Monday, October 3, 2011

Henry IV and Berkeley G.O.P.'s 'diversity bake sale'

I was out of town last week when the student group Berkeley College Republicans (BCR) hosted their so-called "Diversity Bake Sale." You might have heard about it via Reuters, the NY Times, FoxNews, the LA Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the U.K.'s Telegraph, or NPR ... or just about any other media vehicle you might track. If you missed the story, the gist is this:

To protest California's SB 185, currently awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature or veto now that it has passed both the state Assembly's and Senate's scrutiny, the BCR sold cupcakes and cookies priced on a sliding scale. As the NY Times reported the Facebook announcement of the event, "the group listed the price for a pastry at $2 for white students, $1.50 for Asian students, $1 for Latinos, 75 cents for African-Americans and 25 cents for Native Americans. Women of all races were promised a 25-cent discount."

The intention, say campus Republicans, was to satirize differential treatment (cupcake prices, university admission criteria) based on race. Get it?

As one student put it in an Associated Press video posted to YouTube, "I think they're kind of missing the point."

SB 185 amends Section 66205 of California's Education Code such that "the University of California may, and the California State University may, consider race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, geographic origin, and household income, along with other relevant factors, in undergraduate and graduate admissions, so long as no preference is given." The purpose, as the bill states, is to "enroll a student body that meets high academic standards and reflects the cultural, racial, geographic, economic, and social diversity of California."

For more, follow the links given above ... there's little need to repeat last week's news blitz.

I'd heard rumor of BCR's planned event before I headed north to Ashland, Oregon, where I'd reserved tickets for an adaptation of Molière's The Imaginary Invalid, followed by Shakespeare's 2 Henry IV and Julius Caesar. (I blogged about the two Shakespeare plays in advance of seeing them, in Shakespeare, power, theme in literature a couple weeks ago.)

The news went national on my way up Interstate 5, and caught up to me at the breakfast table at the McCloud River Inn, a sweet B&B at the foot of Mt. Shasta. I mentioned to other guests at the inn that I hail from Berkeley, and conversation turned to that morning's NY Times article on the bake sale brouhaha. (It's the 21st century. There's no such thing as "getting away," am I right? The fellow who'd read the article was an alum, and lives in Marin. He and his father were up north to fish for trout.)

I caught up with a fraction of the story's coverage after returning home, and am a little amazed at the extent to which, as that unnamed student on Sproul Plaza said, "they're kind of missing the point."

Yammerers who rail against consideration of factors aimed at balancing "high academic standards" with selection of a student body that "reflects the cultural, racial, geographic, economic, and social diversity of California" ignore fundamental truths that have a great deal to do with university admissions, including these two:
(1) there's no such thing as an objective assessment of merit; and,
(2) the present is the leading edge of what's gone before, a.k.a. "history"
Does the first need explaining? Does anybody out there really believe that high school GPAs and standardized tests are anything but a crude measure of a narrow subset of the constellation of skills, strengths, and motivations that qualify a person to engage in a course of post-secondary study, or that predict success in the endeavor?

Limits inherent in these quantitative measures is the reason that selective institutions of higher ed consider other factors than the numbers on a transcript or a College Board scorecard. By way of example, let's take a look at Harvard University, a selective institution of higher ed if ever there was one. On Harvard's admissions site, as many ambitious high school students and their parents already know, are a few paragraphs describing "What We Seek." Here it is, as it appeared on Harvard's web site yesterday afternoon:
Applicants can distinguish themselves for admission in a number of ways. Some show unusual academic promise through experience or achievements in study or research. Many are "well rounded" and have contributed in various ways to the lives of their schools or communities. Others are "well lopsided" with demonstrated excellence in a particular endeavor—academic, extracurricular or otherwise. Still others bring perspectives formed by unusual personal circumstances or experiences.

Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but we also seek people with enthusiasm, creativity and strength of character.

Most admitted students rank in the top 10–15 percent of their graduating classes, having taken the most rigorous secondary school curriculum available to them.

A lot of wiggle room there, eh? And why is that? Because the folks at Harvard University know better than to rely on narrow, fantastical conceits like objective measures of merit. In the real world it's complicated, as a wealthy and well-known Harvard alum put it on his social networking platform once upon a time.

As for the second fundamental truth? History?

