A New Affirmative Action

A New Affirmative Action – George Liebmann
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A New Affirmative Action
What would an action program renouncing ethniccategories and embracing individualistic liberalismlook like?
About a year ago, a major newspaper, mingling itseditorial and news pages as is now usual, published chartsshowing flat Black enrollment at a number of majoruniversities in an effort to influence the then-pending Supreme Courtaffirmative action litigation. There was no qualitative assessmentincluding such matters as dropouts, remedial programs, or schooldiscipline. The approach was reminiscent of that once voiced by formerHealth, Education, and Welfare Secretary Joseph Califano: that sinceHarvard PhDs do well, American Blacks would be aided if more of themwere to receive Harvard PhDs.
OCTOBER 24, 2023
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This approach is now seen to have failed. The Black population is nowequaled or eclipsed in many places by the numbers of Hispanics andAsians. Intermarriage, which Tocqueville regarded as the index of equalityin society, has increased, requiring something in the nature of aNuremberg law to accurately bestow racial preferences, which in any caseflowed disproportionately to the professional classes and West Indian andother immigrants. A visibly failed and arbitrary program continued to befueled by virtue-signaling among lawyers and journalists.
Colleges were burdened with large remedial programs. Legal departmentsand admissions and discipline offices consumed funds that once wouldhave been devoted to core subjects. Administrators grew to out-numberprofessors. The introduction of a lump of under-prepared and henceunhappy students, as at Columbia and Yale in 1968, even contributed toriots, and academic freedom has been endangered since.
Moreover, unfashionable disadvantaged groups have not benefitted at all.Appalachian high schools, Catholic schools in the Rust Belt, and Christianschools in the South have not been favored by Ivy League admissionsofficers.
Interest-group liberalism does not provide an impulse to academicexcellence. As observed by Judge Learned Hand, “The herd is regaining itsancient and evil primacy; civilization is being reversed, for it has consistedof exactly the opposite process of individualization.” Hand made himselfunpopular in 1958 by declaring that the only tenable basis for thedesegregation decisions was a ban on racial classifications. After 65 yearsof travail and tribulations, the Supreme Court has taken his point.
Administrators of the vanishing affirmative action dispensation haveoverlooked the admonitions of George Kennan that schools exist to serveintellectual and not social purposes, those of Edward Levi thatuniversities cannot become microcosms of society, and those of BertrandRussell that society as a whole benefits from academic elitism.
Recent and proposed admissions policies promote a focus on everythingbut the knowledge that ought to be possessed by high school graduates, an
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approach not duplicated in Great Britain and France, with their A-levelsand baccalaureate examinations. This has absolved colleges from takingany interest in the curricula of high schools or the education andqualifications of teachers in them. As a result, American high schools andcolleges produce too few science graduates, and scientific jobs are eitherbestowed on recent, frequently short-term, immigrants or are outsourcedto foreign countries.
Nevertheless, there are certainly underprivileged people in our society—some of them racial or ethnic minorities, others not—who could greatlybenefit from policies designed to elevate their educational and economicattainment without abandoning merit. What would an action programrenouncing ethnic categories and embracing individualistic liberalismlook like?
First, like the National Merit Scholarship program and the one-time NewYork State Regents’ Scholarships, it would reward demonstratedachievement in high school. The British and French A-Level andBaccalaureate examinations do this. Once upon a time, Americanuniversities set their own entrance examinations. Now that few requiresubmission of the College Board achievement tests in subject matter, anda reduced number require SAT tests (really tests of elementary schoolskills), the only incentive to subject matter excellence left is the CollegeBoard Advanced Placement examinations. As the recent controversy inFlorida indicates, even some of these have been corrupted and politicized.Any college that wants to be thought of as a serious institution preparinggraduates for teaching, public life, or the sciences should use these as theprincipal criteria for admission.
