Affirmative action's bard

Is the University of Michigan’s Lee Bollinger the master of tragedy or farce?

By Carol Iannone

National Review, April 12, 2001

The National Association of Scholars has just released a study showing that racial diversity in a student body does not in itself carry educational benefits, contrary to the claims of affirmative action supporters. The study, Is Campus Racial Diversity Correlated with Educational Benefits, authored by Thomas Wood and Malcolm Sherman, is available online, as is a reply to its critics. The University of Michigan has used the claim that there is a positive connection between racial diversity and educational outcomes as a defense in a legal case that they have just lost, Grutter v. Bollinger, in which a white woman sued the law school of the university for denying her admission while accepting lesser qualified minority students. The university plans to appeal.

As valuable as quantitative studies are, one hardly needs them to know that reports of educational benefits deriving from “diversity,” that is, proportional representation of designated minorities in the student body, are bogus. Far from fostering the expression of different views, as diversity proponents allege, affirmative action is always accompanied by the political correctness that can actually make it difficult to speak freely about many issues in the classroom. In addition, some minority students will resent being looked upon as representative of a group identity, while others will resent not having their minority identity sufficiently noted. In all, it’s a terrible distraction from the real task of teaching and learning and grappling with subject matter.

These are some of the objections of those who oppose affirmative action. But even proponents of racial preferences have little to offer beyond generalizations. An article by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker illustrates what happens when a “diversity” supporter is asked to get specific about the supposed benefits deriving from affirmative action.

Lemann interviewed Lee Bollinger himself, titular defendant in Grutter v. Bollinger, president of the University of Michigan, expert in constitutional law, and fervent supporter of affirmative action. “It’s exciting to be in an environment where people are different from you,” Bollinger told Lemann, who is a good enough reporter to know how tinny such an ecstatic affirmation can sound and has the sense to ask “for an example of the kind of lesson affirmative action teaches.”

Bollinger thinks a moment and then replies by citing the scene in Richard II where John of Gaunt is counseling his son, Bolingbroke, as the latter prepares to go into a six-year exile. Lemann doesn’t quote Shakespeare directly, but I will here: “Call it a travel that thou takest for pleasure,” Gaunt tells his son in reference to his banishment, insisting that there is “no virtue like necessity,” that the situation will force him to make something good out of the bad. Over this Bollinger gushes: “The advice the father gives the son — how utterly, utterly poignant and convincing it is. The father says, ‘Just think of it as a vacation.’ It’s touching, it’s moving — it’s the way a loving parent tries to come to terms with the pain of a child. An author with a simple view would just try to describe the pain the father experiences. But to describe it through the effort of the father to tell the son to make good of it!”

Since he knows that no one will be able to follow Bollinger’s point, Lemann supplies his own gloss on why Bollinger cites this bit of the Bard: “to demonstrate that if you can really enter someone else’s thoughts you’ll find them to be subtler and richer than you’d have expected.”

Oh, is thaaat it? Uh…ok…I think.

Lemann concedes that this is a rather “recondite” defense of affirmative action. Today’s students actually have a word that better suits it: “pathetic.” Aside from the fact that rendering a character’s thoughts and feelings through that character’s mind and outlook is what any playwright is supposed to do (as opposed to a novelist, for example), the analogy to affirmative action is so precious as to dissolve on contact. How does having minority students in the classroom as representatives of their groups further the process of entering another’s thoughts? Feeling the pain of another and trying to assuage it in some way is something that only individuals can do for each other, not something that groups of students can do for other groups of students. Moreover, the special pain that an individual has to bear is not the same as the certified group victimization that is unfortunately used to define certain minorities today and that is routinely invoked in discussions about race. And for that matter, if individual students have painful experiences to share, the classroom is hardly the best place to share them.

But such are the torturous routes affirmative action supporters must traverse. Sensing that the application of Shakespeare to racial preferences has fallen flat, Lemann goes on to say that “perhaps the real point — another way in which affirmative action encourages emotional complexity — is that it causes university presidents to contemplate tragic themes.”

Now that makes more sense. How about the tragedy of what has been done to our universities in the name of “diversity”?