On a recent broadcast, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly asked whether the United States was becoming a nation whose population demanded entitlement—”Are we a welfare nation?” [and select the Talking Points Memos tab, then the Talking Points: 2/14|Are we a welfare nation? link.]

Then comes an article in The Weekly Standard by Heather Mac Donald titled “Affirmative Disaster.”  Here Ms Donald describes a rigorously executed bit of research conducted at Duke University that indicates that students granted admission to Duke according to racial preference criteria rather than academic performance don’t fare as well as classmates who didn’t get an affirmative action boost, but were admitted instead on the basis of academic performance.

What’s interesting here, though, is the hue and cry raised over the paper.  Despite the rigor with which the research was carried out, the authors were decried, not so much for being outright racist—not in this day and age—but for “re-opening old racial wounds.”  A senior research scholar (Donald’s term, not mine), Tim Tyson, wrote an op-ed that insisted the paper was a “political tract disguised as scholarly inquiry,” and that it was a “crusade to reduce the numbers of black students at elite institutions.”

Others of the school’s leadership were just, plain squishy.  Provost Peter Lange bleated

We understand how the conclusions of the research paper can be interpreted in ways that reinforce negative stereotypes.

And then

At the same time, our goal of academic success for all should not inhibit research and discussion to clarify important issues of academic choice and achievement.

None of the criticism (I hesitate to call them critiques) addressed the research itself, just the implications for the efficacy of affirmative action programs and their fairness to the minorities victimizedsupported by them.

Donald concludes

[U]ntil it becomes possible to discuss the effects of preferences without being accused of racial animus, it may be impossible to dislodge academic affirmative action, no matter how discredited its purported justifications.

Or, don’t you dare interfere with our affirmative action programs.  We deserve them.

I conclude that the answer to O’Reilly’s question is, “Apparently yes.”

4 thoughts on “Entitlement

  1. Heather MacDonald’s article does not honestly represent the critiques that I and other Duke faculty offered of the recent study by Peter Arcidiacono and his colleagues, “What Happens After Enrollment? An Analysis of the Time Path and Racial Differences in GPA and Major Choice.” As a result, this commentary, “Entitlement” is misguided in that its author does not appear to have read any of the works involved but relies upon MacDonald’s ideologically-driven arguments.

    She calls the methodology of the study “watertight.” Which of the algorithms, she asks, do its critics take exception to, as if arithmetic were the only form of knowledge and only mathematical errors could lead us astray. In worlds that exist beyond mere rhetoric, computation errors can lead to small mistakes but the guiding assumptions of a study are what largely determine its academic rigor. Regardless of one’s computational skill, one cannot find the answers to questions unasked nor correct the fallacies one fails to consider.

    Because McDonald is merely a polemicist, she misrepresents my critique to further her attack on Duke’s response to this fluffy little study, unpublished and unreviewed, whose only purposes thus far are political. (No wonder she likes it.) I argued in “The Econometrics of Rwandan Pear Blossoms” (http://dukechronicle.com/article/econometrics-rwandan-pear-blossoms) that the study examines “racial differences” without even contemplating what “race” might be. This is not a small error of addition or subtraction, but a failure to think, period. I also note that the authors study “major choice” without even contemplating what it means to choose a major; there is a literature and some basic facts here that the authors should have explored. In brief, the choice of a college major is a deeply personal one and usually reflects values well beyond how hard one finds the subject. (In fact, most people who love English or economics do not find the subjects so hard, while those who do not relish those subjects find them quite difficult.) To consider why any individual, let alone a category of persons, chooses a major requires specific inquiries that the authors are not diligent enough to make. I teach history, literature and theology, and rest assured that the economics majors who take my classes find them plenty difficult, largely because they find the reading load so incredibly heavy compared to most classes in their allegedly “more challenging” major. It is true that grading in economics and the natural sciences is “harder,” in the sense that these classes tend to fail a pre-determined percentage of the students. I don’t think that approach to grading makes any rational sense, personally, unless you are intent on “weeding out” students for some reason. And the study clearly values some subjects over others, and attributes intentions and purposes to African American students without even asking them a single question. It is shoddy intellectual work in which the only things that count are the things that can be counted easily.

    It would do well to read what you are commenting on before you get too far down the road with your analysis. That’s part of the academic rigor that you claim to value.

    By the way, “Senior Research Scholar” is not a title that rests upon “Heather McDonald’s words,” let alone yours. I am Senior Research Scholar at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, Visiting Professor of American Christianity and Southern Culture at Duke Divinity School, and hold faculty positions in the Department of History at Duke and in the Department of American Studies at the University of North Carolina as well. Before I accepted these posts, I was John Hope Franklin Senior Fellow at the National Humanities Center and Professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I don’t take much stock in titles, but if you are going to jeer at them, you could have the “academic rigour” to spend thirty seconds on Google.com and get them right.

    Tim Tyson

  2. I won’t spend much time responding to this; you illustrate my point in your opening remarks when you dismiss Ms Donald’s arguments as “ideologically-driven,” and so not to be taken seriously. This is of a vein with your “fluffly little study” jibe.

    A couple of minor points: you object to her “which of the algorithms” question, yet you choose not to identify any–not even those that do satisfy your arithmetic knowledge requirement.

    Finally, “Senior Research Scholar” are your caps, not mine–nor Ms Donald’s. As far as I know–and the surmise was why I pointed out the term was hers and not mine–she was merely using the term descriptively and not at all pejoratively.

    As to the rest, I note without further comment your dismissal of “race” and “major choice,” as they miss the points being made by Peter Arcidiacono and his colleagues.

    Eric Hines

  3. Actually, you miss the points that I am making about “race” and “major choice,” which are entirely different from the ones the authors of the study are trying to make. You cannot evaluate “major choice” without understanding what goes into that decision, which is not something that fits easily on the spread sheet; it is like weighing butterflies by the pound. Nor is it possible to evaluate “racial differences” without having any idea what “race” is. I have no problem with any of their arithmetic. However, just because your computations are correct does not mean that they measure anything meaningful. The study, in fact, is methodologically flawed because it is shallow and ill-considered. Intellectual assumptions far outweigh whether you can competently use a calculator. You can sit beside the road, counting the cars that whiz by, but that does not mean you have any idea where the highway goes or why it was constructed. The study is unpublished because it is unpublishable, and has one use only, which is political, and it is being used for that purpose alone.
    Tim Tyson

  4. “You cannot evaluate ‘major choice’ without understanding what goes into that decision….”

    Indeed. And yet you overcomplexify the choices. A major is hard or not to the student making the selection, not because it might seem hard to you or me, or by some mythical objective standard. The students selected out of majors that were hard to them and into majors that were easy to them. One reason for this is their poor preparation for their original major.

    Eric Hines

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