How’s that river shaping up for you?

In his article about the troubles at his alma mater, my Princeton alumnus friend noted the role of William Bowen, Provost from 1967 to 1972 and President from 1972 to 1988. Not content with screwing up Princeton, Bowen co-wrote (with former Harvard President Derek Bok) a defense of race-based preferential college admissions. The book bears the odd title The Shape of the River.

In The Shape of the River, Bowen and Bok amassed data to support the case that race-based preferences granted by top schools have produced good results for the intended beneficiaries. According to the data, a decent number of them went on to become doctors, lawyers, or business executives, and collectively they earned a very respectable yearly income.

In addition, the authors cited poll data suggesting that both white and black alumni were happy with their alma maters’ affirmative action policies (those excluded from admission to the schools could not be reached for comment). Either all of those micro-aggressions directed at black students had washed away from memory or else they had never been noticed — the concept not yet having been invented.

The Bowen-Bok collaboration has been credited with putting preferential admissions on a sound empirical footing and facilitating their spread down the higher education food chain. Frankly, I doubt that race-based preferences needed The Shape of the River to flourish. These preferences remained unpopular even after the Bowen-Bok book but the elites were determined to shove them down our throats no matter what.

The elitist nature of the enterprise, and the hubris in which it is wrapped, can be gleaned from the title of the Bowen-Bok collaboration — The Shape of the River. Perhaps you were wondering how an empirical analysis of racial preferences got such a name.

The title comes from Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi in which Twain describes how, piloting boats on the Mississippi River, he learned to “master[] the language of this water and. . .to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet.” As an apprentice, Twain had been told:

My boy, you’ve got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It’s all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything else is blotted out and gone. But mind you it hasn’t the same shape in the night that it has in the daytime. . . .

[Y]ou learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that’s in your head, and never mind the one that’s before your eyes.

Bowen and Bok cast the leaders of elite institutions of higher education in the omniscient role of the Mississippi riverboat pilot, steering their institutions through the dark and sometimes treacherous waters of race. They assert a prerogative for the administrators to use their sense of “the shape of the river” to make racially discriminatory decisions in the pursuit of educational and societal objectives. They want these administrators to have the autonomy to put their expertise to work, and they seem to deny the right of the rest of us — those who haven’t navigated in these waters — to second guess them.

Fifteen years later, it is fair to ask how well college administrators have navigated. Has their understanding of the shape of the river enabled them to anticipate and minimize hazards?

I say it hasn’t. I say, instead, that the administrators’ vessels have been swept headlong down the rapids and thrust against at least two very large boulders.

Boulder number one is the dumbing down of the curriculum. African-American studies departments blossom, often trafficking in nonsense and handing out A and A-minus grades with abandon.

Sometimes, moreover, rigor is drained from serious courses thanks to race-based admissions. A friend taught econometrics at the public policy school of a major university. The course was required to obtain the graduate diploma.

Affirmative action admittees consistently struggled with the course. Asked to make it less difficult, my friend altered it, but to little avail. Eventually, as a result of the inability of affirmative action admittees to cope with the material, the school eliminated econometrics as a required course. The degree was dumbed down.

Boulder number is two is intimidation and the curbing of free speech and the free exchange of ideas — the bedrock of the university as it formerly was conceived. Speech codes restrict speech that would be protected by the First Amendment in society at large because affirmative action admittees might experience “triggering.” In some classrooms, students risk low grades if they express certain views or simply call things by their proper names. And at Dartmouth, students are abused in the library if they opt to study rather than protest.

I discussed the connection between race-based preferences and what I call militant black fragility here. It’s obvious enough that the master pilots of the education universe posited by Bok-Bowen should have seen it in advance.

Now that it’s fully upon us, do they care? Not deeply, it seems.

Princeton may no longer be proud of Woodrow Wilson, but Wilson would be proud of Princeton, or at least of William Bowen, its former president. Bowen’s case for race-based preferential admissions was a near perfect expression of Wilsonian worship of experts and disdain for common sense (the shape “that’s before your eyes’).

The baleful consequences of such admissions policies remind us of the perils of Wilsonianism.

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