Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Another Meritocracy Post

So I promise to stay around here, really. and two weekends straight of houseguests. Sigh. Anyway, you wouldn't be getting what you paid for if I didn't weigh in on Ross Douthat's latest round of comments on educational meritocracy. As anyone who's been here long can guess, I don't much agree with Douthat.

First, to his claim that there should be modest preferences for white Christian conservatives from red states: I might well have benefited from such a policy back in the day, so I've got to be careful what I say here. But... I'm not sure why we need affirmative action for such people, when the best evidence we have (the section from the Espenshade book that Douthat cites) indicates that there may actually be discrimination against such applicants. Wouldn't just.... not discriminating... against these people accomplish the same goal, without having to resort to preferences to boost their (our) numbers? And if it's the case (as I suspect in my gut it is) not that there's active discrimination against these people, but merely that the "soft factors" system works against them, shouldn't we then scale back the importance of "soft factors" for everyone?

Second, I'm more skeptical than Douthat that they/we actually bring much unique in the way of intellectual "diversity" to elite campuses. I mean, I just don't see what authentic red staters have to bring to the table that conservative or libertarian kids from more traditional blue state backgrounds don't. If the point of this exercise is to increase intellectual or political diversity, wouldn't it make sense for these schools to look directly for viewpoint diversity? I suppose Douthat's argument that there's some nexus of viewpoint diversity plus experential diversity that makes red state kids qualitatively more interesting, but I'm not sure I quite see how it works. While I lack hard empirical data, I suspect that most of the red state meritocrats come from more or less Archerist families. Rich Archerist or poor Archerist, red or blue state Archerist, we may well have more in common with each other than we do with the non-Archerists in our midst.

Third, although Douthat ultimately knocks down his own "it's better for the country if the red state meritocrats stay home" argument, I'd like to take a couple extra whacks at it anyway. One, he misses the fundamentally important point that meritocrats who leave are likely to grow up far more incandescent than those who don't. I am of course borrowing the concept from Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own, a sufficiently rich and complex essay that I cannot summarize it justly in this tiny blog post. Perhaps it is easier to describe incandescence by explaining why Charlotte Bronte lacked it, in Woolf's words: "one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?" Woolf was writing about people whose ambitions were checked by gender, not by poverty or geographic isolation, and the writers about whom Woolf wrote of course faced more serious obstacles than the aspiring public intellectual types whom Douthat is discussing. But I fear that talented people whose ambitions are checked for the latter reason are likely, like Bronte, to produce writings marked by "an acidity which is the result of oppression, a buried suffering smouldering beneath her passion, a rancour which contracts those books, splendid as they are, with a spasm of pain." Writing marked by the latter flaw can't be good for national discourse.

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