Affirmative Action, the Art of Teaching

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

Affirmative Action, the Art of Teaching


Byline: Martin Morse Wooster, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

As the debate over affirmative action in colleges continues, the fundamental questions

remain the same: Does affirmative action help deserving minority students succeed in school and in life, or is it a poisoned chalice that stigmatizes those who receive it for their entire careers?

Perhaps the strongest case to be made in favor of affirmative action in the past decade was William G. Bowen's and Derek Bok's "The Shape of the River," a 1998 book that used a large data base of college admissions to offer a strong case that affirmative action was a good idea that ought to be continued. Mr. Bowen has continued to mine his data base for books showing that colleges spend too much money on sports. Now, in collaboration with his Mellon Foundation colleagues Martin A. Kurzweil and Eugene M. Tobin, he has returned to the affirmative action debates with Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (University of Virginia, $27.95, 285 pages).

Mr. Bowen and his team have several goals with this book. They write to defend the Supreme Court's 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which ruled that affirmative action on campuses was constitutional for a limited period of time. They also argue that vastly more effort ought to be given to ensure that college admission committees pick a suitable number of minorities.

The authors run mathematical models to show that students from low income families who have good SAT scores are as likely to succeed as students with comparable scores from better-off households. They also argue that students given preferences for their athletic abilities do far worse in school than do students given any other sort of preference (including family legacies).

The Bowen team's analysis might be persuasive, except that the authors devote one of their chapters to vilifying opponents of affirmative action, such as analysts for the Center for Equal Opportunity and the Center for Individual Rights. But the authors fail to address the ideas of affirmative action critics, but simply adopt a haughty "how dare they" tone. Also unpersuasive are heartfelt testimonials by beneficiaries of affirmative action; surely the authors are seasoned enough social scientists to know that anecdotal evidence, however passionate, does not show whether a social policy does or does not work.

Mr. Bowen and his colleagues do offer some good ideas. One interesting one is to allow state universities more freedom to set tuition in return for a reduction in government subsidies. But overall,"Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education" is hardly likely to change anyone's mind about whether or not affirmative action is worth pursuing.

* * *

Analysts of urban education tend to focus their energies on a few big cities. …

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