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Affirmative action: The functional-technical downside

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted March 30, 2009

Let's face it: youth are often suckers for the facile, especially if it's logically coherent. I freely admit that I was, back when I was a youth. It's just too tempting to see a largely deductive system, starting with several easily-acceptable foundational propositions, as a substitute for experience. Many downfalls have been delineated by such systems, including my own.

For the less rigor-conscious, the perennial favorite is intellectualized moralizing. Instead of inducing hope for instant experience, this brand of folly pushes back Sir Humphrey Appleby's "Politicians' Syllogism" one step. The structure is always the same: this is a fact; this fact is morally objectionable; therefore, we must do something to change it. Then comes, "We must do something; this is something; therefore, we must do it." And, of course, anyone who picks through the emotion-laden chain is scotched out as wicked. These two varieties of sophomoricism have ducking out in common, although the specifics differ. Systemizers use ratiocination to duck out of learning, and 'idealists' use emotionalizing to duck out of ratiocination. Thankfully for the human race, we tend to grow out of both. 

Despite the associated rigors of learning sound logic, it's actually a convenience to trust in a largely deductive system. I might as well be honest on this point. The better ones have a saving open-endedness in the concepts being rearranged; if the worst ones have any stamp, it would be the hope and promise of deriving specific items of knowledge from ratiocination. Hegel never quite lived down his conclusion that the solar system must have seven planets – and that bit of systemizing gibed with a fact known in his time. How much worse a folly is a system that promises to unveil new facts?

Emotivist 'idealisms' have their own pitfalls too, usually in implementation. There's an odd commonality between idealism in the social sphere and – I might as well say it – boomtown'ishness in business. First is better than best, and the person of thought often winds up being cast as wicked. Blaming the messenger is rife in both activities; many messages don't get sent. The repairperson also tends to be blamed, which explains the recurrent disrepairs in both circuits.

I admit that convenience is a major motivator for the emotivist approach. Venting one's spleen and shooting one's mouth off are basically side motivators. It's much easier to belt out 'Racist!' when another human being points to the deficiencies of the Obama administration as indicative of the downsides of affirmative action itself. As is often the case, some people have the luxury of stigmatizing the practical-minded and prancing off to a System Of A Down concert. Others don't, and have to appraise it functionally. If noting this point, and following through on it, makes me an old geeze-bot then so be it.

The best way to functionally assess a system for any downsides is to think within the box while using non-emotion-triggering examples. I might as well use myself for this analysis. Since I'm a (known) heterosexual male of Caucasian descent, it seems odd using me as a potential beneficiary of an affirmative-action program. Thus, I stand well as the example in an analysis devoid of sentiment. It's hard to get upset over any  difficulties the likes of me has faced.

A few years ago, I wrote a few mathematics papers; all of them are unpublished. One used mathematical induction to solve a rarefied problem in number theory, which was supposed to be impossible using that method. (It's called "Induction Involving Infinity," and it's archived at this Yahoo! Group.) Had the social clime been less like that of the last few decades and more like that of the '60s, I could have held myself up as an intuitive genius raised in a "math-deprived" environment. A presently non-standard category, 'tis true, but it's good for analysis because it carries no emotional charge nowadays. With a little airbrushing and background-tweaking, I could fit myself into an acceptable category.

Had I done so, I would have rated affirmative action in math to my benefit. Would it have enriched math had I done so?

Unfortunately, based upon my brief track record, the answer is "no." I lacked the necessary learnings to be a competent math producer. This showed in a 1999 paper I wrote (in HTML, no less) which identified a kind of linear-algebra matrix I called the "self-referential matrix." I thought this one was a perfect paper, and was proud enough of it to send a copy to Princeton University back in 2001 (two years after showing it to some others.) Unfortunately for me, I had to redact part of it in 2006 because that part was flawed.  (The redacted version is here.) Flaws proved to be in almost all of my attempts.

Had I been the product of a formal affirmative-action program, I would have faced the same difficulties. No amount of special help could have obviated the fact that I wasn't trained properly in mathematics. Getting bristly would not have changed that lack either. Nor would me brandishing my (real or imputed) IQ score as if it was some sort of trophy I had won.

The only remedy for me would have been buckling down and learning: intense memorization and training. The interesting aspect about memorization skills is they're not correlated with IQ scores, and not well correlated with SAT scores; memory work gets around the so-called "tyranny of the bell curve." Had I been the beneficiary of an affirmative-action program using that framework, I might have done all right.

Unfortunately, I didn't follow through; instead, I gave up because I over-relied on some self-posited "mathematical intuition." Thankfully, I learned of my lack of learnings on a solely private basis; I didn't let any person or formal program down by bowing out of math.

Using me as a hypothetical affirmative-action candidate shows the downside of affirmative action, one that a mere moralizer won't catch. By over-rating my potential, I thought I had lesser need of training than the next person. Had I been encouraged in such a conceit, I would have been made insecure and impulsive in order to live up to my supposed potential. More to the point: had I tried to moralize my way out of scrapes, I would have been blind to the option that would have brought me up to snuff.

The above functional analysis, as technical as an emotivist isn't, not only shows the downside of presently-structured affirmative-action programs but also points out a better way to bring worthy special-help candidates up to par (and possibly beyond.) Had emotionalism not gotten in the way, affirmative-action candidates could have undertaken an alternate learning mode that would made them just as competent as any other. This approach would have also erased the seat-of-the-pants insecurity that many affirmative-action 'beneficiaries' have had to endure.

But, of course, it's easier to trundle out the protests and Rawk On. Much easier… ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is an irregular columnist for LewRockwell.com, and has an undamaged mail address here.


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