In the oral arguments Wednesday for a Supreme Court affirmative action case, Justice Antonin Scalia -- a well known critic of affirmative action -- suggested that the policy was hurting minority students by sending them to schools too academically challenging for them.Here's what Scalia said:
From transcript, what Scalia said today on whether black people would be better served at "less advanced" schools pic.twitter.com/ikYGnjqM5p— Irin Carmon (@irin) December 9, 2015
As I've mentioned a number of times on this blog, I'm the white child of two high school graduates who made it to the Ivies and emerged with a sheepskin. I'd gone to a selective public school in the city (not the suburbs) of Boston -- admission was based on a standardized test. A number of my friends from high school also made it to the Ivies or to similarly exclusive institutions.
But a lot of my friends dropped out short of graduating. And I made it through only because my default response to social anxiety is to withdraw and burrow, which made my college years lonely and miserable but left me a lot of time to get the coursework done.
My friends who didn't make it through weren't stupid. They were bright and well read. One friend in particular was one of the best-read people I've ever known, in both literature and history. He didn't even get through sophomore year.
Some of my friends' parents had attended college, but none had attended elite colleges. A lot of us were doing okay economically, but there were differences between us and the well-educated suburban middle class. We didn't have models in our families and neighborhoods for how to navigate the world we were in. Yes, we'd done fine at a relatively demanding high school, but at college the work was harder and the distractions were greater. When things went wrong, we didn't have people we could talk to who understood what was happening to us.
What I'm saying is that we felt some alienation just being one or two rungs below our classmates -- and this is with some money and white skin. Throw in race, and perhaps much greater poverty, and I've always assumed the feeling of disorientation would be everything my friends and I experienced, but much worse.
I don't know if what I've written here tracks with empirical studies. I'm just writing about what I know. The experience has left me thinking that people who arrive at elite schools from outside the usual applicant pool need more help and a lot more understanding -- and when they fail, Judge Scalia, it's not necessarily because they're "in classes that are too fast for them."