is simply not to the point of anything I said in the post for a successful white man like yourself to respond by fantasizing about himself as the object of discrimination unless he masquerades as gay. "

    He said he grew up poor, so why is it a fantasy to imagine he dealt with discrimination? Why is it unimaginable because he is now a "successful white man"?

    Anonymous said...

    Very good post.

    Re class based AA:

    FIRST - that's what Pell grants, and everything else need based, is meant to address -- poverty. There are also various kinds of preference that can be given to first generation college students.

    SECOND - AA itself is about reparations for discrimination made on various bases. There's been explicit discrimination for race, for instance. Class and money are barriers, yes, but in terms of hiring / housing / college admissions / etc. they function differently than race has (or than it has been deployed) historically.

    THIRD -- Just because one supports community colleges doesn't mean one has to work at one. TR would not be able to give a Zenith education at a community college. Contexts matter.

    FOURTH -- I've taught at 2 open admissions universities, public ones, in poor states. I like the idea of open admissions but there are problems with it.

    1. When you have more applicants than you have space for ... then how do you decide? Lottery perhaps (not necessarily a bad idea)?
    2. Many high school graduates really don't have a high school education, it's more like a middle school one. Open admissions is a cynical policy if these people are going to be funding school with loans, because they will have remedial courses and may have some Fs, etc., unless there is major academic support. People flunk out AND owe money; this isn't fair to them.
    3. For the two reasons above I wish my state had a stronger community college system; I also wish for a few other forms of support for higher education, of course.

    Anyway. Great post.

    Anonymous said...

    Profacero's misunderstanding of AA is shocking. AA is NOT about reparations; it is not about providing compensation to make amends for injustices that occurred in the past.It's about increasing the representation of previously excluded groups, assuring that historically excluded groups do not continue to be unfairly excluded.

    And Pell Grants are not going to level the playing field for the lower classes. Neither will the unspecified forms of preference for first generation college students you mention.

    You may be right that class as a barrier functions different but how exactly? Aren't the end results essentially the same?

    Isabel said...

    "FIRST - that's what Pell grants, and everything else need based, is meant to address -- poverty. There are also various kinds of preference that can be given to first generation college students. "

    Then why are most of the students at Zenith upper middle class?

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