Here's a passage from one of Shakespeare's history plays, 2 Henry IV, one of the works I happened to see performed last week. In the Elizabethan theatre at Ashland this passage struck me as a dead-on description of why it's ridiculous to pretend that an applicant for college admission exists in a social and historical vacuum. From, this is Henry IV speaking on his deathbed to the soon-to-be-crowned Henry V, his son. Apologies to the Bard for paring his poetry in order to make a point:
God knows, my son,
By what by-paths and indirect crook'd ways
I met this crown; and I myself know well
How troublesome it sat upon my head.
To thee it shall descend with bitter quiet,
Better opinion, better confirmation;
For all the soil of the achievement goes
With me into the earth.
[...] and now my death
Changes the mode; for what in me was purchased,
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
So thou the garland wear'st successively.
Nobody succeeds solely on individual merit. Not Prince Harry, nor any of the 142,235 Fall 2011 applicants to the University of California. We exist -- and are nourished, or not -- in a social milieu. In the quoted passage, Henry IV, who deposed his predecessor in order to ascend to the throne of England, explains to Hank, Jr. that possession of the crown for which Henry IV cast aside, imprisoned, and (it is thought) starved Richard II, will appear to be the new normal when it passes in peaceful lineal succession to his son.

The prince replies to his father:
My gracious liege,
You won it, wore it, kept it, gave it me;
Then plain and right must my possession be [...]
Um. Really? Daddy stole the crown, passes it to his son, and now Junior owns it 'honestly'? Sure, Harry.....

It's a messier and less precise business to weigh the lives of young commoners than it is to study and cite the much-told histories of monarchs. But that's the messy, imprecise task of university admissions officers. And those admissions officers would be making less-informed decisions if they were not allowed to consider applicants' origins in a culture that has accrued centuries of advantage to individual members of social groups based on factors that have nothing to do with intrinsic, individual merit but everything to do with social milieu -- "race, gender, ethnicity, national origin, geographic origin, and household income" would be some of these factors.

"Indeed," says Harvard's admissions web site, "the Admissions Committee may respond favorably to evidence that a candidate has overcome significant obstacles, financial or otherwise."

It's complicated.

Whatever the intentions of the yammerers, reductive demands to narrow university admissions criteria boil down to maintaining historical advantages conferred on or seized by groups, not earned by individual merit.

Elizabeth Warren, candidate for the U.S. Senate in the state of Massachusetts, spoke brilliantly on the absurdity of G.O.P. 'gimme, it's mine, I earned it' politics -- of which this diversity bake sale kerfuffle is but a sad and pathetic variant -- a couple of weeks ago. Here's the quote, or watch the video below:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody! You built a factory out there -- good for you! But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn't have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory [...] because of work the rest of us did. Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific [...] God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

Whether it's wealth or it's great grades in high school, the BCR and the party with which they are affiliated are missing the point in a big, big way. Sorry, Republikidz: you can't sell your cupcake and eat it too.

Thanks to Lobsterthermidor via WikiMedia Commons, for the contemporary image of Henry of Bolingbroke (Henry IV) as he claims the throne of England in 1399.


  1. My personal reaction when I heard about this bake sale was, "Isn't that very 80s?"

  2. @katinsf -- Well, I suppose, but to be fair it's a bit like the MSM leading (in stories on any left-leaning protest) with "In a scene reminiscent of the sixties..." to say so, n'est–ce pas?

  3. I don't think they do that any more. Now they say "the largest in thirty years" -- those activist eighties again -- or else they suggest that it's never happened before. Or more often, they say nothing at all.

  4. Stop the presses! Congressman Peter King as reported in Rep. Peter King Calls Occupy Wall Street Protesters 'Ragtag Mob,' 'Anarchists' in the Huffington Post on 7 Oct 2011:

    King, whose Long Island district includes many Wall Street commuters, dismissed the demonstrators as "a bunch of angry 1960s do-overs" trying "to create chaos and take away the focus on the Obama record."

  5. I can't help but come back with a fresh example of journalism as nostalgia. This morning's paper (SF Chronicle), following a night in which "as many as 10,000 students and Occupy activists overflowed UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza," headlined their print-edition run of the story from which the quote is taken Big Berkeley strike -- echoes of the past.