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scandals of higher education February 22, 2008

Posted by KG in books, race, reviews.
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new york review of books:

Michaels is fed up with the mantra of diversity, and it is hard to blame him. In the past, one obstacle that kept minority students out of college was patent racism—the asserted association between external physical characteristics (skin color, facial features, body type) and inherent mental capacities or tendencies.[12] Today, however, this kind of pseudoscience has been discredited, and the word “race” tends to be employed as a synonym for culture—an equivalence based on the dubious, or at least imperfect, premise that a person’s ancestry tells us something important about how that person experiences the world. The problem with “this way of thinking about culture instead of race,” Michaels says, “is that it just takes the old practice of racial stereotyping and renovates it in the form of cultural stereotyping.”[13] People of African ancestry are expected to prefer blues to Brahms. People of Asian ancestry are lumped together in the category “Asian-American” even though they might identify themselves primarily as Laotians or Christians. In any event, they are supposed to prefer engineering to poetry.

Michaels argues that nothing much has changed by substituting the idea of particular cultures for the discredited idea of race. For pragmatic as well as analytical reasons, he wants the left to forget about this kind of diversity, whether we call it racial or cultural (“diversity, like gout, is a rich people’s problem”), and focus instead on poverty. A satirical verse (quoted in another recent book by another English professor, Michael Berubé of Pennsylvania State University) nicely captures Michaels’s point. It might be called the Song of the Abject Affluent, and a lot of people at elite colleges are singing it:

I’m sorry for what my people did to your people
It was a nasty job
Please note the change of attitude
On the bumper of my Saab.

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