The 2012 Sidney Awards I
By DAVID BROOKS
At the start of the 1980s, about 5 percent of Harvard students were Asian-American. But the number of qualified Asian-American applicants rose so that by 1993 roughly 20 percent of Harvard students had Asian heritage.
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But, according to Ron Unz, a funny thing then happened. The number of qualified Asian-Americans continued to rise, but the number of Asian-Americans admitted to Harvard fell so that the student body was about 16 percent Asian. Between 1995 and 2011, Harvard’s Asian-American population has varied by less than a percentage point around that 16.5 percent average. Not only that, the percentage of Asian-Americans at other Ivy League schools has also settled at a remarkably stable 16 percent, year after year.
This smells like a quota system, or at least that was the implication left by Unz’s searing, sprawling, frustrating and highly debatable piece, “The Myth of the American Meritocracy,” in The American Conservative. It wins the first of the 2012 Sidney Awards, which go to the best magazine essays of the year.
You’re going to want to argue with Unz’s article all the way along, especially for its narrow, math-test-driven view of merit. But it’s potentially ground-shifting. Unz’s other big point is that Jews are vastly overrepresented at elite universities and that Jewish achievement has collapsed. In the 1970s, for example, 40 percent of top scorers in the Math Olympiad had Jewish names. Now 2.5 percent do. The fanatical generations of immigrant strivers have been replaced by a more comfortable generation of preprofessionals, he implies.
Now, you know and I know that what he`s trying to do here, under the guise of talking about “meritocrats,” is to get through to his fellow American Jews that they need to stop conceptualizing themselves so overwhelmingly as History`s Greatest Victims and start developing a sense of noblesse oblige about this country in which they have become predominant, in which they dominate the worldview of the educated classes. …
In career terms, obviously, Brooks` euphemistic approach is better than my plain-spoken one. And it would be easy to argue that my frankness is too abrasive, that Brooks` vague euphemisms are better for getting our mutual message out.
But, here`s the rub: What evidence is there that Brooks` readers grasp what he`s talking about at all? I`ve read through a fair fraction of the 527 comments on his column, and I don`t see many (if any) examples suggesting that Brooks` readers comprehend his underlying message.
What goes unsaid eventually goes unthought.
And I noticed one comment from a sympatico observer:
Unz is right. University admissions offices are run by bigots who think the Civil Rights Acts do not apply to them. They aren`t even embarrassed about it; it isn`t a matter of a sub rosa thumb on the scale. It is official announced policy at almost every university in the country to engage in racial discrimination among applicants (and job candidates). There are offices and staff whose proclaimed purpose is to ensure that bigotry pervades every decision that is made.
Professor of Physics
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