Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

All-Purpose Equality


A longer version of Russ Nieli’s article on discrimination against white students in university admissions is going to appear in the Fall issue of Academic Questions. The AQ article is a review-essay on No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life, by Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, and Nieli takes the opportunity to revisit Nathan Glazer’s comments on group differences from way back in 1969, the common sense of which has been lost in the mists of  time.

In the Summer 1969 issue of the Journal of Negro Education, Glazer wrote: “History and social research convince me that there are deep and enduring differences between various ethnic groups in their educational achievement and in the broader cultural characteristics in which these differences are, I believe, rooted.” Such differences, he continued, “cannot be simply associated with the immediate conditions under which these groups live, whether we define these conditions as being those of levels of poverty and exploitation, or prejudice and discrimination.”

“If we are to have a decent society,” he concluded, “men must learn to live with some measure of group differences in educational achievement, to tolerate them, and to accept in some degree the disproportion in the distribution of rewards that may flow from differences in educational achievement. . . . We need to press not only our research on these differences, their origins, their extent, their causes, the measures that reduce them, but also develop and strengthen a political and social philosophy that permits a society to accept them, to live with them, and be stronger because of them.”

It is worthwhile asking why such obvious common sense about the diversity of human traits is so difficult for us in the contemporary social climate. Steven Pinker has commented that “the prospect of genetic tests of group differences in psychological traits is both more likely and more incendiary [than human cloning], and is one that the current intellectual community is ill-equipped to deal with.”  

Pinker rightly emphasizes that group differences say nothing about the individual members of any group, and that as long as we stay with the idea of individual rights and political equality, there should be no problem. But why then the nervousness when the subject of possible group differences arises, as in the e-mail-gate fracas at Harvard some weeks ago?   

Why this nervousness? Because political rights, human rights, individual rights, and the importance of the individual human person have to have some basis; they do not stand on their own. Many accept with equanimity that these rights are endowed by the Creator and are not troubled. As David French stated on our list when when the subject came up some weeks ago, “Aren’t the stakes of a scientific debate over, say, racial differences in IQ much lower if we understand the reality that ‘God created man in his own image’ and thus certain moral and ethical obligations to our fellow man flow inexorably from that truth — regardless of their IQ, or any other characteristic?”

But modern secular liberalism is without a transcendent source on which to base those rights, and thus substitutes all-purpose equality, which in the contemporary context has come to mean equality of group outcome. Darwinians struggle to claim that material evolution has somehow produced our finer attributes, such as consciousness, volition, reason, altruism, cooperativeness, moral sense, etc.; this “survival of the sweetest” scenario is speculative at best and is based on reasoning from present human behavior (which may well have developed from centuries of religious formation) back to our ancestors on the savannah.

Since the secular liberal paradigm contains no independent source on which to base an affirmation of human worth, equality of groups has become the only assurance of universal human dignity, and thus any sign of group difference would disturb the only premise on offer for affirming the unconditional value of human life.


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