Why Harvard Can’t Be Fair

Throughout American history, earnest reformers have hoped to use schools to level out the playing field. It has never worked—at least never as well as we would hope. Why not? A recent piece in the New York Times helps explains a key fact about schools and inequality that is glaringly obvious yet surprisingly hard to see.

For most of us, the logic of schools and social reforms feels pretty straightforward. When we see inequality in our society, we think that school reform can help fix it. After all, it makes sense that better education will allow students from lower-income homes to move up the economic ladder.

Lecture flyer 1

How to save everyone, c. 1834

As I’m arguing in my new book, this logic has always dominated educational and social thinking. Two hundred years ago, Joseph Lancaster swept out of London to New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston. He promised a new type of school that would—in the words of this lecture advertisement—

Collectively afford the means of utterly exterminating ignorance in any State, Country, or Nation.

It didn’t work. Lancaster’s schools hoped to “uplift” the poorest children of every city. They couldn’t. Today’s piece in the New York Times helps explain why they couldn’t back then and they can’t now.

These days, as Asian-American applicants sue Harvard about racist admissions policies and New York elite high schools scramble to make their student bodies more representative of their city, there are still strong factors standing in the way.

As Natasha Warikoo and Nadirah Farah Foley explain,

Who deserves to get an elite education?

That question is being debated in Massachusetts, where court papers argue over Harvard’s use of race in its “holistic” admissions process, and in New York City, where politicians are trying to increase the number of black and Latino students at top public high schools.

But the answer has always been obvious: only the elite.

How does it work? In the case of Harvard admissions,

Harvard applicants who are recruited athletes or children of alumni enjoy significant advantages, and these candidates are disproportionately white and well-off.

As the authors put it succinctly,

In our highly unequal society, education systems have consistently found ways to favor elite, white applicants, whether it’s through slippery definitions of “merit,” giving added weight to athletes or children of alumni, or fighting to change admissions policies to schools in which Asians are more overrepresented rather than those where whites are.

Or, as we at ILYBYGTH like to say, schools can’t reform society; schools ARE society. In other words, schools are not external levers with which reformers can lift people up. Schools are all intensely bound up within the unequal mechanisms of society itself. If society is biased against poor children, or non-white children, or any sort of children, then schools will be too.

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  1. I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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