Work, Not Woke—Why on Race, U.S. Higher Education Should Copy the U.S. Army

Editor’s Note: This article is the last in a symposium on white fragility and its related concepts. To view all of the prior essays in this series, click here.

On Race, the Best of Times and the Worst of Times

For inter-ethnic relations in America, it is the best and worst of times. It is the best regarding personal relations, policing, and merit systems, and the worst regarding how people feel about their collective and individual prospects. So where are we, how did we get here, and how can we do better? The answer requires a consideration of how institutions work. My last essay in this series explored how race ideologues, including politicians, the media, and lower (k-12) educators, divide us. Since “the roof leaks from the top,” as the old saying goes, here I turn my focus to higher education.

The Best of Times… 

As William Frey and, earlier in this series, Eric Kaufmann point out, Americans of different races increasingly intermingle, intermarry, and have children. What was in many states illegal in my lifetime is now commonplace. My white kids have always had black relatives, and it is no big deal. At an ever-increasing rate, demographically, America continues to become what the late journalist and onetime Lyndon B. Johnson speechwriter Ben Wattenberg dubbed “the first universal nation.” In many respects, this is nothing new. As Herman Melville put it in the 1800s, “you cannot spill a drop of American blood without spilling the blood of the whole world.” We continue to become the crew of The Pequod. This complicates the efforts of (often white) politicians seeking to stir racial resentment by selling a simple story of oppressive whites and oppressed minorities (from one side of the ideological spectrum), or of indulgent whites and criminal, sly, or freeloading minorities (from the other side of the political spectrum).

One sees this positive change in the Californians for Equal Rights (CFER) coalition, which in November 2020 defeated California Proposition 16, a referendum to bring back the racial quotas of the 1990s in hiring, contracting, and public university admissions. Though outspent nearly 16-1 in a state Joe Biden carried nearly two to one, CFER won in a landslide, led by 81-year-old African American patriot Ward Connerly and 33-year-old Chinese immigrant, and patriot, Wenyuan Wu. A warrior, Connerly led the 1996 passage of California Proposition 209, which outlawed racial quotas in the first place. Much of the financial backing to defeat 2020’s Prop. 16 (and thus continue to back merit over quotas) came from Chinese American small donors. Most non-elite Americans, including the ethnic minorities who make up roughly two-thirds of Californians, support merit. Their mainly white elite betters, including newspaper editors, do not: consider the relative absence of media coverage of this upset election. If California sets trends, then in the new multiracial America, those who seek to stir up racial animosity may have difficulty—at least outside of college campuses and the elite media, where they dominate. For many (particularly immigrants), merit systems and individual responsibility are American values that cut across ethnicity. Parenthetically, as noted in my prior essay, my kids’ friends are largely East Asian and to a lesser degree South Asian, just as my friends back in the 1970s were heavily Jewish—for the same reasons. Kids who work rather than network stick together and are too busy to be woke.

A second area for optimism, as strange as it sounds, is law enforcement. In my lifetime, overwhelmingly white policemen in some places routinely beat or even killed African Americans with no accountability. For two generations, police departments in major cities have been more integrated, and more professional. Contrary to most media accounts, police killings of civilians are now very rare, are usually justified, and are investigated. Academia and the media almost never report that, in a typical year, only about one in 670 police officer skills a civilian in the line of duty. Roughly 90% of those killed by cops are armed, and many of the others were attacking police. As Wilfred Reilly points out in these pages, controlling for behavior, it is not clear that police disproportionately use lethal force against African Americans. Discriminatory issues regarding policing may remain, particularly regarding traffic stops, but they are far smaller than in living memory. Before living memory, more blacks died from racist, often state-sanctioned violence on single days than over the past decade across the whole country.

A third area of optimism regards not support for merit, but the realities of merit. Nearly 20 years ago, Harvard’s Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom reported that those of different races with similar academic achievement (test scores, rather than mere degrees) had comparable mean incomes. The difference between degrees and test scores is key, since some majors are far easier than others—a stubborn fact those with education degrees obscure for their own self-interest. For at least the past generation and arguably far longer, human capital trumps race in America, something unthinkable through most of human history. From heaven, Frederick Douglass smiles. (Parenthetically, Douglass, who wanted a chance rather than a check, is notably absent from The 1619 Project.) Likewise, as series contributor Wilfred Reilly and others note, differences in family structure (single-parent homes) largely explain achievement, income, and crime differences between blacks, whites, and Asians; with the latter outpacing whites by ever larger statistical margins. Among African Americans, we find enormous variation in family structure and income, individually but also across immigrant groups, with some outpacing the white median.

