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Assessing Affirmative-Action Policies

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As affirmative-action programs designed to improve opportunities in education, housing, and employment for minorities have become institutionalized over the last 20 years, interpretation of their original intent has shifted, contends Nathan Glazer in the winter issue of The Public Interest.

"The expectation of color blindness that was paramount in the mid-1960's,'' the policy analyst writes, "has been replaced by policies mandating numerical requirements.''

But such policies "are not likely to do better in improving [blacks' overall] condition than the work and efforts of blacks in an open and, it is to be hoped, more prosperous society,'' he argues.

In the following excerpts from his essay, Mr. Glazer recommends changes in affirmative-action policies:

I believe opposition to affirmative action is often founded on a liberal vision as devoted to equality as that of its proponents. But principle often must give way to practicality and prudence: Rather than an all-out assault, which it seems must fail, the issue now is to define, as some Supreme Court decisions do, where, when, for whom, and what kind of affirmative action is legitimate.

Thus we should consider (though one is aware of the enormous political difficulties involved) eliminating Asians and Hispanics from the affirmative-action categories. They would of course retain the protection all Americans have against discrimination on grounds of race, ethnicity, or national background.

If such a limitation were possible--it could easily be done administratively--it would begin to send the message that we view affirmative action as a temporary expedient, to be increasingly dispensed with, in various areas, for various groups, over time.

We should make clear, even if it is politically impossible to change the affirmative-action regulations affecting blacks, that these are to be reviewed at regular intervals to determine their necessity or efficacy. Ideally, we should aim at a society in which individuals are treated without regard to race and ethnicity for purposes of employment, promotion, or admission into selective institutions: This is the kind of society, it is clear, that the majority of blacks would like to live in.

The failure of American schools to adequately educate young people in science and mathematics is "a national scandal,'' according to Paul E. Gray, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In a recent speech to a group of the university's alumni in Washington, Mr. Gray sketched the dimensions of "scientific illiteracy'' and offered suggestions for addressing the problem.

Following are excerpts from his speech:

The public-school system in this country may not be entirely responsible for public scientific illiteracy, but it will do for a start. On the average, U.S. high-school students take only one year of science. Fewer than half take three years of mathematics. ...

At the collegiate level, surprisingly large numbers of graduates from traditional liberal-arts programs receive degrees without any significant involvement with science or with mathematics. ...

Beyond the present school population, adults are equally illiterate. Many are unable to distinguish between astronomy and astrology, and a growing number seem to believe that crystals influence their well-being. In a study reported at the 1986 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, pollsters found that two-thirds of adults do not understand the terms "molecule,'' "radiation,'' and "scientific study.'' Three-fourths do not understand the term "DNA.''

Beyond that, more than half of the adults studied believed that scientists have a power that makes them dangerous. But, at the same time, because the world is so complicated, they believed they can know what is going on only by trusting leaders and experts.

Scientific literacy does not mean expertise. It means the capacity to reason in quantitative terms. It means familiarity with a basic scientific vocabulary and fundamental concepts about physical and biological processes. In sum, it means a reasonable intuition that is informed by the principles of science.

... Science and mathematics must be brought back into the mainstream of the American educational system. ... Furthermore, adults everywhere--in Congress, in industry, in academe--must assume responsibility for their own illiteracy and put forth the plain hard work needed to remedy their deficiencies.

... [W]e must develop a popular understanding that engineering and science are, by their nature, not esoteric quests undertaken by the elite few, but humanistic adventures--deriving from native human curiosity about the world around us and a drive to make it better. It is precisely this broadened concept of science and mathematics that will best serve the nation as a democracy and as an international leader.

In an address to the Alumni Presidents' Council of Independent Secondary Schools, Richard P. Unsworth considered the implications of current demographic changes for independent schools.

As the numbers of young blacks, Asians, and Hispanics have grown, he said, these institutions "have awakened to a new kind of social awareness, a new consciousness that their educational opportunity needs to be available to the widest possible cross-section of American youth.''

In the following excerpts from his speech, Mr. Unsworth, headmaster of Northfield Mount Hermon School in Northfield, Mass., outlines the opportunities and challenges accompanying independent schools' efforts to attract more minority students:

Independent schools have recognized [the decline in the white portion of the student pool], for the most part, and have become much more eager to enroll talented young people of color in increasing numbers. ... Sad to say, this is a relatively recent thing, and not many independent schools are yet very sophisticated about the cultural changes they must undergo within the fabric of the school, if they are to serve people of color well. ...

It is also becoming true, as many have predicted, that the American public secondary school is breaking up into two systems, mostly independent of each other: a white rural and suburban system, and an urban black and Hispanic system. Worse, one is poor and the other at least comfortable; and both are increasingly demoralized.

We may see the day when the independent school is the only place one can expect to find anything resembling a cross-section of the world in which these young people will have to function as adults. ...

The challenge of the present multi-ethnic teen-age population can be seen another way as well. Independent schools will be hard put to serve young people of color fully adequately unless they can include in their population of teachers and administrators a significant number of blacks, Hispanics, and Asians as well. But we all know how difficult that has been for the schools and colleges to achieve.

... When someone who has been brought up in economically straitened circumstances gets access to a good education, there is a great tendency to go for the lucrative career opportunities; and American businesses are out there recruiting from the slender cadre of nonwhite college graduates even more strenuously than the independent schools.

Furthermore, they are recruiting with a full deck of economic cards, while the schools are likely to be most appealing to people who have grown up in sufficiently secure surroundings that they can exhibit the relative luxury of not worrying a whole lot about the financial rewards of their careers.

A further complication arises from the fact that a declining percentage of black and Hispanic high-school graduates, particularly the males, are going to college; and of those who do, a higher proportion are dropping out before they finish, most often for simple economic reasons.

So here you have two statistical curves which should run parallel with each other running, instead, in opposite directions. Independent schools need more minority teachers, but fewer minority students are going on through higher education, and of those who do, a declining proportion are choosing careers in education.

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