As of this writing, another match was lit near the powder keg of our society: Asian Americans and entrance into the most selective private universities. Now, I went to the University of California, Irvine which as high as seventy percent non-white. Diversity is a societal good, and discrimination – not so much. The Asian-American students who are suing for an end to race-based preferences at Harvard University have a point to make, namely, that when it comes to education, the country should be purely a meritocracy. Is it discrimination when private colleges and universities such as Harvard have a quota for the maximum number of Asian-Americans they admit each year? Some considerations around affirmative action, distributive justice, and fairness are considered. Harvard’s history of anti-Semitism must be considered as well.
Typically, anything the Trump Administration supports, I am highly, highly skeptical of. I assume that some nefarious, political, or grossly capitalistic motive lurks behind whatever Trump and his goons value. But I am trying to keep an open mind and realize that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Here is the gist.
“In a filing Thursday in a Massachusetts federal court, Justice Department lawyers said Harvard illegally tries to “racially balance” its students, including using subjective personality ratings that give Asian Americans with otherwise stellar applications lower scores.” The writer noted that the Justice Department isn’t technically involved; it is a group named Students for Fair Admissions. This group of Asian-Americans tried and failed to cause the University of Texas to discard race as an admission consideration.
Families are scared, and for good reason. Social mobility has stalled. The global playing field is getting ever more competitive. The middle class is hanging on by its fingernails, and the upper middle class seems harder than ever to reach. The future, since 2008, has looked more daunting, especially for young people, than at any other time in memory.
I believe hard work is a virtue. It is a sad day when an Asian-American student is denied entry into a college or university. I will go on to show that this is really not the case at hand, though. It is more about elitism than fairness. Here is a quote from a man whom I would love to hear from on this question:
“The founders [of the United States] talked about this virtue constantly, using the eighteenth-century construction, industry. To them, industry signified a cluster of qualities that had motivated the Revolution in the first place—a desire not just to be free to speak one’s mind, to practice religion as one saw fit, and to be taxed only with representation, but the bone-deep American assumption that life is to be spent getting ahead through hard work, making a better life for oneself and one’s children. …If just one American virtue may be said to be defining, industriousness is probably it.”
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson shared the view that education was a way to ensure that the new Republic would be a place of merit, where birth, the bloodlines, and hereditary privilege would not count for much. Franklin was a self-made man, and throughout his life he extolled the virtues of those who had risen through hard work, talent, and skill.
Harvard has some great things going for it. Being liberal, and highly educated, and a Harvard Extension student, I tend to see that having 75% of the students at elite institutions be Asian-American, Indian-American, of Middle-Eastern descent, and to a much lesser degree Europeans, African-American, and Hispanic is not a great benefit to the institution or to society.
This is a different situation the prototypical “affirmative action” issue facing this society: namely, should ethnic minorities (primarily of course blacks and Hispanics) be given preferential treatment in university admissions, jobs, etc. to make up for centuries of white supremacy and discrimination.
I mean to say that first and especially second-generation Asian-Americans (and of course foreign students) are highly motivated and reinforced to put almost all other matters second to studying. Thus, they tend to have good grades and stellar entrance exams. It doesn’t benefit society to have 40-80% of the students in a public or private university be of one particular race. That goes for both Caucasians and Asians.
Back to Harvard. True, it generally is a very positive institution. However, it does have a history of racial discrimination. If you were Jewish up until the late 20th century, you faced quotas; the enlightened administrators believed that of course WASPs were better, and even if they were not so benighted, the fact was that a school with 30-40% Jews was not going to be great for attracting wealthy WASPs and their 18-year-old children (mostly males, right?).
For all this time, through all the different roles I have occupied in my career, my deepest belief has remained unchanged: that a college or university is not just a place for the transmission of knowledge but a forum for the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful but critical reading of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination that we have inherited from the past.
So, when Harvard and other elite schools downgrade Asian-American and foreign applicants because of their race or ethnicity, it kinda has a stench. Harvard in particular is no angel in this regard. This school lends some credence to the complaint from those on the Right that liberally-minded and designed institutions can be “elitist”. Don’t get me started on the idea that everything in society should be exactly equal; for example, this author complains about the fact that many humanities professors are politically liberal. Complaining that education is associated with liberalism is mostly just white privilege, and it’s ugly.
So, should a private university be able to discriminate based on race?
I am going to just go ahead and say that public colleges and universities should not be in the business of deciding which races and how many of each qualify for education; obviously the 2,500+ public schools need to be educating young adults, period. They should accept all comers who qualify. And it should be free, or at least tuition for humanities majors should be reimbursed within five years of working in one’s field.
As for private institutions, well, I see that a) they should have some say in how their student body is constituted; b) diversity is good; c) discrimination is generally bad.
A) I think it’s fair to say, hey, if you’re not discriminating against a minority group because you want more whites, then it’s probably okay. I mean, if Harvard wants to have 50% Caucasians, I don’t have a problem with that. If they were to direct their admissions officers to engage in discrimination along the lines of “We only want 3% Jews, maximum” or “Let’s keep Asian Americans to 5%”, then that seems bunk. But being private, they should have some reasonable say. They should, of course, declare their admissions criteria and stick to them.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.
B) Diversity is a social good. If there is a school that is 100% Christian, I say, don’t go there. If there is a school that is 89% white, I say skip it. The state of Maine is the least-ethnically-diverse state in the country. That’s just how it is. The fact is, they have had some racism among the highest offices in the state, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there. The point is, if you want to live there, move there; if you feel more comfortable in California, go there. But at a university, the point is (in part) to impart to the young some important lessons that they as citizens should know. Being in a homogenous environment just ain’t gonna cut it anymore.
