2014-12-16 – A few days ago, I narrowly escaped an argument on affirmative action in education. It was a close call.
The truth is, I wasn’t really prepared for that argument. I haven’t thought about affirmative action for a number of years. Even when my boys were “victims” of “reverse discrimination,” I didn’t think much about it. They got into good schools and rejection letters they got were soon history. But I’ve thought about it now and I’ve surprised myself. My new views on the subject are different from the weak arguments I used to make.
First, let me tell you about my old line. It said basically that resistance to affirmative action programs was just white privilege. It was the idea of feeling deprived when 100 percent of the admissions no longer automatically went to whites.
I still believe this, but I never really had the answer for my boys when someone they knew got the fat envelope and they got the skinny envelope and they knew that their grades and scores were better than the other kid—who just happened to be black. I was just able to duck this question because my boys got fat envelopes from other schools and have gone on to happy and successful college careers.
This is not a trivial problem. Some kids are not as fortunate as my boys were.
I have an answer to this problem now. It has to do with the nature of education.
We have created a system of false scarcity. And to support that, we have a peculiar system that awards scarce admissions to kids who have demonstrated that they have less of a need for education than other kids.
Yes, you heard me right.
Let’s put this into another context. Let’s say that we’re talking about food rather than education. If we had the same system for distributing food as we have for distributing college education, here’s what it would be like:
Before you could go to the grocery store, you would take a four hour exam to determine if you are hungry. The less hungry you are, the higher the score. You’d take your score to the grocery store. When you got there you’d find thousands of people lined up clutching their no-hunger scores because, instead of the thousand loaves of bread we have on our shelves today, there would only be 20. Folks who had the highest no-hunger scores would go to the head of the line and get the 20 loaves. Everyone else would be turned away.
Then someone would come along and institute affirmative action grocery shopping. Some of the top 20 would get bumped, and some of the shoppers in the second 20 would get a chance. It would be unfair. Yet, except for the shoppers in the top 40, it would all be the same. Twenty would get in. Thousands would be turned away.
Knowledge isn’t scarce. When I learn biology, I don’t use it up. When I learn statistics, I don’t use it up. When I learn literature, I don’t use it up. There’s still just as much biology, statistics, and literature than there was before. In fact, you could probably argue that there’s more biology, statistics, and literature after I learned them than there was before.
So why do we treat knowledge as a scarce resource?
Part of it is that teachers are scarce. But the more people who learn these things, the more people are qualified to teach them. It’s a self-curing problem.
The reason we treat knowledge as a scarce resource is that we use the education system as a way to sort people. Those who get an education get more education. And those who have more education get top jobs. It’s a filter. It’s a way to keep undesirables from climbing the ladder.
If it really were a matter of educating people, no one would care about affirmative action. The more the merrier. The ideal candidate would be anyone with a hunger for knowledge.
But “Education” is more than that. Education is a tool for keeping some people from competing effectively for jobs and other goods that are scarce.
The odd thing about this all is that college graduates are in pretty universal agreement that their college education did not prepare them for the world of work. We get that on the job. And it certainly does not prepare people to be happy and contributing members of their communities. I’m not sure we get that anywhere. Maybe from life.