…And the Worst of Times

Yet this is also among the worst of times. As detailed in my prior essay, The 1619 Project is one of many half-century-old efforts by bureaucracies and whole academic professions to shape historical consciousness so as to make century-old racial pogroms raw, as if they happened yesterday and still define the American nation. As series contributor Wilfred Reilly details in Taboo and as Eric Kaufmann notes in his prior essay here, their efforts worked. Purveyors of what co-editor Craig Frisby calls “racial essentialism”—the notion that your race defines you—have won the day for now. Surveys indicate that most Americans see race relations as deteriorating. Accordingly, President Biden promises to address “structural racism.” Any white Democrat needs key Democratic party constituencies, the media, and academia, and so must promise the same. Yet, like U.S. misadventures in Vietnam and Afghanistan, bad policies may eventually face negative feedback loops even in a wealthy country. Going much farther down our half-century road of racial (and now gender and sexual orientation) essentialism may pave the way for self-correction, if the right political entrepreneur appears. (Is Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley, Corey Booker, Val Demings, Ben Sasse, or Tim Scott reading this?)

For decades, African Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic as a matter of identity, though, interestingly, in 2020 Donald Trump had unusual success for a Republican among both blacks and Hispanics. While the Hispanic and black vote grows somewhat less predictable, white working class and traditional Christian voters are increasingly loyal Republicans, wedded to their own identity politics. As detailed in my last essay, the dangers of identity politics to democracy are obvious. Identity politics undermine accountability, making politics about who a leader is rather than what he does, thus discouraging ethical and effective leadership. Identity politics also enables conspiracy theories, both of the authoritarian right and the postmodern left. As the Grievance Studies Affair perpetrated by series contributors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay (along with Peter Boghossian) shows, sometimes one literally cannot tell the difference between Mein Kampf and postmodern feminism. There is a long tradition of conspiracy theories in African American communities, in fairness, sometimes reflecting objective conditions. After all, absurd beliefs that the government invented AIDS or that Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen is a front for the Ku Klux Klan are not so very different from realities like the Tuskegee experiment, or using urban renewal as “Negro removal.” Likewise, certain right-wing conspiracy theories reflect the reality that traditional Christians and blue collar people, such as cops, are barred from elite circles.

At least among elites, demographic essentialism now defines both culture and politics. Kamala Harris is known only for her demographics, not her nearly three-decades-old public service career, including many years as a tough-on-crime prosecutor—before becoming a social justice warrior. Harris’s record of imprisoning low-level offenders fell to the right of Donald Trump, who signed the First Step act to reduce federal incarceration. Likewise, the U.S. has 335 cities with more than 100,000 people, so it seems doubtful that former South Bend (pop. 101,168) Mayor Pete Buttigieg would make a serious presidential contender as a straight man. Buttigieg’s unexceptional mayoral record got no sustained media attention when he ran for president. Even Bernie Sanders now gets mocked for his whiteness rather than his (silly) ideas, like supporting the USSR during the Cold War.

Ethnic or sexual minority identity now denote victimhood, which translates to status. Victimhood is a zero-sum game and its status is not accorded to all. In June 2014, when I last visited, the Smithsonian Museum of History and Technology hosted a temporary exhibit on Americans from the Indian subcontinent. The Smithsonian chronicled numerous Indian Americans who faced discrimination, including Dalip Singh Saund, the first U.S. Congress member born in India, who served three terms ending in 1963 with no notable legislative achievements. Somehow, the Smithsonian never mentioned the two Indian Americans who were then prominent governors and likely presidential candidates, South Carolina’s Nikki Hailey and Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal. Minorities who define themselves chiefly as patriotic Americans do not get to enjoy victim status; rather, elite arbiters of culture portray them as race traitors, or not at all. Note the newspaper political cartoonists in Kentucky, North Carolina, and South Carolina who drew conservative black officeholders as Uncle Toms or even Klansmen. This free speech is and should be protected, but it seems far more violent than the threats to “safety” so often punished on college campuses.

Progressives, Bureaucrats, and K-12 Schools

How did we get to this point? Much like the racial essentialism of the early 20th century, which enabled the Lost Cause Myth and racial pogroms, the race and gender essentialism of the 21st century started with the educated and their institutions.

Well-educated Progressives idealize bureaucracy. Bureaucracies are large, stable, hierarchical, typically monopolistic organizations with supposed expertise in their specialized jurisdictions, employ promotion-by-merit systems and are governed by formal rules rather than parties, traditions, tribes, or caudillos. From the Navy to the EPA, bureaucracies guard their turf, basing claims for legitimacy on their presumed expertise within their domains. Yet, in practice, bureaucracies are often wrong, and nearly always define solutions to problems in ways that enhance their missions and budgets. Even with the fate of the world at stake during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. Air Force insisted that the Kennedy administration bomb Cuba, while the U.S. Navy lobbied for a blockade. Each bureaucracy portrayed other options as inexpert. Along with formal rules, bureaucracies have informal ideologies and standard operating procedures (SOPs). Once adopted, these become nearly impossible to dislodge, as Anthony Downs detailed in the classic Inside Bureaucracy.

