In the techno-centric, meritocratic culture that i live in, i’m often faced with logic processes that make sense given a set of accepted axioms, but fundamentally fail due to the lack of an entire picture. One of my favorites is affirmative action. It still bugs me to a core that i’m at a University that eliminated affirmative action from its admissions process and i’m really frustrated that the flawed logic that undermined affirmative action in this State is getting perpetuated more broadly.
The anti-affirmative action logic is simple because it’s based on a meritocratic principle – the best people should be admitted regardless of race, class, gender, etc.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few missing components, many of which were brought up in the debates. Most obviously, there is a question of whether or not people have an equal and fair chance of acquiring the skills necessary to achieve. This logic asks us to look at the potential of an individual, removed from the context in which they were born and raised. Herein lies a deeper problem – can we remove people from that context? There’s an amazing book called Prejudicial Appearances: The Logic of American Anti-discrimination Law that covers this beautifully.
What is missing in all of the debate, as far as i can tell, is a clear analysis of what things like universities do. When i was in high school, i was often advised to attend the local or state school because i would get just as good of an education there as at any hoity toity private school. The fact of the matter is that’s really bad advice. What those “elite” colleges offer has nothing to do with curriculum or formal education – it has to do with social networks. First, by being far away from family and the local networks, students are faced with a myriad of fresh faces from very different parts of the world. One’s social network expands tremendously in such settings. Plus, in those private institutions, many of your fellow students are heavily connected (through their parents) to all sorts of powerful business people, politicians, etc. Going to such an institution allowed me to jump socioeconomic class in a way that never would’ve been possible otherwise.
College may appear to be about education, but it is primarily about creating the social network that will help you begin your adult life. For this reason, leaving out any group of people continues to marginalize them, limiting their ability for socio-cultural shifts. Let’s be honest – the jocks didn’t get in for their brains – they got in because they play an important social role in the coherence of the university. And alumni’s kids? They too play a critical role in maintaining the social network. Yet, institutions cannot be all about one group of people – this would further homogenize the social network. It needs to be as diverse as possible to alter the networks of all involved, particularly at the most formative years. This is how you achieve shifts in social culture – one generation at a time.
Sure, you don’t want to bring in a population to participate for social networks only to not prepare them such that they fail. But there are other ways to help alleviate the discrepancies, often through programming and making certain that the system is prepared to deal with diversity and help people find ways to connect on common ground. (This was what prompted me to help run a program back at Brown for pre-frosh who were from the city and had non access to computers.)
Now, it’s important to note that this doesn’t just apply to university. In the tech world, people often moan at Liz and i when we make snarky comments about how few women are at conferences. What do you think conferences are? Meritocratic events? Bullshit. They’re social networking events first and foremost. The more women and other minorities you include, the more they get integrated into the network and the more the network diversifies. Folks in the tech world seem to be fascinated by how social networks work, but at the same time, the application of it to the culture at hand is atrocious. Yes, it’s forced and painful at first. And we’re not idiots – i know i get invited to things for the diversity quotient. And guess what? I tend to bring other women along… funny how that happens. Diversification doesn’t happen magically – it has to start as a conscientious effort. And we all need to move beyond our utopian fantasy of a meritocratic society that will transcend all realities about how race, class and gender are operationalized and institutionalized. Or more accurately, we have to actually make that happen, not by trying to be blind to these issues, but to be very conscious of how they exist in our society. And by being honest with ourselves about what we’re doing to actually diversify instead of homogenize. ‘Cuz damnit, the meritocratic attitude of the tech industry has not proven effective at all.