Thanks to reader Michael Sharon

Thanks to reader Michael Sharon for providing us with the Thernstrom article about The Shape of the River, and to Trunk for posting it. Some of our readers may be wondering how a book about racial preferences at colleges and universities ended up with such an unusual title. Bok and Bowen explain that the title comes by way of Mark Twain and his discussion of riverboat pilots who, after years of experience, learned the “shape” of the Mississippi River and thus how to navigate it expertly. The use of this title reveals, I think, the central conceit of the liberalism of Bok and Bowen. They see themselves as skilled pilots flawlessly navigating the treacherous waters of higher education and race relations. In their minds, they have transcended their status as bureaucrats to become near-perfect social engineers and, as such, godlike. One need only thumb through a few issues of the Chronicles of Higher Education to get a sense of how laughable the Bok-Bowen pretention is.
I recall, however, an off-hand comment by conservative law professor Richard Epstein at a Federalist Society event on affirmative action. Epstein remarked that he personally could grant preferences in law school admissions in a way that made sense, but that he wouldn’t be able to explain how he did it. The comment was greeted with derision by Clinton’s quota commissar, Norma Cantu, and with skepticism by Linda Chavez on the other side of the spectrum, and Epstein did not elaborate. What he meant, I think, was that those who actually teach students (and thus do have some knowledge of the “shape of the river”) could, if they acted in good faith, identify minority students who are likely to “outperform” their paper credentials, and thereby admit a class with enough minority students to achieve the benefits of diversity without compromising very much, if at all, on quality. This is what many of us wish could happen, and I suspect that Epstein may be correct in theory. Free from bureaucrats like Bok and Bowen, professors acting in good faith perhaps could make affirmative action work in the sense described above. Some discrimination would probably result, but it might well be minimal enough for most of us to avert our gaze. Ultimately, though, Epstein’s vision (or my understanding of it) is as much of a conceit as Bok and Bowen’s because the idea of professors working in good faith on something like this for any period of time is fanciful. I should add that Epstein believes that private colleges (and indeed private employers) should have the right to discriminate on the basis of race, whether in favor of, or against, African-Americans.

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