Bureaucracies function best where technologies are noncontroversial and stable. From water and sewer systems, to roads, to air traffic control, to a military deferential to civilian control, modern societies profit from bureaucracy, but only up to a point. Woodrow Wilson, a prominent public administration scholar before entering politics, wanted bureaucrats to take the politics out of governance. If academic and bureaucratic experts rather than elected politicians made key decisions, and if expert decrees replaced political bargaining, government could become more efficient, in theory advancing the public interest. In The State, Wilson went so far as to favor abolishing private charities for their inefficiency and particularism, a model for progressives who today wish to abolish private schools and homeschooling. There is something un-American about this. The late Vincent Ostrom casts Wilson’s technocratic approaches as aligning more with Prussian governance than with the American separation of powers, limited state (reich), and de Tocquevillian volunteerism. Regarding education, countries which have chosen religious and social diversity through markets rather than bureaucratic public monopolies have enjoyed greater freedom, less social division, and even higher test scores.

Naturally, elites prefer the centralized bureaucracies they control to the informal actors they do not control. For idealistic bureaucrats, public sector growth means more ability to change society, or, as Thomas Sowell put it, to impose their visions of the anointed. In practice, as a friend quips, empowered bureaucracies can build water systems—or concentration camps, showing the folly of empowering bureaucrats too much. Contrary to Woodrow Wilson’s model, bureaucracies are not neutral: they have dominant ideologies, typically adopted in their founding period. Once an ideology dominates an agency, it is static because new members are recruited to conform to their peers, even if the agency ideology is morally suspect, empirically flawed, or unrepresentative. Ideological homogeneity fosters groupthink, particularly when an organization has powerful external supporters. For example, in The Transformation of Title IX, left-leaning political scientist Shep Melnick details how the ideologically homogenous Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in the U.S. Department of Education wrote regulations ending free speech and the presumption of innocence in its quest for gender equity, often with full support from interest groups and reporters. Even college presidents, hardly a conservative lot, thought OCR went too far, though most feared saying so given the agency’s power to launch damaging investigations. Despite the prestige of the Brookings Institution, which published Melnick’s fine book, it has not been widely reviewed. One academic reviewer even feared the work might trigger students.

Though ideological disfunction poses the most serious challenges, bureaucrats’ own material and psychological interests also counter the public interest. As the late economist and public official William Niskanen argued, just as private firms seek to maximize profits, public bureaucracies seek to maximize budgets. Rising budgets permit more raises and promotions, giving bureaucrats material stakes in growth. More money reduces internal conflict, allocating more for all. Further, it is impossible to overstate how much agencies (right and left) value loyalty. While a 1940s bureaucrat, public administration scholar Rufus Miles first stated Miles’s Law, that “where you stand depends on where you sit.” Miles was inspired by an official who sought to slash a budget while at the watchdog Bureau of the Budget, only to defend that same budget a year later upon joining the affected agency. Anyone who departs from a bureau’s party line may find their career cut short. In all my years studying and working in government, I cannot think of a public organization that voluntarily advocated to cut its own budget, though at times top leadership forced such actions.

The same self-interest characterizes professions vetted through universities. Once a professional ideology becomes dominant, as is happening now with Social Justice ideology in the media, academia, and much of the corporate world, apostates face danger. Material and ideological interests of the bureaucratic and higher education establishments severely limit what research is acceptable and disseminated. For example, education professors and interest groups have ignored research showing that tripling public education funding in Kansas City failed to improve schools. Similarly, a study measuring ideological discrimination in college grading proved difficult to publish, with eight of ten journal editors unwilling to send the paper for peer review.

Particular academic professions often dominate particular bureaucracies. Since its early-20th-century beginnings, doctors of education (the notorious Ed.D.) have dominated public schools. In part to distinguish themselves from other university-based professional fields, doctorates in education tend to eschew academic content, often portraying content knowledge as damaging to children (despite no evidence for this). Further, in part to gain favor from business-dominated school boards and in part since they arose when Scientific Management was the dominant business paradigm, schools of education stress compliance and division of labor. In the early 20thcentury, they turned what had been small, academically oriented schools often led by women into large educational factories, in which male principals with graduate degrees (factory managers) hired and bossed female teachers (workers)—who in turn processed children. In modeling schools after factories, the field quite intentionally privileged compliance over academics. Indeed, the education field has never been troubled by low teacher quality: standards for teacher certification in many states require mere junior high knowledge levels.

Interestingly, while other professors often welcome debate, education professors seem more likely to isolate and denounce critics rather than to engage with their ideas, as school reformer E.D. Hirsch recalls of his efforts to reform the field. One recent example is the American Educational Research Association’s immediate denunciation of critics of the Ed.D. as sexist, since Jill Biden and many Ed.D.s are female, rather than engaging intellectually with the degree’s critics. Generally, as fitting its roots in Scientific Management, the Education establishment puts political expediency ahead of knowledge and truth seeking, in contrast (at times) to more traditional academic disciplines.

America has now had five generations of students educated by graduates of schools of education, two generations since teacher quality nose-dived after women gained access to a wider range of career prospects. This impacted how both higher and lower education treat diversity.

