Affirmative Action Revisited (Again)

This will be brief.  The Supreme Court is set to hear another case about affirmative action in education.  A Texas student was not accepted for the University of Texas and has claimed that the only difference between her and other students who did get in is her skin color—she’s white.

Now, by all accounts, she is an excellent student.  According to UT, though, she wasn’t good enough.  They use two metrics to select enrollees—academic scores and what they call “personal achievement” indices, which include extracurricular activities and an essay which is supposed to reveal leadership potential and other qualities that can’t be scored on a test.  UT claimed her academics just weren’t good enough.

I don’t know the particulars of her case, but one thing that always seems to be left out of reports about this sort of thing is any mention of the value of “higher education.”

To put it simply, if the entire worth of a college education was about academics—what you learn in the classroom, how well you learn it, and how that fits you for life after schooling—then the critics of affirmative action are absolutely right.  The best qualified students should always have first dibs on places in good colleges and universities.  Smarts should count above all else.  If you’re a straight A student with an I.Q. through the ceiling, there should be no reason to bar you.  Racial quotas would in that case be pointless, because the only thing that would matter is a provable command of knowledge and the capacity to apply it.

What never gets mentioned—and which I suspect everyone knows—is that the value of a college degree has almost nothing to do with that.  Maybe at one time it did, but no longer.

What that degree gets you is entreé.  It’s the Old School Tie, the Secret Password, the Letter of Introduction, the Inside Edge, and has nothing to do with how smart or knowledgeable you may be.  That degree gets you preferred treatment in the game of life.

At least, it used to.  Currently, not so much, although it still provides an edge in the job market.

In that case, affirmative action is absolutely necessary, because businesses will use any basis to cull applicants, and a degree from a good college or university is an easy one.

If you can’t get into the school in the first place, you are starting out in second or third place, and if you can’t get in because of ethnicity, well…

Yes, it’s more complicated than that, especially today, but it is not irrelevant as the critics of affirmative action claim.  Because these schools do not admit only the best.  There are a lot of legacy enrollments, students who get in because they have an alumni card to play, and others who get bought in because their families are rich and maybe endow the school.  Academics have little to do with that and let us not even begin to talk about athletic scholarships that in many instances are even more divorced from intellectual ability.

(I have no doubt that a significant majority of students in any college are there by virtue of ability.  We aren’t talking about the middle 70% but the people who bookend those students—the privileged and the underprivileged.)

So.  If the game were all about what you do in the classroom, then I agree, affirmative action serves no useful purpose (after all, if it were all about the brains, skin color would be just as irrelevant as any other non-academic factor).  But since we all know—even if we won’t actually talk about it—that it is about prestige and a kind of club membership, then affirmative action is absolutely necessary.

You might wonder how I can say these things about our wonderful higher education system.  I’m glad you asked.

Personal experience.  I’ve worked with, worked for, and had working for me a number of college-degreed people.  I never found them to be superior, in the fields in which I worked, than someone trained on-the-job, as it were—in fact, all of them, without exception, required on-the-job training since their much-ballyhooed degrees had not taught them what they needed in order to actually work in their fields—and in several instances I found them below acceptable ability.  And arrogant about it.  (“I have a B.A. from SmartAss U!  What do you mean I don’t qualify?”)

(What college and university provide is a place and an opportunity to learn.  For the dedicated scholar, it is one of the most ideal environments in which to expand knowledge and interact with people who can help you hone your intellect.  But to society, that seems not to be the important thing.  People who attend and take no degree are seen somehow as failures.  It’s the degree, because everyone implicitly knows that this is the magic key and what you actually know has no intrinsic value to anyone else until it manifests as positive contribution.  You don’t get to show that without the job and you all-too-often don’t get the job without the ticket.  It’s not how smart you are but how smart other people say you are.)

Human history can be tracked in many ways, by many trends and institutions.  Club Membership has always been a preferred method of keeping the so-called Masses out of the halls of privilege.  Brains rarely had anything to do with membership.  University affiliation is just one of those ways to keep “undesirables” out.  It has been used to keep women out, keep minorities out, keep the “lower orders” out.  Heaven forbid some kid from a slum demonstrate higher intelligence and better grasp of the material than the spit-polished scion of an old money family!  Why, next you’ll be advocating (gasp) democracy!