Monday, February 05, 2007

Affirmative Action Attacks

The latest City Journal includes one of the usual attacks on affirmative action. All of these attacks are flawed by the unproved (and somewhat paradoxical) assumption that if only we sent more black and Hispanic students to less prestigious colleges where dropout rates are higher, their dropout rates would decline. But I'm particularly bothered by this section of the article:

"Renowned Berkeley philosophy professor John Searle, who judges affirmative action 'a disaster,' recounts that 'they admitted people who could barely read.' The downward trajectory of those students was inevitable, Searle says. 'You’d be delighted to find that your introductory philosophy class looked like the United Nations, but that salt-and-pepper effect was lost after six to eight weeks,' he recalls. 'There was a huge dropout rate of affirmative-action admits in my classes by mid-terms. No one had taught them the need to go to class. So we started introducing BS majors, in an effort to make the university ready for them, rather than making them ready for the university.' Searle recalls a black studies class before his that was 'as segregated as Mississippi in the 1950s.' One day, Searle recounts, the professor had written on the blackboard that a particular tribe in Africa 'wore colorful clothing.'”

Somehow, I doubt that a somewhat lower SAT score means that the students can barely read. But I also wonder, how does Searle know who the "affirmative-action admits" in his classes were? Or is he assuming that all black and brown people are admitted based on affirmative action?

Searle is also historically wrong: black studies is not a BS major (unlike, say, Public Relations, which is), and it was started because of the historic racism in academic work, not because academics wanted a way to give passing grades to black students. The apparent refusal of white students to take these black studies classes at Berkeley is disturbing, since at most universities, black studies classes may be among the most diverse. The fact that an innocuous comment about colorful clothing is denounced by Searle is also worrisome. Exactly what does this one line, apparently true, mean? Does Searle mean to say that an entire field of study should be abolished because he once found a comment about colorful clothing on a blackboard? Would he say the same thing if he found some trivial comment on a philosophy professor's blackboard?

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