Diversity at Cornell: Separatism from the beginning

Like individual organizations, regimes are their most ideologically and operationally flexible at the start, imbued with the ideology of their founders and when SOPs are under construction. Nascent academic diversity bureaucracies appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In his classic Black Education: Myths and Tragedies, Thomas Sowell details the mistakes he witnessed while a junior economics faculty member at Cornell securing foundation grants to recruit and mentor black students. Sowell began an intensive summer program to prepare students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) for challenging economics doctoral work. As one of the few black professors at Cornell, Sowell played a (sometimes unwilling) role in the 1968-69 campus unrest. At Cornell and other schools in the period (and since), Sowell found virtually all-white university administrators obsessed with public relations and indifferent (at best) to integrity, scholarly rigor, and the well-being of students, whether they were black or white. Broadly, this manifested itself in three ways, each with long-term effects.

First, when white racist behavior occurred, as when black students quietly complained about a visiting economics professor who (arguably) taught in a racist fashion, the administration’s response was not to investigate and come to reasoned judgements, but instead to cover up. (As a general rule, educational administrators fail at investigations, but excel at witch-hunts and coverups.) In contrast, when students protested, administrators immediately caved to even unreasonable demands. As Sowell writes, for activist students and faculty, “one very important lesson came out of all this: When you tried to talk reasonably to Cornell officials, nothing happened, but when you raised hell you were rewarded.” These incentives radicalized many students, black and white. They also pioneered today’s cancel culture.

Second, white Cornell administrators showed quiet contempt both for black students and for academic standards, along with a pre-woke attachment to fashionable ideas, no matter their veracity. This led admissions officials and scholarship organizations to reject academically stellar black applicants with the talent to succeed at Cornell while accepting academically unqualified peers with authentic black profiles. As Sowell mocks, white administrators preferred to admit blacks “who act like the ghetto-dwellers white people have read about in books…instead of ‘middle-class’ blacks (those who don’t),” even when those middle-class individuals had very low incomes. Sowell discovered that Cornell’s black students had standardized test scores far below their white peers. Accordingly, blacks faced far greater danger of flunking out, or barely surviving in easy majors, both of which were disastrous outcomes covered up by administrators. Sowell’s common-sense observations came forty years before Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor wrote Mismatch: How affirmative action hurts student it’s intended to help and why universities won’t admit it. After California’s Proposition 209 outlawed quotas in 1996, the number of black graduates at UCLA stayed the same because the black graduation rate doubled once the university could no longer admit ill-prepared minorities as academic cannon fodder serving numerical goals dictated by politics and public relations. Can we imagine a more racist policy in its impacts on blacks? As a result of Proposition 209, blacks who would have flunked out at UCLA instead graduated from lower-tiered California campuses.Further, since STEM-related fields are more cumulative and more challenging, affirmative action had pernicious effects reducing the number of black STEM professionals. Such policies worsened both white racist stereotyping and black alienation, turning students who would have succeeded at good colleges into relative or even actual failures at elite schools. Sowell describes one such student leader, radicalized at Cornell after going undergoing a “personal hell” there:

A proud young man, he faced a crushing load of work in a difficult subject, with humiliatingly poor results. In addition, he was submerged in a sea of white people, who did not even understand what he was going through. He bitterly resented those black students who found the educational and social adjustments much easier. His personal plagues were fused in his mind into a general, worldwide political and economic vision of white oppression, black “traitors,” and an evangelical mission to set all this right.

As Sowell details, such student leaders intimidated other black students into taking leftist courses with little academic content, and at least pretending to support campus violence. The true culprits, however, were academically weak, mainly white professors who used radical causes as “their only chance of playing a prominent, or even a self-respecting, role at the university…black students were a stalking horse behind which they could safely attack.”

These two attitudes led to a third long-term effect, at Cornell and elsewhere. In reaction to student unrest, including the famous guns on campus crisis of 1969—back then the left favored guns on campus—Cornell’s administration set up politically radical and academically marginal new majors, departments, and offices. This, in effect, separated black students into their own ghetto—in the university but not of it. As Sowell documents, this became the model for many campuses, leaving “beneficiaries” embittered and others fearful. It also reflects an administrative focus on numbers rather than individuals.

