Friday, September 30, 2011

coming late to the bake sale debate, and other lazy activism

1. ward, my old frenemy

Ward Connerly was on the radio this morning, speaking against Senate Bill 185, which would allow public universities in California to consider race as a factor in admissions once again. Recently, Connerly has made headlines via cupcake-based performance art (who knew he and Karen Finely had so much in common?), a story I only caught the tail end of. Mostly, I remember that name from my own UC days.

He was the villain in UCLA’s hottest controversy, which was affirmative action. I started college as a moderate conservative who thought affirmative action was unfair because the only (apparent) beneficiaries I knew had the same upper middleclass upbringing I did. A few years and many consciousness-raising classes disguised as “American lit” courses later, I was attending my first protest ever: a tent city set up in the courtyard between Royce Hall and Powell Library to protest Connerly’s pet proposition, 209.

The night was sparkly. The tents looked like a fairyland in the lamplight of the courtyard. I said a shy hello to some Daily Bruin folks I knew. Then, as far as I can remember, I just stood around for a while.

It was the start of a sporadic and unimpressive track record as an activist. I can count three protests I’ve been to since then, and two of those were against Prop. 8. For some reason I feel like it doesn’t quite count if the issue affects me directly, though of course political movements are most effective when led by people full of righteous anger.

I was curious what I’d think of Connerly now. A cynical part of me wonders if my collegiate activism—which mostly took the form of seeing Rent a lot and having long arguments with my dad, in which I tried to explain to him why he was The Man and not in a good way—was just an attempt to be cool. My peers in Manhattan Beach had opposed affirmative action, so I did too; when I got new peers, I went along with them.

2. remind me to tell you about the essay i wrote comparing “a dream deferred” to drill team tryouts

To my relief, Ward Connerly still pissed me off, especially when he told his own story of going to community college and a Cal State because he couldn’t afford a UC, even though he had the grades. The implication was, If I can pull myself up by my bootstraps, so can you.

There are some kids who would excel under almost any circumstances, and maybe Connerly was one of them, and there are some who would fail no matter what. But I know deep in my soul that I’m in the 95 percent in the middle, who could go either way. There but for the grace of circumstance go us. Or there but for the lack of the grace of circumstance go us in some crappier direction.

Connerly was also quick to say that poor Vietnamese kids do great in school, so poor black and Latino parents must be to blame for the fact that their kids often don’t. I do think that all struggles have to be fought on many fronts and, sure, parenting is one of them. But to reduce centuries of oppression and some very important differences between cultures to basically not trying hard enough is an asshole move.

Nevertheless, I don’t think Connerly is a complete idiot. In general I think economic status is a better measure of adversity than race, and that when we address economic disadvantage in America, we help the people of color who need the most help. But just as wealthy kids of color have an advantage over poor kids of color, so do poor white kids have an advantage over poor kids of color. For lack of a better term, poor white kids can pass.

Also, let’s not forget that this isn’t just about choosing the lucky few who will be granted entrance to the Land of Success. This is about creating a better society. Hordes of uneducated, disenfranchised young people don’t benefit anyone. How do you think suicide bombers are made?

Of course, as Connerly was quick to point out, there are a zillion factors that can cause a young person to struggle. Maybe you lost a parent, or moved around a lot, or have a learning disability, or are the only Jewish kid at your school, or are really, horribly unattractive. That, as any AP English teacher will be quick to remind you, is what the personal essay is for.

It’s the one piece of the college application that does not reduce you to a number, though it certainly has its own weird demands—for example, the notion that you should be telling a story of triumph over adversity in the first place. But the closer life gets to an essay test—even if that means just adding more check boxes—the better. And if life could maybe not be a test at all, that would be even more amazing. Actually, that would be called CalArts.


Tracy Lynn said...

I think the bake sale stunt was bullshit, exactly the kind of thing some idiot college kid would come up with.
My mom is currently going to school at U of NM and they have a lottery system of entry. They have to pay for their first year, but after that it's a free ride for residents. And what my mom is seeing is that a lot of these kids are not prepared for college level courses and so the college is dumbing down it's standards. It's a very poor state, with a lot of issues and a large Hispanic community, so there are a lot of barriers to these kids getting even a basic education, much less an advanced one.
I think that we need to be paying more attention to what kids are learning before college. More support for kids from kindergarten through senior year. Then I think that acceptance to college could actually be based on grades.
Actually, I think that any kid that has the grades should be given a free ride, if they maintain them. Kids who want an education should get one. Kids who don't should have access to tech schools and such. That way, most people will have a chance at jobs that will actually support them.
Of course, I have the flu right now so I may not be making sense. And this comment is huge, isn't it? Sorry. :-)

Cheryl said...

Free college for all! Good early education! Just two more ways we should be more like Europe. (My We Should Be More Like Europe soapbox was more convincing before they went broke.)