A pair of op-ed pieces in this Sunday's New York Times (29 Jun 2003) offer insightful, memorable analyses of the US Supreme Court's recent decision on race and university admission policy.
In "Fixing the Race Gap in 25 Years or Less" Steven A. Holmes and Greg Winter quote Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland at Baltimore County, who pierces the bullseye on the micro scale of individual family responsibility when he observes:
The gap persists across all income levels ... We're talking about generations of habits in too many homes ... Unfortunately, reading is not the No. 1 priority as a habit. There is much more emphasis on television watching.
Precisely. And on the macro level, in "A Decision That Universities Can Relate To" Nicholas Lemann similarly hits the target with a social-psychoanalysis of one of the primary rôles of higher education in our civilization:
... universities consider themselves to be rarefied autonomous institutions, oddly combining fragility and durability. (Remember that universities in recognizable form predate both democracy and capitalism.) Their total commitment to something that seems impractical --- the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge --- gives them an unlikely authority, independence and allure.
The reason that so many people want to (or should want to) study at great universities is to imbibe the university culture; schools, including elite public ones like the University of Michigan, pick among their applicants to strengthen the culture as much as possible. The idea that they should be forced, in the name of fairness to the individual applicant, to populate themselves via externally dictated quantitative measures deeply violates their self-concept.
... selective universities are partly in the business of training a leadership corps for society, and a society with racial and ethnic tensions can benefit tremendously from having an integrated leadership.
Correlation is not causation, but during the affirmative action era, the United States has created a multiracial authority structure in realm after realm, something few, if any, societies in the world have ever accomplished, and race relations have plainly improved. ...
A key part of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's opinion on the case, Lemann suggests, is that "... legal close calls, so to speak, should go to universities because they deserve the honor of being left alone. She justified affirmative action not in terms of righting a past wrong, but of providing operating latitude to a category of institutions."
I'm reminded of baseball umpires and their true goal: not mechanical interpretation of rules, but simple basic fairness in resolving conflicts, so that a good game can take place.
For our civilization writ large, that "good game" is extraordinarily important ...
(see also UnseenUniversity (7 Aug 1999), DeschoolingDemythologized (29 May 2000), SummaCumLaude (27 May 2001),Cardinal Newman (4 Oct 2001), EducationOfTheYouth (1 Dec 2001), PursuitOfExcellence (22 Feb 2002), InterracialIntimacies (24 Sep 2003), LiberalArts (13 Mar 2003), ProudSignage (23 Apr 2003), ...)