ramen and pickles

science, technology, and medicine served up with some tasty noodles

Ethics of an “elite” education and some of the inherent racism and biases

There is an interesting discussion here of the changing face of racism in college admissions policies by Ron Unz. It starts by discussing the “Asian quota” at schools replacing the “Jewish quota” of the last century. He then goes on to do a lot of analysis and discussion of other biases, such as against cultural markers of conservatism such as students belonging to certain groups (ROTC, 4H, etc.), as well as an over-representation of Jewish students replacing the WASP bias of earlier times.



Statistician Andrew Gelman has posted a detailed critique of the analysis, focussing on the current bias toward over-representation of Jewish students at Harvard in particular:


It is also worth mentioning that Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay several years ago, about much the same topic, namely the strange criteria used for college admissions, particularly at “elite” schools:


I would take particular exemption to one statement in the Unz article: “Similarly, Jews were over one-quarter of the top students in the Physics Olympiad from 1986 to 1997, but have fallen to just 5 percent over the last decade, a result which must surely send Richard Feynman spinning in his grave.” Feynman was adamant for all of his career that people should not be defined by their ethnicity or background, and instead should be defined by the merit they accrued on their own.  It is also telling that Caltech, the school over whom Feynman’s influence is still most strongly felt, looks like least culturally/racially biased.

Ron Unz has written a lot about this subject, and his propose solution is for “elite” universities to admit a handful of the most exceptional students, and then admit the rest of the students (presuming they pass some lower barrier for minimum necessary requirements), by random chance.  There is a lot to be said for this, particularly given that the metrics used for ranking students are so biased and squishy, and track so poorly with many of the measures of future “success” that you might want to use.


However, a lot of this discussion ignores some of the key areas of disparity, namely the number of disadvantaged youth, particularly the non-white & non-Asian students who are both poorly represented in achievement by many of the numerical measures used (standardized tests, science/math achievements, etc.).

One of my colleagues who once worked as a teacher, expressed a lot of concern about some of the students he once worked with.  The disadvantaged children he worked with were in kindergarten and yet were already so far behind, that he didn’t see any way for them the catch up.  And of course, as time progresses, children from disadvantaged backgrounds fall further and further behind, as we know that spending summers not in school or educational enrichment opportunities keeps these students behind.  He suggested that college admissions to prioritize parental income (and presumably highest educational level achieved) more highly in admissions to help address disparities in opportunities.  Gladwell’s article makes the point that pure academic merit and affirmative action are only a tiny part of the goals of higher education as an institution.  Skewing toward people with family connections and the savvy to get admitted in the current byzantine system, skews towards people who are likely to be able to have “real world” success, particularly financial success which feeds back to the institution, both directly in torward of alumni donations, but also prestige by association with high achievers.

I think these analyses and discussions of admissions to higher level education are interesting and important, but there is a core idea here that we want children to be able to achieve highly academically, and we need to start working with children at a very early age.   I firmly believe that it is hard work and perseverance that leads to success.  For all that Amy Chua has been deeply criticized for her “Tiger Mom” attitude and practices, I would contend that figuring out how to instill a little bit more of that drive across the racial/economic spectrum would help reduce our educational disparities.  By way of an example, I would mention the famous Ben Carson.  If you look at his biography, as least as it is popularly portrayed, a key part of his upbringing and path to success was having a strict, driven mother who required him to write two book reports a week for her:


It’s not necessarily a bad thing to have high expectations for kids of all backgrounds from an early age, and I think that Geoffrey Canada and Jaime Escalante would agree:



It just takes a lot of work.  A lot of work.

The other aspect is that it takes clear role models and demonstration that children of any background can succeed through hard work.  Those role models exist, but I also don’t think that they should be required to spend too much of their personal time in being direct role models.  It is another level of unfairness.  Just because you are black or Latino and have achieved high academic success and achievement, I don’t think that necessarily means you have to spend time being a role model for everyone of your ethnicity.  High achieving members of other groups aren’t expected to do that.  They are expected to just keep working hard and achieving.  However, we as a culture can focus on some of the ways in which that success was achieved and let kids know that it is possible and as a society be willing to prioritize the resources and initiative to the task at hand.  

Part of the sad part of all these articles is that they just sort of take for a given that some of the groups are just not as well prepared.  Maybe instead of focussing on educating kids, we need to start educating (disadvantaged) parents on how to be parents of high achieving kids.  

“Dr. Q” makes it very clear in his biography, that one of the most disheartening things as a young peson was being told that it was impossible that he would ever achieve the educational goals he wanted and that he would always be a migrant laborer.   Maybe a major goal should be in educating disadvantaged parents on the demonstrated paths to success:


Maybe widespread access to educational tools like the Khan Academy can help all children, and parents of all children will make time spent working through their educational programs a priority.

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