As I wrote in 2016, the Scientific Management-inspired strategy of bureaucratizing diversity, stressing black body counts rather than successes, has marginalized blacks within the academy, making many in the academy but not of it, tokens rather than people. I have seen this tendency many times. While on academic probation in my top-ten doctoral program, I was housed in Africana Studies, the one department with sufficient space or insufficient clout to protest my presence. We Africana students had the only office in a large building without a phone—that was how much the university trusted us! No one from there would ever make dean. Even today, while there are many African American Army generals, notably few African Americans lead higher education institutions. Instead, many are forced onto a black track described by Sowell way back in 1972, where they take symbolic roles to show an institution is not racist, rather than teaching and researching like other faculty. Such roles are often time consuming, involving endless committee work representing the black viewpoint, not to mention recruiting and mentoring black students. Fast forward a few decades after my brief exile in Africana Studies—as a tenured professor, I heard a (white) chancellor suggest that, for racial diversity reasons, we should enlarge majors like education, sociology, and African American studies—not engineering, linguistics or Arabic. Hismeaning was clear: you can’t expect certain people to have the brains to handle regular majors, so to make the diversity numbers look good, we would create refuges (ghettos?) within the institution. This chancellor was both a good person and left-leaning, but in practice, his view of black potential was downright alt-right. Those views were on public display, but far more common are quiet references in hiring committees to the effect that, “you just can’t expect certain minorities to cut it in academic settings.” This epitomizes postmodern thought generally. Like the Cornell administrators lambasted by Sowell, many and perhaps most on the left now view characteristics like politeness, rationality, and hard work as inherently white. In 2020, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture publicly endorsed this view, in what may be the most racist use of tax dollars since the Wilson administration.

What starts in the academy seldom ends there. Postmodern approaches which evolved in diversity programs at universities like Cornell have infected society. Arguably, the roots of today’s ineffective, multi-billion-dollar diversity industry came out of half-century old struggles at Cornell and other campuses. These began with and reflected liberal white condescension toward black students, and blacks generally. These approaches have both made race relations worse and ignored science. The spread of diversity training, for example, flies in the face of hundreds of empirical studies and considerable common sense showing that it tends to backfire, as Musa al-Gharbi details in a prior essay. Yet public and private sector organizations embrace it for fear of being called racist. The overwhelmingly white administrators who hold power define managing diversity as a matter of ‘box checking.’ Diversity and personnel bureaucracies which claim to hold expertise embrace it as an organizational best practice.

The effects on the university, and increasingly on society, have encouraged segregation. Consider Carrie Pitt’s experience at Princeton:

This mandatory orientation event was designed to help us appreciate our diversity as a student body during the first week of classes. But what did it really accomplish? In compressing us into isolated communities based on our race, religion or gender, the minister belittled every other piece of our identities. He faced a crowd of singular young adults and essentially told them that their heritage outweighed their humanity.  The message was clear: know your kind and stick to it. Don’t risk offending people from other backgrounds by trying to understand their worldviews. Why were the university administrators, who speak so highly of diversity, choosing to strip us of our individuality?

A key reason is that this is big business, and money is made. In a front-page story, the New York Times describes approvingly the cottage industry of well-paid university diversity officers training students in a highly complex set of categories and the do’s and don’ts of ethnic and gender etiquette. Woe to those who say the wrong thing and then get tagged as bigots. As noted in my prior essay, series contributor Wilfred Reilly even mentions cases of diversity bureaucracies staging hate crimes to increase demand for their services.

There is a better way.

Work or Woke? What the Army could teach the university

The way higher, and increasingly lower, education deals with diversity is essentially bureaucratic. These efforts consist of programmed (and ineffective) box-checking responses in line with the SOPs of bureaucracies which are themselves at the margins of their organizations, who impose often complex terminologies and etiquettes. These have failed to improve intergroup relations, or indeed to accomplish much of anything save to pad their budgets. But what if institutions instead adapted wholistic approaches based in both science and common sense? This is possible, and indeed has happened. Consider the intergroup contact research developed after World War II by social psychologists including Gordon Allport and the team of Carolyn and Muzafer Sharif. Though this line of psychological research is not unquestioned, its commonsense presumptions are that good intergroup relations can be fostered by several practices.

First, different groups should have other identities that support intergroup cooperation, such as superordinate loyalties to a common religion, university, or even nation—such as America. Indeed, as Amy Chua points out, American patriotism once served to transcend other boundaries. Likewise, as detailed in my prior essay, E.D. Hirsch argues that the key role of public schools should be to develop a common American identity. Unfortunately, today’s academic institutions, particularly higher education institutions, will find patriotism a very difficult value to embrace.

Second, groups should have roughly equal status in things that matter. Traditionally, in academia, academic success mattered; indeed, transparent academic merit systems enabled outgroups like Jews and Asians to work their way into the center of academic life. Any merit system, ideally, should cut across group lines, separating status from race. The idea of color-blind merit has been under attack by those within the academy through the past century, by upper class WASPS in the early and mid-20th century who wanted to keep Jews out of elite institutions, by leftists since Thomas Sowell’s days at Cornell, and, more recently, again by upper class whites offended when ever more of “their” spots at elite institutions were taken by high-scoring Asians. This is setting up a titanic battle between those who are woke and those who work. I know which side I am on, but do not know which will win.

