The 2013 film Admission is a comedy-drama about the professional and romantic trials of Portia Nathan (Tina Fey), an intrepid Princeton University admissions officer. At one point in the movie, Helen (Sonya Walger), an Englishwoman and eminent Virginia Woolf scholar from the University of Cambridge, takes a dig at Portia: “I’ll never really understand your admissions system in America, because we just do tests. You know, we don’t really care about your childhood or your recent conversion to Buddhism. Gray matter — that’s what counts.”
Helen has reason to be smug about her British pedigree. For the better part of the past millennium, the University of Oxford (founded in 1096) and its perennial rival, the University of Cambridge (founded in 1209), have survived with admissions schemes based entirely on intellectual merit — and wholly devoid of “affirmative action” policies. But more than having merely survived, the two oldest English-speaking institutions of higher learning in the world have prospered. They have inspired an endless list of prodigious minds, tendered innumerable contributions to human civilization, and, not surprisingly, consistently claimed top spots in global academic rankings.
Yet, for the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a captain of the American race industry, “Oxbridge” — as Oxford and Cambridge are collectively known — is not up to snuff. During a recent trip to England, he asserted
that “the absence of blacks diminishes the greatness of these universities.” In turn, he called on the country to implement “positive access” to increase the number of ethnic minorities at elite institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge.
Jackson is destined to lose this fight — badly — for three reasons. First, as social-democratic as Britain may be, a streak of big-L Liberalism (akin to conservatism in the American political spectrum of today) still runs through its national ethos, one that cherishes merit and individual liberty and, therefore, prefers equality of opportunity to equality of outcome. Indeed, British law generally prohibits quotas for “protected characteristics,” such as age, race, and sex, in education, employment, and association. Oxford and Cambridge — rightfully so — spend millions of dollars annually on outreach programs to recruit the brightest students from underrepresented backgrounds. Commitment to “widening participation,” noted Jon Beard, director of undergraduate recruitment at Cambridge, “is a matter of social responsibility and enlightened self-interest, not a consequence of external targets or political pressure.”
That Jackson has largely disregarded context, the fact that “diversity” in Britain has traditionally been far more about class than race, is the second reason he is heading toward defeat. Tellingly, the dominant political faction on the left in Britain for the past century has been the Labour party, not the Liberal party. American leftists such as Jackson, who are preoccupied with “identity,” are out of step with British leftists, who continue to see class as the principal engine of history.
And the third reason that Jackson is bound to look a fool? Reality — plain and simple. Oxford and Cambridge’s enduring record of excellence obliterates the pervasive left-wing notion, propagated by organizations such as the Washington Higher Education Secretariat, that “diversity” is essential to an exceptional education as well as the moral enlightenment of a student body. By this point, probably no one harbors misgivings about the quality of the curricula that have yielded Oxbridge’s vast intellectual achievements.
As for Oxbridge undergraduates themselves, I doubt that anyone — save perhaps Jackson and the other most zealous crusaders of multiculturalism — believes that they are maladjusted brutes due to the absence of affirmative action on their campuses. “I’m concerned that when 21 colleges at Oxbridge took no black students last year,” Jackson said, “the students are being cheated of a multicultural and multiracial experience in a world that is multicultural and multiracial.” Having spent four years at one of America’s largest public institutions of higher learning, The Pennsylvania State University, and four years at Cambridge, I can personally assure Jackson that British undergraduates are no less tolerant, cosmopolitan, and open-minded — especially about race — than their Atlantic cousins.