The Corner


An American Dilemma

The jewel of the New York City school system (Wikimedia)

This article in the New York Times is getting attention, understandably. It highlights an old, painful issue, involving “merit,” race, and ethnicity. The headline over the article is “Only 7 Black Students Got Into N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.”

That high school is Stuyvesant. As the Times reports, students get into such schools “by acing a single high-stakes exam that tests their mastery of math and English.” This leads to racial and ethnic outcomes that are deemed undesirable. At Stuyvesant, 74 percent of freshmen next year — call it three-quarters — will be Asian.

New York mayor Bill de Blasio, among others, has called for the scrapping of the entrance exam and the overhaul of the admissions process. I have a memory, from 2001. Indeed, via the power of Google, I will quote the Times:

Contending that standardized college tests have distorted the way young people learn and worsened educational inequities, the president of the University of California is proposing an end to the use of SAT’s as a requirement for admission to the state university system he oversees, one of the largest and most prestigious.

(To read the article, go here.)

I talked to Abigail Thernstrom about this on the phone. She said something unforgettable: “This is a dagger aimed at the heart of Asians.” (That was not the intention of President Atkinson and his allies, of course. But that may have been a result.)

Back to Stuyvesant: Are those 74 percent of freshmen “Asians”? Or are they individuals? That is a key question, pushing to the fore our deepest beliefs.

In its report on Stuyvesant, the Times uses some curious language: “… out of 895 slots in the freshman class, only seven were offered to black students.” That word “offered” is interesting, isn’t it? Admission is exam-based, period (as I understand it). I myself would surely not get in, lacking the math (to put it mildly). Would I then say that I had not been “offered” a place?

Jeff Hart was — or rather, he won one. I was talking about Jeff in an earlier post. Our late senior editor went to Stuyvesant, brilliant New York kid that he was. He entered in 1943. The school, he wrote to me, was “the jewel of the NYC system.” Apparently, it still is. Jeff further said this: “Stuyvesant, now mostly Asian, was then mostly Jewish, Trotskyite, and chess-playing, and so competitive it would have made George Steinbrenner look like a Zen Buddhist.”

(For the uninitiated, or forgetful, Steinbrenner was for decades the owner of the New York Yankees, and damn competitive.)

I loved something else Jeff told me about Stuyvesant, namely: “My Jewish friends there interested me in Wagner and Marx, but failed with chess.”

Almost everyone Jeff knew at Stuyvesant went to Harvard to become a doctor. Jeff went to Dartmouth — and he, too, was pre-med. (He would soon change his mind, falling hard for the humanities.) He said that his professors at Dartmouth were not nearly as good as his teachers at Stuyvesant. He would later transfer to Columbia.

I don’t know whether Stuyvesant High School will survive, in its “meritocratic” form. It is at odds with what is now the American ethos. Envy is one of the most powerful forces on earth. So is the desire for equality. So is the urge to see people as members of racial or ethnic groups, instead of as individuals. Should students at Stuyvesant be counted up by race and ethnicity anyway? Should we know these numbers? Should they be blared in our papers? Can these kids not be simply — you know: themselves?

Let me pause to say something about “meritocracy.” It was coined, by the British sociologist Michael Young (father to Toby, the famous journalist), as a negative term, not a positive one.

The French motto begins with liberté and continues with égalité, before ending with fraternité. The first two of these are often at war. And so it will continue, in the New York City school system and everywhere else. But in this vast, star-spangled nation, from sea to shining sea, I hope there will always be room for a Stuyvesant or two, much as they offend our notions about inclusiveness.

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