The Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case was widely seen as a testing ground for the American concept of equal opportunity, and the American principles of justice and fairness therein. By ruling in favor of Harvard and its race-conscious admissions policies, Judge Allison D. Burroughs and our legal system seem to have emphatically affirmed these principles.
But if the meritocracy is working, why does it still feel as if the system is not? The tensions surfacing in the SFFA lawsuit are merely part of a larger frustration with the role of college admissions in our society. To many people, the justice proclaimed in the verdict feels illusory.
Between 1830 and 1930 the average U.S. full-time workweek declined from 69 hours to 47 hours per week. Far from decreasing economic production, this trend was accompanied by substantial increases in standards of living. We were working less and enjoying more. Capitalism was working.
It was at this time that the famous economist John Maynard Keynes published his essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren” in which he imagined Western societies a hundred years later continuing along this trajectory and escaping the “economic problem” once and for all. He envisioned four to eight fold increases in standards of living accompanied by 15 hour workweeks. More importantly, he envisioned freedom from capitalistic principles that make a virtue of greed. We would cast off the pretensions of capitalism that we only adopted to get us over the subsistence hump, and finally reach a world where we might fully realize our human potential.
It’s an understatement to say that modern science has been the most transformative tool in the human toolkit over the last millennium. From our transportation systems to our digital playthings, we are a society built on the shoulders of science.
We are also a society that has embraced this tool with passion. In elementary school I remember memorizing the scientific method, admiring the genius of Isaac Newton and Marie Curie, and watching with awe my first science experiment, a baking soda and vinegar volcano. STEM education is the stated center of U.S. education policy. News outlets, responding to public demand, now regularly utilize the statistics and studies that their forebears once flippantly labeled nerd-stuff. And wherever we go, we encounter technology, each device quietly advertising to us the power of this tool we call science.
A few months ago I came across a magazine full of colorized old photographs from the collection of Brazilian artist Marina Amaral. For a concept so simple, the effect was jarring. Seeing, in full color, Abraham Lincoln posing awkwardly in front of a tent, Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by a pair of suited U.S. Marshals, and tram traffic on Westminster Bridge in 1919 closed an emotional distance between me and these histories that I hadn’t realized existed. It was almost disorienting, as if the wall between two different compartments of my brain that had long been kept separated was suddenly removed.
Thinking about these photographs made me reflect on my relationship with the past. I interact with it everyday, whether it’s by reading old books about old characters, or hearing about my older relatives, or studying the ancient empires of the world. But in my mind these lives led and cherished and ended were merely like old black and white photographs. They were faded and stripped of the color that filled their lives, reduced to the simplest dimensions and expressed in shallow generalizations.
Divest Harvard is a useful microcosm of the modern environmental movement that I think has a lot to work on. At two crucial turns the movement lets me down.
First, it abandons the simple decision-making framework of cost and benefit in favor of panicked alarmism, leading to its own misguided mission. Listen to any divest protest or mainstream environmentalist messaging, and it is impossible to avoid the common idea that climate change is the “single most important issue” of today, and a future catastrophe waiting to destroy us.