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January 16, 2003

Educational Economies

Yesterday President Bush said the University of Michigan's admissions system is an unfair and unconstitutional "quota system." Meanwhile:

At a White House briefing, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer highlighted a program Bush spearheaded as governor of Texas.

Bush opposed racial preferences at state universities, opting instead for a program he calls "affirmative access," under which the top 10 percent of all high school students are eligible for admission.

Ok, so we have the Bush Administration's position—get rid of race as a factor in college admissions and replace it with merit. Sounds good, doesn't it? And that's the trouble—like nearly all of Bush's policies, it sounds good, but in practice it's just not that simple.

Let's grant that quota systems are bad, and that there has never been an affirmative action program without flaws. Let's also put aside for the moment the fact that Michigan's admissions system is not, in fact, a quota system, and that it is not in any way exclusionary toward anyone. Let's say that we buy Bush's argument and give automatic entry to the top 10 percent of all high school students in Michigan. Who do you think that 10 percent is going to be? Well, let's look at what kinds of things help students make it to the top 10 percent of their class. Things that probably help students perform well are having parents who went to college, having perhaps one parent who doesn't work and has time (and a car) to take the kids to extra-curricular activities and to help and encourage them with their homework. It also probably helps to have parents who can pay for those extracurricular activities, and have the time and resources to seek out the best ones. I'm sure it also helps to live in a stable household in a safe and comfortable neighborhood so you can focus on learning and developing practical (socially acceptable) skills instead of worrying about your safety all the time. What all this means is that the top 10 percent of any school class is going be comprised primarily of middle-class and wealthy students. Money is closely correlated with "success" in our culture. So Bush might be right that considering race in admissions is not necessary, but privileging "merit" will only increase the gaps between the haves and the have-nots in this country; it may or may not increase racial and ethnic diversity, but it certainly will make higher education more economically homogenous (which would be just fine for Bush and Co.).

Underlying Bush's position here and on so many issues is one of the central myths that conservatives (or more precisely, neoconservatives) like Bush want to believe—and they want us to believe—namely, that we live in a friction-free world governed by "natural" laws (e.g., the "law" of supply and demand) which allow us to make clear and simple connections between cause and effect, action and reaction. For neoconservatives, if you work hard in school (and you're "smart"), you'll naturally (as if by natural law) rise to the top of your class. There are no complicating factors in his equation—factors like race or economic inequalities. No, for neocons it's simply, "work hard, reap your rewards." And while we all know this isn't true, we all want to believe it is because we'd all like to live in such a simple world. Too bad we don't and can't.

Here's where the Bush stand on Michigan's admissions policies [1] connects with his position on the economy: To make college admissions more fair we should not privilege race, but poverty. But, of course, we couldn't do that, because that would be "class warfare," and as we all know, poverty is always only a temporary rest stop on the highways of American life, all of which lead to fame, fortune, and magnificent success. It's not true, but people want to believe it so badly that they'll simply ignore overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For example, no one really believes Bush became President through hard work or intelligence—at least not through these qualities alone. His birth into a wealthy and well-connected family also had an enormous effect on the course of his life. Yet, instead of taking Bush himself as proof that the Horatio Alger, protestant work ethic, anyone can succeed in America narrative is 99 percent fiction, Americans seem to pretend that somehow Bush as an exception to the rule. "Oh yeah, Bush got where he is 'cause his daddy was rich, but still, anyone can succeed in America." Conservative author David Brooks recently explained exactly how this works (although for him it's a good thing). Unfortunately, in many ways, Brooks' analysis sounds all too accurate. Where he's wrong is that Americans aren't suffering from false consciousness. After explaining that "Americans admire the rich," Brooks contradicts himself when he writes:

Nor are Americans suffering from false consciousness. You go to a town where the factories have closed and people who once earned $14 an hour now work for $8 an hour. They've taken their hits. But odds are you will find their faith in hard work and self-reliance undiminished, and their suspicion of Washington unchanged.

The contradiction is that Brooks is arguing that Americans are not suffering from false consciousness, yet he admits they maintain their faith in "hard work and self-reliance," despite the fact that their experience proves to them over and over that these great values will not bring them success in this country—especially as "free trade" moves more and more jobs overseas or forces American workers to accept lower wages, while Bush proposes to allow the richest 1 percent of Americans to keep even more of their vast wealth. The definition of false consciousness is believing X in the face of overwhelming evidence for Y, so how can Brooks claim that the average American consciousness isn't a false one? (See also the letters responding to Brooks' piece.)

Regardless, Brooks is correct that Americans don't like to be reminded that they're not rich, or that they might never get rich thanks to structural inequalities (like education or tax policies). This is why Bush can keep a straight face when he proposes a tax plan that overwhelmingly and unashamedly favors the rich; he knows that as long as he can keep his smirk in check, he can tell Americans that giving money to rich people is good for poor people, and that cutting the government's income while increasing its expenses (primarily for the military) is also good for the country. It doesn't make sense, it flies in the face of their own experience, but they want to believe it's true, so the administration might just get away with it. The logic of this plan relies on more of those "natural" laws that neocons love so much. This time it's that if you give a rich person a dollar, he/she will invest it. While this may be true, again, the way this works is not that simple. Since we don't live in a friction-free world, wealthy Americans who save tax money may invest it, but that investment is not necessarily going to benefit average Americans because, in a global economy, there's no telling where an invested dollar might go. On the other hand, if you allow poorer people to keep more of their money, they'll almost certainly spend it places where it will help local economies and conditions—places like grocery stores. But in presenting plans like this, Bush relies on the the American public's desire to live in a simple world, and it's much simpler just to accept the President's arguments than it is to dig out the reality that they obscure.

More than 90 years ago Antonio Gramsci wrote:

What comes to pass does so not so much because a few people want it to happen, as because the mass of citizens abdicate their responsibility and let things be.

Bush's "success" as President proves Gramsci correct.

[1] And it's not just Michigan's admissions policy—Bush's entire educational agenda is founded on this myth that if you simply work hard you'll succeed, regardless of other factors. His support for charter schools and voucher programs is based on the same logic, a sort of social darwinism that continuously blames the victims as it steadily widens the gap between rich and poor, have and have-not. The kinds of "choices" that these programs allow students and parents to make are only available to those with the resources to make them (the wealthy). So vouchers and charter schools allow wealthy students to aggregate with other wealthy students, allowing their parents to pool their resources to make superschools, while poorer students are left to fend for themselves in the "bad" schools that will now have fewer resources than ever. Oh, but if you work hard, you can do anything in America.

Posted 02:26 PM | Comments (1) | general politics

Free Books

Check out Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a new sci-fi novel by first-time novelist Cory Doctorow. Under one of the new licenses from Creative Commons, the complete book is available to download absolutely free in a variety of forms. You can even print a copy for yourself, if you so desire. Of course, you can also buy a copy of the real thing—an actual, dead-tree, bound book. It's an interesting and refreshing experiment, especially in light of the Supreme Court's awful decision yesterday against the public domain. Copyfight has just about all the news that's fit to click regarding the decision. [link via Scripting News, which also links today to more inside scoop from Lessig on the decision.]

Instead of getting all morbid and ranting about what a huge step backward this is for freedom and creativity and American culture, I'll just ask: Is Cory Doctorow related in anyway to E.L. Doctorow of Ragtime fame?

Posted 12:47 PM | ai books

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