C) Institutions such as the military, professional sports leagues, and colleges and universities have tended to have a history of white supremacy, but those days should be pretty much behind us now. I can recall a decade or two ago that Tiger Woods – Tiger Woods – was rejected for membership in an exclusive and completely white country club. It was a real head-shaker. Movies make it very clear that discrimination, in most contexts, is bad and harmful. Why women should have to work extra hard just to have what men do is not what values of the wise is about (see Katherine Johnson).
In the case of Asian Americans wanting to, in effect, say discrimination is wrong, I can see where they are coming from. As John Rawls noted, basic liberties take priority over welfare of society as a whole. He called this “The right before the good.”
I think it is reasonable to say that private colleges and universities cannot engage in discrimination when it comes to admissions up to the 50% level. That is, no one ethnicity or race should dominate a school. It subverts fairness in a way, if you think about it: should society be blindfolded to values such as inclusiveness, social justice, etc.? It would be an overcorrection, if you will, to have a history of white supremacy followed by institutions that choose only test scores as entrance requirements. We needn’t go that far as a society, I don’t think. If a university has 40% “ethnic minority” composition, and you’re Asian-American, go ahead and apply. If it has 50%, well, there are 3,000 other colleges and universities.
As with Kant, John Rawls’s goal is the preservation of freedom from the compulsory will of another. Kant’s categorical imperative supports what Rawls calls the difference principle: Social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged before they improve the condition of the more advantaged.
We as a society should eschew the idea that the only way to get a high-paying job is to go to Harvard, Princeton, or Chicago. That is a bizarre kind of hyper-meritocracy, one that William Deresiewicz complains about in his interesting book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite.
Asians and every other ethnic minority and religious group in this country should have access to good education. Tiger moms need to calm down and realize that there are more important things than raising a 25-year-old who drives a Ferrari to his Silicon Valley job. There is nothing humanistic and enlightened about that. I don’t approve of elitism when it refers to “I’m good and in fact better than you.” I do believe that education and moral merit are worthy of elite characterization, but it’s just a sticker, not a pass to get into the V.I.P. section of life.
If we must engage in affirmative action, why not make it based on social class. I would much rather let the chips fall where they may if kids from the lowest social classes got a leg up on society’s dime. Historian Eric Alterman puts it this way: “Looking at class rather than race is not only far more politically palatable than reverse racial discrimination, it brings us closer to the nub of the problem. According to a study conducted in 2003-4 by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, 76 percent of predominantly minority schools were high poverty, compared with only 15 percent of predominantly white schools.”
Moral desert is an interesting idea, you might want to read about why it is that students aren’t morally deserving of an education that considers them superior to all others. One’s rights aren’t violated if you don’t get to go to Harvard. Not everyone deserves a trophy. It’s a matter of distributive justice. Consider the phenomenon of legacy admissions.
I will present a few quotations about discrimination, justice, and social goods. I admit, this first one makes me question whether or not my views I expounded here are in fact correct:
If we are going to make the American dream a reality, we are challenged to work in an action program to get rid of the last vestiges of segregation and discrimination. This problem isn’t going to solve itself, however much people tell us this. History is the long story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges without strong resistance, and they seldom do it voluntarily. And so if the American dream is to be a reality, we must work to make it a reality and realize the urgency of the moment.
…Aristotle reminds us that all theories of distributive justice discriminate. The question is: Which discriminations are just? And the answer depends on the purpose of the activity in question.
Across the entire University of California system, within five years of graduating, students from low-income families drew higher average salaries than both of their parents combined. Disadvantaged students who attend elite campuses outside California typically fare even better. Unfortunately, they are very few in number. Less than 1 percent of children from the bottom fifth of the income barrel go to an upper-echelon university. Indeed, more than half of the kids from America’s lowest economic rungs don’t attend any college. It should not be the case that my campus enrolls more Pell Grant students than does the entire Ivy League combined.
A university is what a college becomes when the faculty loses interest in the students.
Prestigious colleges and universities have never admitted students solely on the basis of grades and test scores. Once a certain threshold is achieved, for much of their history colleges gave “extra points” to certain students, because their family members were alums, because a student excelled at a niche sport, because their wealthy parents made a significant donation or because they hailed from an underrepresented state. ~ Mallory Duncan
Wouldn’t it make more sense to level the playing field when it can really do some good and give everybody the same opportunities at the beginning of the game instead of midway through [as in affirmative action]? Christ, have you taken a look at an inner city public school lately? Why not take all the time, money, and effort that’s being misused on filling employment and university quotas and put them into ensuring that every little tadpole out there gets to make the same-size splash in the job pond?
The university is the only institution in Western society whose business it is to search for and transmit truth regardless of all competing or conflicting pressures and demands….
Is there a principled distinction between the use of race to exclude people in the segregationist South and the use of race to include people in present-day affirmative action?
By undercutting consideration of race in college admissions, President Trump is again appealing to white resentment of the “privilege” associated with being a minority in America. This resentment has a root cause — lower social mobility here than in most other wealthy countries. To address this problem less cynically, we should explicitly include a second dimension to our affirmative action efforts, based on economic status.
African-Americans had suffered under a regime in which they received far less than their fair share of the basic goods of life. This was a historical injustice that could be repaired only by a compensatory transfer of wealth and opportunities large enough to give the victims of discrimination the resources they needed to take meaningful advantage of their newly won legal protections.
The use of race-based affirmative action in higher education has given rise to hundreds of books and law review articles, numerous court decisions, and several state initiatives to ban the practice. However, surprisingly little has been said or written or done to challenge a larger, longstanding “affirmative action” program that tends to benefit wealthy whites: legacy preferences for the children of alumni. ~ Richard D. Kahlenberg
discrimination, affirmative action, distributive justice, fairness, college admissions