Third, rather than retreat to safe spaces, individuals from different groups must have close contact so they cannot avoid each other, and thus might come to profit from cooperation. My first college roommate back in the 1970s was African American. After getting to know each other regarding commonalities (chiefly girls), we did in fact have some interesting discussions about race. Such informal contact seems less common in higher education today. Many institutions have all-black dorm communities. At others, incoming students fill out extensive questionnaires about what sort of roommates they want, potentially making interracial roommates a thing of the past. A final driver of good group relations are authority figures who encourage positive, equal interactions. These would seem to be the opposite of what today’s diversity bureaucracies are prone to do. Of course, diversity bureaucrats are hardly the only bureaucrats to blame. At many universities, Greek letter organizations are central to student life—and remain completely segregated. Yet, to my knowledge, no university president has walked around campus enough to notice this and follow up with conversations with fraternity and sorority leaders about how we can do better over time.

In their classic All We Can Be: Black leadership and racial integration the Army way, sociologists Charles Moskos and John Sibley Butler report that, after four years in the Army, black and white soldiers grow more likely to have cross-racial friendships and to like each other’s music. (Black soldiers even thought that O.J. Simpson was guilty.) In contrast, they offer research indicating that, over time, elite university students become less likely to cross such racial lines, for clear reasons. Even today, the Army prioritizes common identities (soldier, American) while higher education disparages them. Rather than a tangle of widely different majors and standards, the military has transparent, effective merit systems. Soldiers know what they need to do to stay in and earn promotion. They thus have every expectation that those of all races have the talent to do their jobs: the black NCO or captain bossing around the white private earned the privilege of doing so through real expertise, not just a piece of paper. It goes without saying that soldiers have common goals and live in close contact. They cannot retreat to safe spaces or claim that microaggressions derailed them.

The military experience offers applied lessons. As Thomas Sowell pointed out in 1972, we cannot compromise academic merit for intergroup harmony without losing both: if students and faculty at a university have expectations grounded in empirical realities of admissions policies that some groups are smarter than others, this will reinforce rather than erode negative stereotyping. Ending failed policies like diversity training and trigger warnings might allow us to attempt new approaches, some of which might work. Putting more emphasis on academics would be a good start, unifying students around the common demands of course work. Spending endless hours in the library makes you smarter, humbler, and less apt to create conflicts based on demographics. Going a step farther might mean de-emphasizing institutions of progressive privilege (like diversity programs) and traditional privilege (e.g., fraternities and sororities, athletics programs). Further, it will be difficult to desegregate higher education without reducing achievement gaps. To do so, we in higher education must support k-12 schools, chiefly charter schools, which successfully educate rather than merely feed and babysit black students. As usual, the now 90-year-old Thomas Sowell offers useful insights.

Will any higher education leaders take steps in these directions? If not, then why should American taxpayers continue to subsidize institutions that do more to divide than unite America?

Image: Spc. Joseph A. Wilson, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


  • Robert Maranto

    Robert Maranto is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership at the University of Arkansas, and with others has edited or written 15 books including The Politically Correct University. He edits the Journal of School Choice and served on his local school board from 2015-20. These opinions are his alone.

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7 thoughts on “Work, Not Woke—Why on Race, U.S. Higher Education Should Copy the U.S. Army

  1. “America has now had five generations of students educated by graduates of schools of education, two generations since teacher quality nose-dived after women gained access to a wider range of career prospects.”

    As most of the “Normal Schools” were established in the mid 19th Century, I’d argue that it’s been more than five generations of students educated by their graduates. But the interesting thing is that the percentage of women in K-12 has increased in spite of women now having other career opportunities.

    There are fewer and fewer men in the profession and that’s an issue that no one is talking about. I don’t know if there is a relationship between this and the decline in teacher quality — and if so, what it is — but one would have expected the percentage of male teachers to increase, not decrease, when women were given other professional opportunities.

    It would be interesting to compare the male/female ratios of teachers graduating with certification, those actually hired, and those awarded tenure three years later. My suspicion is that you will find a male attrition…

    1. These are great points. I say a century ago since while normal schools are older, the anti-content ideology of ed schools, and the growth of teachers colleges proper really got going in the 1900-1930 period, which roughly overlaps with when secondary attendance skyrocketed. The Ed.D. dates back to the 1920s. I would argue that a key historical event occurred when NEA, then an administrator’s organization, issued the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education in 1918. This was essentially an anti-content document. On gender and schooling, check out my Phi Delta Kappan piece: google Boys will be superintendents. Athletic coaching evolved in the early and mid 20th century in part to attract men to education, and give them a direct pipeline into admin. I am not sure male human capital going into teaching was ever amazing. On women, Billie Gastic combines a few scholarly studies in her AEI paper “Closing the opportunity gap: preparing the next generation of effective teachers” indicating that in 1970 around a quarter of women with intelligence in the top 10% went into education compared to around a tenth of those women in 2005. Almost no one in the ed field finds this concerning, and I have often encountered education leaders who view compliant teachers as better than smart ones. (I served on a school board for five years where I, a libertarian leaning Republican, actually allied with the teacher union on this matter!) There needs to be more public discussion of this kind of thing.