Second, it would provide paths to residential higher education for thoseperforming well in post-high-school distance learning programs, likeMOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) programs offered by MIT and otherAmerican universities, the courses offered by the University of Maryland-University College once limited to Americans abroad, and the similarprograms of the Open University in Great Britain and UNISA in SouthAfrica. The Open University was rightly regarded by the otherwiselackluster Prime Minister Harold Wilson as his most notable achievementin office. UNISA educated most of the Robben Island prisoners who made
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up Nelson Mandela’s first cabinet. Distance learning is useful not only forprisoners but for housewives and career-changers who are thereby sparedthe need to devote many hours a week commuting to and fromcommunity colleges. Successful programs include a week or two a year ofintensive residential study to motivate and discipline students and givethem a sense of fellow-feeling. Yet, as
a recent study in Marylanddemonstrated
, teachers’ unions fought tooth and nail against thefacilitation of distance learning, by requiring cumbersome approval ofeach local course by union-controlled state agencies, leaving Americanschools totally unprepared for the COVID epidemic.
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These opportunities, if well publicized, should produceminority enrollments similar to those elicited by thepresent corrupt system, with lower dropout rates, no costsfor remediation, and fewer discipline problems.
Third, a reasonable action plan should reserve substantial parts of upperclasses for students doing well at community colleges and the military.These sources of recruitment have been almost totally neglected by IvyLeague and other admissions officers, an exception being a small programfor the military instituted by the late Dartmouth President James Wright.Since today’s military is significantly recruited from high school dropoutsand others lacking higher education, such programs would be animportant source of social mobility. The generation of post-World War IIstudents admitted under the G.I. Bill brought an atmosphere of greatermaturity to American colleges, which has been lost as the adequacy ofmilitary educational stipends has been allowed to wither.
Fourth, universities should provide facilities, including child carefacilities, for mature female undergraduates, as at Lucy Cavendish College,Cambridge in recognition of the fact that such students are apt to behighly motivated, and provide a good example of academic commitmentto other students. The “sexual revolution” brought on an unexpectedexplosion in unwed motherhood, to the point where 40% of new birthsand 70% of births among Blacks involve fatherless families. What wasonce an exceptional circumstance involving 4% of births is now a moreusual one, yet colleges have done little or nothing to assist those damagedby the new dispensation, who are not members of the academic andprofessional classes visible to them.
Finally, a merit-based plan should encourage early career or mid-careerenrollment to persons without a college background who have proventhemselves in business, government, or the military, on the pattern of theNieman Fellowships for journalists at Harvard and the Pew and PressFellowships in England. Mid-career education has been neglected in theUnited States. Even the military “war colleges” have been allowed towither; the Foreign Service Institute offers only rudimentary and short-
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term language programs. Senator Robert Taft’s proposal for anIntelligence Reserve Corps based on something like the World War II NavySchool for Oriental Languages has not found favor. In consequence,American businesses are disadvantaged in competing for new markets inBrazil and ex-Portuguese Africa, in the Far East, and in Central Asia.
These opportunities, if well publicized, should produce minorityenrollments similar to those elicited by the present corrupt system, withlower dropout rates, no costs for remediation, and fewer disciplineproblems. They reward the deserving rather than the undeserving, themature rather than the immature, and aspire not to a perfectly equalsociety, but to an open one.
The emotional fuel for “affirmative action” was the plight of a Blackunderclass in our large cities, who benefitted not at all from it. What theyneed are work programs like the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps,uncontroversial when it was ended by wartime labor demands. Alsoneeded is a larger and more incentivized army so as to avoid the repeatedre-deployments into war zones that have produced a massive suicide rateamong recent veterans. An inner-city generation needs to be shownportions of the nation far removed from the two or three blocks intowhich they have been confined while growing up, and needs to beintroduced to the disciplines provided by regular hours, exercise, showers,and alarm clocks.
Inner-city and other high school dropouts deserve help throughgovernment-sponsored work programs like the CCC and short-termresidential vocational courses like those once offered by HamptonInstitute and Tuskegee Institute (which have since become conventionalfour-year colleges). The last two measures are not within the means ofhigher education institutions, however committed. They should stick totheir proper business.
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George Liebmann is President of the Library Company of the BaltimoreBar and author of various books on law and history, most recently
(Twelve Tables Press, 2013)

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