Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court recently suggested—bless him; I’m sure he meant only the best—that perhaps the best universities were perhaps too much for Black students. Scalia observed that “there are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.” Less-advanced, slower track. Now, for him to play the racially insensitive dunce surprises no one; it’s not a new argument, and as stated sounds, perhaps, more racist than the glowering old vicar actually is. My immediate interest here is, however, what he implies about the nature of higher education, which will doubtless be allowed to stand precisely because the racial stuff is already serving as lightning rod. That he should talk like such a simpleton, though, from his position of undeniable authority and influence, augurs ill.
First, the rhetoric. Phrases like his “There are those who contend,” or similar constructions like “It’s being said that” or “Many informed people believe,” are naught but cable-news fact-manufacture, far below the intellectual level rightly expected of a member of the senior judicial body of the United States. Either source your use of others’ ideas, Magister Antonius, or don’t use them. This is not plagiarism so much as high-school carelessness of the baby’s-first-opinion-paper variety: it is intellectual cowardice to passively offer an anonymous opinion without taking responsibility for it yourself. The effect of such a ploy is especially damaging given that an opinion held by some—his phrase means no more than that—is given the weight of his station and thoughtful delivery, and thus faux-legitimately put on the table regarding a deeply complex and contested issue. Minority success in any college or university (“elite,” however you’d like to interpret that, or any other kind) is a justified concern but a much more complicated matter than he implies: social and cultural preparation, previous academic experience, support on the home front etc. are well-understood primary factors. Obviously, succeeding even at a “slower-track” place—what does that even mean?—is not guaranteed, but if a student does, he or she are not going to get as far. You’re “slower,” folks. At the end of a doctorate, then, slow and steady got you…less far than the others. And the inescapable corollary to this is that gosh, we’d love to have you but the market is so competitive…
As it happened, Scalia had also been rejected by his first-choice school, Princeton*—the reasons were clearly not academic since he was an academic star in high school—so he excelled at Georgetown and [fast-forward] eventually was named to the Supreme Court. In making these silly remarks, might he have been thinking of his own journey, an unqualified success despite not getting into his first-choice school…?
Actually, no. Scalia’s maunderings were offered in the context of a case in which an academically OK but not great white student (1180 SATs, 3.59 GPA) was trying to sue her way into the University of Texas at Austin on grounds that she was excluded because of racial set-asides. One wonders why Scalia wasn’t offering her his sage counsel about other schools (“Now, Ms. Fisher, I well understand your frustration, but I am living proof that sometimes what you see for yourself is not the best thing for your future success…”), rather than targeting it to the Black students who did actually get in to UT.
Oh, wait—no, one doesn’t wonder at all.
Anyway: never mind him, or her. I want to address the “less-advanced…slower-track school” idea. Anyone who has enjoyed the privilege (and it is a privilege) of doing at least one degree at an “elite” school of course knows that all the classes are “fast” and excellent and none of the faculty have any commitments beyond Your Success Right Now and and every last one of your student-colleagues is a da Vincian genius and … right? And so the quite possibly superb teaching and increased attention that another institution might offer would still by definition not going to get her as far as attending the University of Texas at Austin will simply because…it’s elite and fast and all like that?
This is just stupid, two-dimensional, and naïve. Elite schools have elite faculty, often (not in every last case), and said faculty are often distracted and preoccupied…and that’s when you’re taught by faculty as opposed to graduate students, and grad students are likely to be even more preoccupied with their own work. For the faculty, earning tenure and grant-procurement and so on are high-stakes enterprises, often without safety nets of any kind. Professional survival, rightly or wrongly, is closely tied to such accomplishments, which keep those research and alumni dollars flowing into elite schools. And while it is true that recent decades have trended toward pressuring faculty for greater student success, there has been no corresponding easing of more familiar professional pressures.
So people who will have the greatest success at elite institutions are those whose opportunities and experience have prepared them for the academic equivalent of what might be called first-world problems. Plenty is Plentiful, Want is Scant, but expectations are high and you have to take care of business—you can’t just let stuff ride. At elite institutions, one is expected to spread one’s wings, fast. Some people flourish in such situations; as a doctoral student I did, but as an undergraduate I may well not have; I might have survived but real success would have been less likely. And it is also a fact that many who emerge from elite institutions teach at other kinds of places, and bring that elite expectation to students who might otherwise not have been exposed to it. A good proportion of those students rise to the challenge, seizing the opportunity (which would not have been available to them otherwise), and the big, sloppy mess of a system-that-isn’t-a-system works as it should.
You’d never know that if you don’t have the experience of those places yourself, and if you take Scalia at his word, the dumbest higher-ed stereotypes will be taken as The Way Things Are. That is unconscionable, and Scalia should be working on his exit strategy because this is getting embarrassing.
Next: how “elite” should really be judged.
* * *
*Princeton is a Place, an elite place. I know of superb scholars on the faculty, and superb graduates from there. I also know that they graduated one of the basest knaves in American public life. So, y’know, it’s a place, in key ways like other places.
N.B. Edited to correct a really moronic error on my part. Thanks, Lisa!