      1. You raise a lot of interesting points and I should mention this that I am a fourth generation teacher with a 7-12 certificate endorsed for Social Studies & English.

        I’m of the opinion that everything went into the toilet in the 1970s for a very different reason — collective bargaining. Remember that both FDR and George Meaney opposed public sector unionization for pretty much the same reasons that Calvin Coolidge opposed the Boston Police strike — it’s one thing to organize against private management, something else entirely to be organized against the public interest.

        Remember too that it isn’t just the NEA but also the AFT, whose Al Shanker allegedly stated that he “would care about the children when they started paying union dues.”

        And the outrageous conduct of the teacher’s unions as parents (and everyone else) is trying to get the schools reopened is starting to show both (a) how much *they* are running things and (b) how much *they* are the source of the problems.

        Nearly 30 years ago, Massachusetts passed a landmark education reform law — teacher pay essentially doubled while accountability and teacher qualifications would be strengthened. And over the past 25 years, the Never Educate Anyone has consistently chipped away at the latter. They’ve kept the money — demanded more — but essentially managed to eliminate all the improvements that were made back in the 1990s. The latest is that we aren’t even going to administer an evaluation this spring — heaven forbid we learn *just* how far behind the students now are…

        A big thing in the MA reform was the elimination of the undergrad education major route to 7-12 certification — teachers would now have to have majored in the subject they were certified to teach, and while colleges could have permitted dual majors (i.e. letting undergrads also take certification courses), they found it more lucrative to require a MEd. The problem is that the law still permits teachers to teach one course in a subject they aren’t certified in, and reality is that it often is more than just one course.

        The standing joke is “what is the most common first name of a Social Studies teacher”, with the answer being “Coach” — *lot* of schools hire coaches and then find the a teaching slot to pay them. This was exacerbated by the Title IX mandate which doubled the number of coaches needed.

        As to coaching in the 1920s, yes I know that Springfield College was founded by the YMCA and that it invented basketball, but from what I was told by high school students of the 1930s, the goal of the entire school (particularly in small rural towns) was to *WIN* — basketball, baseball, football — the sport varied geographically but there was *the* sport and the entire town rallied behind it’s high school’s team and it’s effort to prevail in long-standing rivalries with adjacent towns.

        Outside of large systems, which BC (Before Consolidation) inevitably were cities, most of the administrators were on the state (and not local) level, curriculum was largely done on the state level as well. So I don’t know the extent to which coaching could get men into the administration, beyond the then common “teaching principal” and “teaching vice-principal” certifications which the unions have now eliminated — the administrator also taught a couple of classes.

        The other thing that the union did was comingle the pay of the Elementary and Secondary teacher — Elementary used to be paid less, in part because they (usually) only had a 2-year degree, while Secondary had at least a four year degree. Secondary also needed to know more which is why they specialized into departments while Elementary are specialized into grades, where they teach everything.

      2. Two other things.
        First, you need to distinguish between the Ed.D. as an earned degree and the Ed.D. as essentially a purchased credential.

        A lot of people who are already educational administrators essentially purchase the degree as a credential, using their life experience and professional activities instead of having to actually learn or research anything. My guess — just a guess — is that Jill Biden is an example of this in that she didn’t write a thesis.

        It’s a good deal for the person purchasing the title (i.e. the “Dr.”) and it’s a good deal for the university which gets to count the already-employed administrator as one of their “successful’ alumni. But the mistake is to blame the EdD degree because that person would still be in that admin job without it — and would still be the same person doing the same things.

        There is a cadre, a clique, almost a cult of people who are administrators — they are the gatekeepers to school leadership, not the universities, and it is the internship experiences which they control which keep qualified people out. I’d love to see military officers who retired at the O-5 level be able to earn a MEd in administration & school law and become certified as Superintendents without having to intern anywhere — that would clean up a lot of the quagmire quite quickly because the biggest problem that most school boards have is the lack of qualified Superintendents to hire.

        You don’t make it to the O-5 level without being a qualified administrator.

        The second thing to be aware of is the NAEP “Boy Gap” in literacy skills. This deficit is greater than the much-discussed “Girl Gap” in STEM skills, and unlike the “Girl Gap”, it has largely persisted over the past 30+ years. No one discusses this.

  2. This is great, thanks. Sadly, UK universities ape the wokeness of those in the USA. It’s like am American mind virus, attacking us from the west as the Chinese virus has from the east. No idea where this is all leading – culture wars, certainly. Most Brits believe in selection by merit and seeing history in context – the UK never had race laws. Ever. Even now we have just 3-4% blacks (14% total BAME , half south Asian) – USA is 12-13% black with a long racist history on the ground. The UK is NOT the USA (the Motown stars loved coming here in 1962 because we had and never have had any racial segregation). I try to sum up and portray the woke idiocy of the modern British university in my funny and timely campus novel Somewhere in Europe (by PJ Vanston). But then, so much of this wokery is way beyond satire. (On the plus side, the US army is I think 25% non-white and given black kids a chance of a career; in the UK, minority ethnics are under-represented in all the armed forced, despite massive diverse advertising campaigns – a shame, as the UK armed forced are the biggest training organisation in Britain (though they get a tiny fraction of the funding US defence gets).

