~ Archive for June 24, 2003 ~

A bit of dissent from the idea that the Fortune 500 should inherit the Earth


An article in this month’s Orion discusses some of the issues raised in Saturday’s posting regarding the transfer of public assets into private hands.

Universities: Training America’s youth to be racist


A grim day in the Supreme Court.  Libraries can filter out porn sites, which means that philip.greenspun.com won’t be accessible (there are a few nude pix on it but the filtering companies generally block the whole site).  Judging a man (or woman) by the color of his skin gets Supreme Court blessing as well.

My personal primary argument against affirmative action at universities was never voiced during the debate so I’ll present it here.

Background:  Getting into a selective university is partly a consequence of high IQ and fortunate preparation but a lot of doing well at all levels of school is a question of how willing a student is to accept authority blindly.  For example, I was amazed last semester when tutoring 6.002 (intro circuit theory).  My friend Gerry delivered several lectures on the response of linear systems to complex exponentials.  I said “Gerry you have to motivate this by telling the students that any real-world signal can be represented as a sum of complex exponentials.  Otherwise, why would they care?”  Gerry refused to take even 30 seconds out of his lecture time to explain why what he was teaching was relevant.  I waited for the MIT sophomores to tune out.  They never did!  They paid attention, took notes, did the problem sets, etc., even though they had no idea what any of the stuff was good for.  Then it hit me:  high school teachers don’t always motivate the material either, MIT only accepts students who did well in high school, ergo all students at MIT are people who are willing to do stuff merely because a teacher (authority figure) says to do it.

Top schools select heavily for people who respect authority and those who respect authority the most tend to do the best once in college.  It is thus no mystery that Asian immigrant children do well and ghetto kids raised on rap music (“fuck the police”) don’t do so well, even if both groups start out with the same IQ.

Assertion:  Affirmative action programs at universities do not result in a reduction of prejudice but rather inculcate prejudice in people who would otherwise be fair-minded.

Example of how this happens:  Consider a hypothetical race of Bodleians, people from the Planet Bodleia.  Bodleians on average do not perform well in high school and are under-represented at universities.  If admissions were race-blind Big State U would be 5% Bodleian, 40% white, and 55% Asian.  Administrators at Big State U establish a program that gets rid of 5% of the Asians and replaces them with Bodleians.  Now Big State U is 10% Bodleian.

Consider Joe Whiteboy, a new graduate student who has no preconceived ideas about Bodleians.  He is a teaching assistant for undergrad courses and, after three semesters, notices that all of the students who got Fs were Bodleian.  Not all Bodleians got Fs, mind you.  In fact some of Joe’s best students were Bodleians, presumably drawn from the 5% who would have gotten in under a race-blind system.  That said, Joe’s very worst students were all Bodleian.  They didn’t do any of the homework, seldom showed up to class, and didn’t seem to care about academics.  Grading in these big courses is all based on exam scores so it couldn’t have been prejudice by other staff members that resulted in the Bodleian failure.  Joe Whiteboy starts his fourth semester of TAing and sees four Bodleians in his section.  He gets a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.  Though he hopes that one or two will be quite bright, he expects that at least two of these minorities will fail the class.  Joe Whiteboy has learned prejudice at Big State U, as have all of the white and Asian undergrads who watched the failure of such a high percentage of Bodleians in their classes. 

Is it so bad for our state schools to teach prejudice?  Our prejudiced graduate can make $300,000 per year as a radiologist.  He reads the MRI scans and probably nobody will ever ask what he thinks of Bodleians as a group.  He’d think twice about hiring a Bodleian but his prejudice isn’t a career liability for him.

What about for the 5% of Bodleians who would have gotten into Big State U?  Affirmative action is a disaster for them.  Consider the used car market.  Very few used cars are lemons but it is tough as a buyer to figure out whether or not a used car is reliable.  Economists have demonstrated that the result, in the absence of certification programs and warrantees, is people valuing all cars as though they were lemons.  A Bodleian with a degree from Big State U will be treated as a potential lemon.

Suggestion:  Public universities should be race-blind.  There are enough high achievers from every ethnic group that every university student will have some contact with politically favored minorities and those students will learn an important lesson:  politically favored minorities are every bit as smart as whites and Asians.

How do we help under-represented minorities?  Our public schools are so expensive that, at no extra cost to taxpayers, we could fly ghetto kids out of the ghetto and into a top boarding school in an authority-respecting, achievement-oriented society, e.g., India, Hong Kong, or Korea.  When they come back from their sojourn among the diligent, they’ll be able to get into just about any American college.

Homework assignment:  watch the documentary Spellbound, currently in theaters, to see how American kids from different ethnic groups prepare for the National Spelling Bee (my college classmate Barrie Trinkle was the winner in 1973 but sadly she was not interviewed).

Tidbit:  Our local school system here in Cambridge, Massachusetts is the most expensive in Massachusetts and also one that has some of the lowest test scores in the state, i.e., we are producing the kids that need affirmative action to get into college.  I ate Thanksgiving dinner with a couple of Mexican children whose father was spending a year at Harvard and therefore they had enrolled in Cambridge public school.  I asked them how they compared their school experience in Cambridge versus Mexico and was it difficult to attend classes in English when their native language was Spanish.  They replied “School here is much easier.  In Mexico we had to work until 8:00 pm every night doing homework but in Cambridge we never have to study at all.”

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