September 18, 2006

Affirmative Action? Never Heard of It

As any thinking person recognizes, The New York Times is a thoroughly irritating newspaper. Regardless of your political persuasion, nary an issue of the Gray Lady should fail to get your dander up.

Unsurprisingly, then, an examination of this past Sunday’s New York Times Book Review nearly caused paroxysms of rage for us crack young staffers. A particular piece made us want to hurl the Review as violently as possible—preferably at its editorial staff.

The review in question was penned by one Michael Wolff, a columnist for that most pathetic of mainstream rags, Vanity Fair. Mr. Wolff was given the task of commenting on Daniel Golden’s new tome The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges—and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates. For its sheer myopia and ability to mislead, Mr. Wolff’s review is a locus classicus of dimwitted left-wing hackery.

You see, dear reader, Mr. Wolff’s review offers the distinct impression that the majority of students at Harvard owe their acceptance to their parents’ multi-million dollar gifts to the university. That’s right, the majority. After ridiculing Bill Frist’s extraordinary donation to Princeton in order to ensure his son’s admittance, Mr. Wolff makes it seem as if this is typical of Princeton attendees.

To this end, Mr. Wolff writes:

Harvard may say it accepts 1 in 10 applicants, but, Golden writes, as many as 60 percent of the places in a top school are already spoken for by higher bidders, hence reducing, in parlance, the “unhooked” applicant’s chances to…well, you do the math.

Uh, 60 percent of Harvard students have parents who fork over millions of dollars to get their kids into school? Does anyone else find this a rather unlikely figure? Alas—but unsurprisingly—Mr. Wolff does not discuss exactly how this number was determined.

And the reader of Mr. Wolff’s review has a good reason to be skeptical of any of its claims. Just take a look at this willfully myopic passage:

Golden tells us that the admissions process, at least at the 100 top colleges and universities, is not a meritocracy—and exactly who thought it was?—but a marketplace. Every spot is up for bid. Some people bid with intelligence, which has obvious worth to the institution; some with cold cash, with its certain value; and others with the currency of connections and influence and relationships that serve the institution’s interests.

Gee, what’s missing from this description of college admissions? Could it be that charming misnomer referred to as Affirmative Action? Don’t lots of students—many more than the scions of multi-million dollar donors—owe their admittance to a malign form of social gerrymandering?

Obviously, yes, but for some reason Mr. Wolff leaves this out of his misleading polemic. He’ll excoriate anything else pertaining to college admissions, but institutionalized discrimination is, oddly, off his radar screen.

To this end, Mr. Wolff even ridicules students who got into the Ivy League due to their hard work and smarts: He labels such a pupil “an adolescent who accepts authority, willingly does absurd amounts of homework, is respectful of his or her college guidance counselor, listens to his or her parents and is a dedicated standardized-test taker to boot,” as if this is somehow deviously sordid. Exactly how much homework, Mr. Wolff, do you think is un-absurd?

All in all, Mr. Wolff’s review is a perfect demonstration of bad faith. It beggars belief that a fellow so enraged by college admissions chicanery cannot even bring himself to discuss Affirmative Action. And it demonstrates the degree to which social gerrymandering’s most fervent admirers recognize its deep unpopularity. Even in this sort of exposé, one dare not mention its name.

Better to blame Bill Frist.

Posted at September 18, 2006 12:01 AM | TrackBack