Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Defense of Privilege

The Supreme Court decision striking down quotas, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, is such woeful denial of their entire history of honoring precedent that the decision itself becomes an agonized ironic scream.

Back in the sixties, it had finally come down to the question of merit. This is what everyone had been fighting for and the civil rights movement finally came to its senses.  There was no way we could have merit, so we got quotas.  The actual law said, in admittedly protracted convoluted language, that if you could demonstrate merit, and not very strictly, I might add, you didn't have to have quotas. The fact that we have quotas means very few were able to even give a pretense of merit selection.

To understand the deep bitterness aroused by affirmative action in the 70’s you have to recognize that the essential function of middle management is to avoid responsibility.  What this meant is that every difficult personnel decision could then be explained as a consequence of affirmative action.


Now that we have done away with quotas, if we do not enforce merit, all that remains is privilege. Is this a bad thing?  In England, for instance, they use tests to determine who is admitted to government paid Universities.  This requires them to carefully construct the tests so that only privileged students who have been properly instructed can pass them.  It also requires them to destructively instruct the unprivileged students so they do not pass the tests.  I wonder if our privileged classes would be able to remember their instruction well enough to get through their tests.

In America such merit requirements as we have had, particularly for entry-level positions has forced our privileged into MBA programs. This means they have skipped the entry-level jobs for middle management positions, a disastrous consequence. 

Does it make sense to fight privilege?  Do we want merit?  I argue that we don’t want to see ourselves as balls in a chute, dropping into our natural place in the bell curve.  What we desperately want is to belong, to be part of something.  We want to be special and we want to think we got a break.  We certainly don’t want what’s coming to us; we want to be in.  To fight privilege is to fight human nature. 
Take the bum in an alley, he may seem hopeless to you, but that’s his alley, he knows that alley, that’s how he survives and how he belongs.  
In your minds eye visualize your favorite educational institution. Walk through the quadrangle, the courtyard, whatever, to the admissions office.  How big is it?  How many people does it employ? Why is that?  Is your institution the kind that recklessly spends money?  Does it have gold-plated manholes, outrageous landscaping? Allow me a suggestion. Have an administrative assistant build a word merge application to take the Princeton testing service scores with their addresses, majors and self-reported GPA, sort them up in score, major sequence and send out the acceptance letters and financial packets.  The reported SAT scores would stand in lieu of an application.  I believe that applications would increase dramatically. Everyone admitted would know they deserve to be there.  The classes may be less diverse within a particular year, but I believe that over time the school would have far greater diversity than it has today.  The school would save hundreds of thousands in salary.
I don’t know how rich your school’s endowment is, but my guess is that it would go out of business within a decade if not sooner. Imagine Biddle-Barrows, or Johnson, or Goldblatt staring across the frozen lake.  Chutney Tech did not admit young Lemuel.  Does Sally-Ann need a donation?  That’s why those people are working in that office, so young Lemuel, and his friends, get in.
When we legislate against drugs, campaign donations, or privilege we stand against the overwhelming hydraulic force of human need and desire; we force it to find other channels. 
More importantly, we have expectations for the privileged.  It may sound trivial but a president of the United States isn’t going to take it into his head to resign in order to study under the Maharishi. (Although that can’t be said for the governor of Alaska and a television contract.) At each level, there is an accumulated wisdom, an accretion of manner and behavior.  Despite their pretensions, this knowledge doesn’t arrive from a preparatory school, college, or graduate program, although such things can provide validation.  It takes generations.  One hard earned lesson after another passed on and impressed into their very marrow.  
The essential issue is that it is so difficult to distinguish between authentic privilege and mere pretension. The difference between the heroic privilege of George Herbert Walker Bush and the pretension of George Walker Bush seems obvious to me but apparently not to enough.  When the common man recognized W as one of us, they failed to recognize the implications; you don’t want one of us running things. 
What we disdain is the git, over reaching their station.  When politicians expect the privilege of donors, as at the University of Illinois, it arouses our ire. 
There are some wonderful counter examples: the Lodge’s, the Cabot’s, Wittgenstein, but even they announce themselves.  Always on the wrong side, never right about anything, at least they are predictable.  
Defending privilege is unnecessary.  It is its own defense.  The Human primate’s drive for hierarchy requires it.  Who stands for merit?  Who claims that arbitrary criteria lead to superior selection? Even communists don’t believe in merit.

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