Monday, October 15, 2012

Do No Harm

If someone were to try to pin me down about why I view the world, and in particular the American political landscape, the way I do it would most probably boil down to a few main points. Some of them would touch upon my own eccentricities (e.g. I am an incorrigible contrarian), but mostly my political principles stem from a belief that ideology is neither inevitable nor desirable. This is the reason that while I am certainly right of center as such things are measured in American political discourse, you will find no Randian nonsense here.

My biggest beef with ideology is that it acts as a replacement for thinking. When presented with a question or with a situation in the real world that needs addressing, the ideologue responds automatically with a canned answer. Wed this approach with a belief in the moral superiority of their brand of ideological thinking and you have a recipe for disaster on a large scale.

Affirmative action is a classic case in point. The confluence of ideology and rampant moralizing has produced a toxic brew that has positively harmed minority students in this country despite the "best intentions" of the Left. Tragically the ideologically fevered are simply unable to see the truth of this and are therefore doomed to keep inflicting this harm upon minority students.

There is now increasing evidence that students who receive large preferences of any kind—whether based on race, athletic ability, alumni connections or other considerations—experience some clear negative effects: Students end up with poor grades (usually in the bottom fifth of their class), lower graduation rates, extremely high attrition rates from science and engineering majors, substantial self-segregation on campus, lower self-esteem and far greater difficulty passing licensing tests (such as bar exams for lawyers).
The most encouraging part of this research is the parallel finding that these same students have dramatically better outcomes if they go to schools where their level of academic preparation is much closer to that of the median student. That is, black and Hispanic students—as well as the smaller numbers of preferentially admitted athletes and children of donors—excel when they avoid the problem of what has come to be called "mismatch."
... Even as social scientists have transformed our understanding of affirmative action, universities don't seem to be paying attention. Consider the University of California system, which since 1998 has been legally precluded (by Proposition 209) from considering race in admissions. Throughout the past 15 years—most recently in a brief submitted to the Supreme Court—university officials have denounced race neutrality and pointed to the substantial drop in freshman black and Hispanic students at the system's two flagship schools, Berkeley and UCLA.
Yet race-neutrality has produced stunning benefits for minorities in the UC system as a whole, as shown in a data set that economists obtained from UC administrators. Black, American-Indian and Hispanic students made up 26% of all U.C. freshmen in 2010, up from 16% in 1997; the number of B.A.s earned by black and Hispanic students in four years rose 55% between 1995-97 and 2001-03, while the number with GPAs above 3.5 rose 63%.
So, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that not mismatching students via affirmative action has led to dramatic improvements for minority students in California, the ideologues still want to impose their failed ideas upon everyone. It is as if they are saying, "We would rather harm minority students than have them succeed on anything other than our own terms." I'm sorry, but there is nothing noble or moral about such a position. The only thing that should matter is what is best for students, i.e. under what conditions are they most likely to succeed? Nothing else matters very much. Lousy ideology matters not at all.

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