The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

" the result of human organization. We are not born equal."... ...Hannah Arendt

Commentary of the Day - April 10, 2003: The Affirmative Action War Heats Up.

There is perhaps no more contentious issue in American society today than that of "affirmative action".  This was made clear by the intense interest in two University of Michigan cases that recently were argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.  One case involved a white woman whose application for admission to the U. of M. Law School was rejected, and another was brought on behalf of white applicants who were denied admission to the U. of M. undergraduate College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.  The Court heard arguments from attorneys for the plaintiffs, the university, and from the Bush administration's Solicitor General -- noted conservative lawyer Ted Olson.  In addition, scores of "friend of the court" briefs were filed by various organizations with a stake in the issue.

The University of Michigan is a "public" institution with relatively high standards for admission to its programs.  The standards for admission to the U. of M. Law School are especially high.  Only a small percentage of applicants actually gain admission.  Rightly or wrongly, the University also feels that "diversity" is an important goal for all of its educational programs.  Thus, it is not surprising that some rejected applicants might feel that they have been passed over in favor of less well qualified candidates who would contribute to those "diversity" goals.  And, it's not surprising that a few of these rejected candidates feel strongly enough about the matter to take it to court.

As the Irascible Professor sees it, the fight over affirmative action is a surrogate for the angst in the American psyche caused by conflict between myths and realities in America society.  We like to think that we are a society where skin color, ethnicity, gender, creed, and economic status does not matter.  We desperately want to believe that we are the land of "equal opportunity" if not of equality, where everyone is judged on his or her individual talents and merits; and, where everyone has the same opportunity to succeed if only he or she has the talent and the drive.

We know that reality is much different.  For most of the history of the republic skin color, ethnicity, gender, creed, and economic status did matter.  They mattered very much.  In our early days, in most parts of the country, only male, white property owners enjoyed full rights.  In the years after the Civil War, equality of opportunity was at best a philosophical concept, but not the reality.  Fully half the adult population was denied the vote until early in the twentieth century just by the accident of having been born female.  Long into the twentieth century the south had its Jim Crow laws, and the west had its Chinese exclusion laws.  Until Brown vs. the Board of Education there was not even a pretense of "equal opportunity" in the realm of education.  Segregation existed not only in southern and border states, but also in many parts of the southwest.

Equal opportunity did not begin to become a part of American reality until 1948 when President Harry S Truman signed executive order 9981, which integrated the armed forces.  It took some time, and some would argue that full equality of opportunity for women in the armed forces is yet to be achieved.  However, the all volunteer United States military now is the institution that looks like most like America.  It also is one of the best fighting forces in the world, giving the lie to those who claim that diversity is antithetical to quality.

Unfortunately, the level of diversity found in the military is not matched in some other institutions of American life.  Many of our colleges and universities, especially our elite public and private colleges and universities, do not look much like America.  The faculties of these elite institutions usually are much more white and male than America as a whole.  Likewise, student diversity at these elite colleges and universities often is significantly less than that of the population as a whole.

For both the faculty and the administrators at these institutions these ethnic imbalances often are a source of great consternation and embarrassment.  Most faculty members and administrators favor programs to increase diversity.  We desperately want to believe that our system is working as we say it should.  We desperately want to see equality of outcome.  But, the reality is that many black and Hispanic students are not as well prepared for college as many of the white and Asian applicants.  This is a reflection of inequalities in primary and secondary education.  Inner city schools, by and large, are not as good at preparing students for college as are suburban schools.

Elite colleges and universities are institutions that historically have catered to the privileged in society.  At one time this meant that male "WASP's" from well-to-do families were much more likely to be admitted than others.  As society changed this bias changed to some extent.  Now "eliteness" has come to mean that they select only the "best, brightest, and most well-prepared applicants.  The effect has been to magnify the role of class in the admissions process.  Now, at many of the nation's elite colleges and universities more than 90% of the students come from families that are at least "comfortable" economically.

In twenty-first century America ethnicity and gender still matter, but not nearly as much as economic status.  This is another place where the myth of equal opportunity collides with reality.  A poor white child from Appalachia is in the same boat as a black child from Watts or a Chicano child from East Los Angeles.  He or she likely will attend elementary and secondary schools that are markedly inferior to those attended by children from middle-class or wealthy homes.  When the time comes to enter college on average she most likely will be less well prepared than students from wealthier areas.

As much as we would like to believe the myths promoted by the organizations that file suits on behalf of disgruntled white students -- the ones that champion "individual rights" and "equal opportunity" -- we know that the playing field is not level.  We know that the kid from Watts will have to work much harder than the kid from Beverly Hills to get into Stanford.  And, we know that the agenda of these organizations is not really aimed at gaining "equal rights", or "equality of opportunity" for all college applicants.  Their agenda more likely is to make sure that the playing field always remains tilted in favor of the privileged.

We know instinctively that the playing field can never be completely level.  But we can feed the engine of social mobility by improving elementary and secondary education in economically distressed areas.  We also can institute programs to help students from poor and lower middle class families gain the sophistication needed to be competitive at elite colleges and universities.  While affirmative action programs based on racial and ethnic preferences are held in low regard by the general public, programs that address economic disadvantages appeal to our basic notions of fairness.  And, we also can feed the engine of social mobility by reversing the trend away from affordable public higher education.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.