  3. I am not going to defend all the schmucks with Ed.D. degrees — but (a) I earned mine and hence (b) find the paragraph below offensive, notwithstanding (c) the numerous “issues” I could raise about both various Ed.D. degrees and the programs issuing them.

    And let me add that I actually wrote a dissertation — a 203 page book (*in* the Library of Congress) and am rather p*ssed that Jill Biden didn’t have to, but I digress…

    “Particular academic professions often dominate particular bureaucracies. Since its early-20th-century beginnings, doctors of education (the notorious Ed.D.) have dominated public schools. In part to distinguish themselves from other university-based professional fields, doctorates in education tend to eschew academic content, often portraying content knowledge as damaging to children (despite no evidence for this). Further, in part to gain favor from business-dominated school boards and in part since they arose when Scientific Management was the dominant business paradigm, schools of education stress compliance and division of labor. In the early 20thcentury, they turned what had been small, academically oriented schools often led by women into large educational factories, in which male principals with graduate degrees (factory managers) hired and bossed female teachers (workers)—who in turn processed children. In modeling schools after factories, the field quite intentionally privileged compliance over academics. Indeed, the education field has never been troubled by low teacher quality: standards for teacher certification in many states require mere junior high knowledge levels.”

    This is a convoluted oversimplification that I can not let go unchallenged….

    First and foremost, prior to the 1980’s, most women left the workplace upon the birth of their first child, sometimes returning to it after their children were grown. In many states, a female teacher was not permitted to be married — it was a job that a young woman took to build her dowry while she looked for her husband, and I argue that the tradition of June weddings came from teachers needing to complete their annual contract before getting married.

    Second, there always were businessmen supervising the teachers — to this day, the Massachusetts State Constitution (adopted in 1780) requires town selectmen to recruit & hire a teacher each year for the town’s children (or make arrangements for them to be taught in an adjacent town). Circa 1750, John Adams “taught school” in Worcester (MA) for a year, he didn’t like it and apparently wasn’t very good at it — yes, the John Adams who would go on to write the Massachusetts Constitution and become our Second President started out by “teaching school” for a year.

    Third, most of these were one-room schoolhouses, usually painted red for the most practical of reasons — red paint was the cheapest, and it kept the building warmer in the wintertime. As late as the early 20th Century, most of these schoolhouses were ungraded — in 1906 my grandmother was a newly-hired teacher whose instructions were to “grade” the one room schoolhouse to which she had been assigned.

    She had attended one of Horace Mann’s “Normal Schools” — the teacher’s colleges which were established starting in 1839 with what is now Framingham State University. The purpose of these institutions was to “normalize” (or standardize) teacher training and to set standards for who would be in the classroom. As schools (a) expanded and (b) became more complicated, the “Principal Instructor” — i.e. “Principal” went from being the senior teacher to the administrator responsible for making sure that the teachers got their paychecks and that the janitor had enough coal to keep the furnace(s) burning. And all the other things that the administrator of any large facility has to deal with.

    Fifth, one needs to remember that, prior to WW-II, only those planning to go to college went to high school. Well into the 20th Century it was not “free” — in much of rural America, “high school” consisted of a private “academy” which would require the child’s parents to pay tuition in order to attend. And even when the towns started paying the tuition, it still meant that the child would have to physically leave the community and “board” at a residential school or have a parent also leave the community with the two of them “boarding” with someone in the local community.

    Needless to say, this was disruptive and as late as the 1980s, the education of a lot of children ended with the 8th Grade Graduation — with the boys choosing to go into the family farming or fishing industry, and the girls choosing to get married. This was, of course, even more common in the halcyon age before the establishment of “free” public high schools, with their specialization and delegation.

    Sixth, as schools expanded both in size and complexity in the 1950’s & 1960’s, the “stuff” that the folk running them (i.e. Superintendents) needed to know increased inexorably. For example, it was one thing to chat with the local mechanic about what he thought your *one* school bus needed for maintenance while he was filling your gas tank, circa 1955, and telling him to “go do it when we don’t need the bus.” — It’s something else when you have 30-40 buses and competitive bidding requirements. He still may be the best and cheapest mechanic, but you’ve got to jump through a whole lot of hoops to do it, and you’ve got to do it the right way. And you gotta schedule it around all of the people who are expecting to have various buses available for various stuff…

    Likewise, while in 1955 you could go to the Town Meeting with your budget and say “this is what we need money for and how much we need, would you please give it to us?” — today, school funding is a mosaic of state and federal funding and that alone is a quagmire. Even before you throw in SPED and SPED funding…

    MY POINT: I’m neither defending people with Ed.D.s nor legitimate concerns about some of them, but possessing an Ed.D. is no inherently different from possessing a Ph.D….

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