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What Affirmative Action Should Look Like

As the issue returns to the Supreme Court, it's worth considering policies that might actually benefit capable but disadvantaged students.

The New York Times, mingling its editorial and news pages as is now usual, has recently published charts depicting the course of affirmative action at several dozen of the nation’s leading colleges. It depicts trends in minority enrollment without any qualitative assessment of such matters as dropouts, remedial programs, or school discipline. It shows essentially flat minority enrollment figures and appears part of a concerted effort, supported by major philanthropic foundations, to influence the Supreme Court’s impending reconsideration of Fisher v. University of Texas.

It is now nearly 50 years since Joseph Califano—U.S. secretary of health, education, and welfare under President Carter—in one of the more fatuous statements accompanying the civil rights movement, observed that since most Harvard Ph.D’s do well in life, one of the solutions to the problems of American blacks was to see that more of them received Harvard Ph.Ds

This approach, broadly speaking, is the approach of the Times articles. It presents difficulties.

Blacks are no longer the only identifiable minority, or even the largest minority. In California, among other places, their political influence and numbers have been eclipsed by those of Hispanics and Asians. Not surprisingly, affirmative action has met an early doom there, the prospect of a war of all against all not being inviting.

Its effect on higher education has been profoundly disruptive. Colleges have been burdened with larger admissions offices, remedial programs, and ethnic studies programs at the cost of instruction in core subjects. The introduction of an indigestible lump of under-prepared and hence unhappy students has even endangered academic freedom.

Unfashionable disadvantaged groups have been overlooked. Appalachian high schools, Catholic schools in Toledo, and Christian schools in the South have not been overrun by Ivy League admissions officers.

Interest-group liberalism does not provide an impulse to academic excellence. As observed by Learned Hand, “the herd is regaining its ancient and evil primacy; civilization is being reversed, for it has consisted of exactly the opposite process of individualization.”

Overlooked also are the admonitions of George Kennan that schools exist to serve intellectual and not social purposes, that of Edward Levi that they cannot become microcosms of society, and that of Bertrand Russell that society as a whole benefits from academic elitism.

The present policy promotes a focus on everything but the knowledge possessed by high school graduates. The subordination of achievement tests as admissions criteria, not duplicated in England and France, has absolved colleges from taking any interest in the curricula of high schools or the education and qualifications of teachers in them.

The beneficiaries of the policy, to the extent that there are any, are the children of a largely bureaucratic black middle class whose offspring will do quite well without artificial aid promoting an entitlement culture not encouraging intense academic effort.

What would an affirmative action program renouncing ethnic categories, and embracing principles of an old-fashioned universalistic liberalism, look like?

It, like the National Merit Scholarship program and the New York State Regents’ Scholarships, would reward students and their parents for demonstrated achievement in high school.

It would provide paths to residential higher education for those performing well in post-high-school distance learning programs such as the MOOG programs offered by consortia of American universities, the courses offered by University of Maryland-University College once limited to our military abroad, those offered by the Open University in England, the creation of which Prime Minister Harold Wilson once rightly regarded as his proudest achievement, and those offered by UNISA in South Africa, once the world’s largest correspondence school university and the alma mater of many of the Robben Island prisoners who made up Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet.

It should reserve substantial parts of upper classes for students doing well at community colleges and in the military.

It should provide facilities for mature female undergraduates, as is done at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge and facilities for child care, in recognition of the fact that such students are apt to be highly motivated.

It should offer early career or mid-career enrollment to persons without a college background who have proven themselves in business, government, ot the military, on the pattern of the Nieman Fellowships for journalists at Harvard and the Wolfson Course and Pew and Press Fellowships at Cambridge.

Such opportunities, if publicized well, should produce minority enrollments equal to those elicited by the present corrupt system, with lower dropout rates and no costs for remediation. They reward the deserving rather than the undeserving and the mature rather than the immature. They appropriately aspire not to a perfectly equal society, but to an open one.

Such programs will not cure the problems of a black underclass in the gang and drug culture of our inner cities. What they need are works programs like the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps, uncontroversial when it was ended by wartime labor demands, and directed at its inception by General George Marshall, who made his reputation there. Also needed is drastic revision of the drug war, and a larger and more adequately incentivized Army, so as to  avoid the repeated redeployments into war zones that have produced a massive suicide rate among recent veterans. None of these measures are within the means of higher education institutions, however committed. They should stick to their proper business.

George Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author of the forthcoming America’s Political Inventors (Bloomsbury, 2019) among other works.

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