Merit and Diversity
Robert A. Levine
Today’s world is increasingly complex and competitive, and can be expected to remain so. National economies are under constant pressure to provide more and better products, both for export and internal consumption. For America to thrive in this challenging landscape, we must be certain that the best and the brightest among us are given the opportunity to fully maximize their intellectual potential to advance science, industry and medicine. This means that the top sources of higher education, both in undergraduate and graduate programs, must be available to the most intelligent strata of young Americans to help them fully grow their knowledge base and skills. Having finished with these programs, they should be welcomed into prime academic positions to teach new students and carry on novel research in all fields, and industrial companies to develop new products.
Given the nation’s history of slavery and discrimination directed against Blacks and Latinos, the above schema presents some ethical questions. Though not a homogeneous group, our Asian population appears to have few problems in progressing without special governmental, legal or institutional help. Indeed, they are quite successful academically as well as in the fields of endeavor they choose. In fact, because they are so proficient academically, many of the elite schools appear to manifest bias against them, restricting the number of Asian students they admit, even though their qualifications surpass many non-Asians who gain entry. Some meritorious white students are also denied entry to elite schools in the name of diversity- admittance of Black and Latino students whose qualifications are not as strong as those Asians and whites who are rejected. Many institutions are no longer requiring SATs or ACTs to help decide on admissions, as the results would tend to work against minority applicants and perhaps limit diversity. This is also a strike against merit based admissions.
There is no question that Blacks and Latinos have suffered from centuries of bias and discrimination from the dominant white population in America. Their education has been inferior, their housing and health care sub-par, their job opportunities and wealth accumulation wanting in comparison to whites. With bias undoubtedly playing a role, there are higher rates of alcoholism, drug addiction and gun violence among these minority populations. An important factor however, in these epidemics of violence and addiction is parental neglect and youngsters who are raised in families with absent fathers. Some of these children have neither father nor mother present and are raised by grandmothers or other family members.
Early interactions between parents and infants are essential in children’s learning, and those lacking in early parental instruction and nurturing start school already behind their classmates. Unfortunately, most of these deprived children never seem to catch up to their peers, many of them dropping out and not graduating from high school.
To help children who begin school behind, Head Start and pre-Head Start programs were initiated, to introduce these children to a learning environment and to some degree of discipline. Some schools have also made arrangements for tutoring at all levels and in different subjects for those students who are not learning at grade level or above. The various programs and tutoring has been helpful in many cases and these children may be performing adequately to even exceptionally well. It is not only minority students who are aided by these special programs, but poor white students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the students who seem to do best are those who have parental involvement, with parents reinforcing the value of any academic achievements.
The support and special programs are a necessity to help minority and impoverished white students maximize their academic potential and contribute to society. But admission to elite colleges should be on the basis of merit and not to promote diversity alone. Those who are not the best, can go to lower level colleges, community colleges, or even into apprenticeship programs. And those students in college who are not exceptional academically should not be admitted to elite graduate schools just to promote diversity.
The same holds true for important or intellectually demanding jobs. These should also be offered on the basis of merit and not just for a diverse workplace. Eventually, with the various special programs and tutoring in the public schools, more diverse classes will be admitted to elite colleges on the basis of merit. Likewise, graduate schools and jobs will also be apportioned on the basis of merit and will reflect diversity. But merit should be the decisive factor.
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