A Firm Action

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:13

    celebrity is one example of this, and so is an attitude to affirmative action, which regards elite slots at the top as the goal of whatever steps are taken to influence the process of competition in school, athletics, the arts, wherever.

    The Supreme Court has made it clear that it is not fair for people to get advantages or disadvantages just because of their skin color or sex or religion or any other crude diagnostic. The result has been especially clear for universities, which had for years engaged in category-gerrymandering to boost their populations of groups otherwise not making it. Especially in the elite private universities, fierce recruitment of capable candidates to cosmeticize the class picture has resulted in such perversities as a 1999 set-aside railway car for prized affirmative students from New York to fetch them to Rhode Island in a congenial frame of mind to sign right up. In this tiny spotlit circle of privilege, there will continue to be a succession of qualified and impressive individuals who will be invited to share in the wealth of reputation, educational quality and endowed treasure of institutions enjoying self-righteous moral pride in a process of social change, even if it's only a dozen or 100 people at a time.

    However, the much more interesting, and in the long run important, activity is among the state universities, who have no choice but to obey the newly specified law of the land. Thus far, the emphasis on the changes brought about by the new practices has focused on how many members of which groups are enrolled in which universities compared with how many were before, when it was possible to finagle admissions on earnest affirmative grounds. At the University of Texas, three years after Old Affirmative Action was ruled out, New Affirmative Action has resulted in as many minority students as before. The reason is that the university now admits, and has to, students who reach the top 10 percent of the graduating class of any public high school. The result is that students in rural, poor and heretofore hopeless situations now have realistic chances to enter an excellent university. The very good students are in fact certain to do so. An unbroken line of ethical commitment between the community and its students at all levels of the education process no longer favors the expensively educated and tutored children of IPO brokers and real estate heiresses in the lush suburbs surrounding Dallas and Houston.

    This is a striking and important development. It is bound to have influential and constructive implications for the elementary and secondary schools from which any candidates for admission must come. There seems little question it will rejuvenate their faculties, focus the parents and animate ambitious students with the real prospect of success. And it will have another positive impact too, very far-reaching and healthy, which will be to focus attention on how well students do in their own real home communities among students in their immediate purview, not on machine-graded College Board tests ranged on a national curve. If anything will, this kind of admission system will begin to erode the grim and erosive impact of a set of national hurdles that has turned too many schools and teachers into trainers for impersonal tests, rather than energizing forces amid groups of real students living in real places and cooperating and competing with each other in clear and knowable ways. It will produce transparency in the class room. It is likely to be the most important long-range consequence of New Affirmative Action involving the most people in the most practical way.

    To be sure, we may have still to endure the annual New York Times Magazine profile of the effervescently fabulous minority-of-the-year student in her first thrilling month at Harvard. But this kind of People role-model nonsense will shrivel in importance compared with the large numbers of unpublicized human beings taking their rightful places in higher education because they live in a decent place committed to equity, not because of well-meaning management by sentimental educational concernocrats.

    There are already two other major consequences of New Affirmative Action. The first is that it is clear that not much improvement will occur unless high schools improve, which must inevitably lead to greater attention to parts of the school system that bear the same relationship to good education as a Calcutta slum to Park Avenue. Under the old system, the individual student had to bear the failure of poor preparation because of the shibboleth that the very gifted individual could triumph no matter what. Now, the whole school will have to observe how many of its students succeed in higher education, and since there are hardly any basic differences in competence between one large group of students and another, the blame for failure will have to fall where it always belonged: not on individual students but on the facilities the adults of their state have provided them.

    And the second is that universities that move to the system will themselves have to improve their reception for students who are unlikely to have the benefit of the social and educational advantages most students have heretofore brought to the dormitory table. This is no small matter, because the better the university the less likely it is equipped, tonally and organizationally, to do remedial makeup well. But it will have to learn, and there are robust ways to speed the process.

    Years ago I taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and was part of a small committee appointed by a new dean to produce a fundamental rethinking of the program of the Faculty of Arts. That university had many students who hailed from affluent Vancouver and other Canadian cities, but also many capable ones from mining towns, fishing villages, logging areas and rural areas who were unfamiliar with the cultural lore and lacked many of the skills luckier students had.

    I discovered that the university would admit many ill-equipped students, and expected many if not most of them to fail. In fact, when a student's final graduating grade was fixed, the freshman year was not even counted. So we set in motion a wholly different system on an experimental basis (for up to 10 percent of the incoming class). Students would take only two of five regular courses?such as the introductory courses in history or economics or political science?with as many as 400 students each. But then each would also be part of three different seminars of not more than 20 students each: Man and Society, Man and Communication, Man and Thought. Professors volunteered to teach in this program, which was consciously designed to offer all students three social communities and intellectual homes. We hoped and expected it would provide an educationally and socially comfortable transition from the mining town to the calculus class. It did. The second year, the enrollment limit was raised to 20 percent, and it was subscribed immediately. Then it went to 30 percent, where it was capped. But the impact on the program overall was there, the new emphasis was noted. We had built A Sturdy Bridge to Sophomore Year.

    Of course the test of all the new arrangements under development will not be how many students of what skin pigment or food taste or costume or deity are admitted, but how many graduate. And what happens then. Meanwhile, the University of Texas initiative, and similar ones in California and Florida, have shown a way out of the bitter and divisive struggles in the campaign for diversity. And a surprisingly clear, easy, morally crisp way out it seems, so far, one based on inclusion of everyone in the same system, whatever their origin and their home base.

    It will be difficult to forget the old battles over Old Affirmative Action, because many honorable warriors still hold their ground, and many will claim that just one more step, one more adjustment, will at last create the perfection they can see in the future. Warriors on the other side will want to say they disdain the poisonous struggle altogether and they want to do nothing but their work. However, when all of them poke their heads out of the trenches, they will see that the landscape has changed and the battle has become a different wholesome challenge. The rule of law has begun to cleanse an anguished matter. Issues of educational fairness now have to be faced by educators themselves, not politicians.