Lani Guinier Wants to Transform Higher Education

Does that name ring a bell? In 1993, President Clinton nominated Lani Guinier for the position of assistant attorney general, but later he withdrew her nomination after her writings on voting and affirmative action came under severe criticism. 

She is now a professor at Harvard Law School and has a new book out entitled The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America. Her villain is what she calls American colleges’ infatuation with “testocratic merit.” That is to say, they tend to prefer students who do well on standard tests like the SAT. 

That has Guinier upset. “Testocratic merit makes the assumption that test scores are the best evidence of applicants’ worth, without paying much attention to the environments in which one finds those individuals. It thereby ignores several built-in biases that privilege those who are already quite advantaged,” she writes.

Moreover, she ventures into the world of stereotyping by opining that while students who test well “may be smart, they aren’t necessarily those most likely to contribute to our society….” The trouble, of course, is that there are a great many students who test well (not all of them from wealthy families) who go on to “contribute” greatly to society. There is no basis for her animadversion against “Volvo effect” students. 

What Guinier’s book does is to couple the jaded argument that standard testing is unfair (because students who come from affluent families tend to do better) with a new complaint, namely that such tests are mistakenly regarded as a measure of an individual’s worth. 

Neither part of that argument holds up.

While student scores on tests like the SAT or ACT are not a perfect way of assessing their academic capabilities, they are a pretty good way of evaluating how they rank against others. A student with an 800 on the math section of the SAT is undoubtedly much better able to deal with college math courses than is a student who scored 500. 

It makes sense to put students of roughly comparable intellectual ability together in the same school for the same reason it makes sense to put, say, tennis players of roughly equal ability in tournament flights. Pitting strong players against weak ones is not good for either. The same is true for students.

But much more troubling is Guinier’s claim that we take a student’s test scores as evidence of his or her worth. Is that really how Americans look at differences in how well individuals fare on tests—that high scorers are superior to those with lower scores? I know of no one who believes that and all that Guinier does to bolster her assertion is to give the reader a made-up anecdote about an ill-mannered student who keeps bragging that he got a high score—not at all persuasive.

Testing to evaluate a person’s abilities is reasonable and necessary. It’s a red herring to claim that doing so is unfair and denigrating to those who don’t do well.

Nevertheless, Guinier thinks that our educational institutions should abandon their embrace of “testocratic merit” and instead “develop democratic merit because the latter is the foundation upon which our national values ought to rest.”

You might think that sounds nice, but what is “democratic merit”? How do educational institutions decide which students have it and thus deserve admission? How do they then develop that merit further? We never get any precise answers, but are vaguely told that before the onset of the testocracy, merit meant “Giving good service, such as working for the benefit of community rather than simply for personal advantage….”

Adam Smith said he had never seen much good come from those who affect to trade for the public benefit, but it’s a liberal article of faith that working for personal advantage is inferior to working for the community. Guinier thinks that college admissions ought to be weighted toward students who are imbued with a collectivist spirit and have the capacity to collaborate. 

Those are the students Harvard should be admitting, not the brainiacs who will merely pursue lucrative careers. Forget the SAT (merely a wealth test, Guinier says) and look for students who show “potential for success in our democracy.” That means characteristics like leadership, resiliency, and the drive to learn.

Perhaps realizing that there is no real way of determining how much potential “democratic merit” any student might have, Guinier avoids the problem by sliding into the liberal nostrum of “affirmative action.” She points to one well-known instance where she thinks it produced the kind of democratic merit she wants more of: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. 

Justice Sotomayor was admitted to Princeton and Yale Law School under preferential policies and now the country supposedly benefits from her particular “insights” while serving on the Supreme Court. 

I believe that the law should be applied neutrally, as written, without any personal angles, but even if you think that the nation is better off for having a “wise Latina” on the Court, shouldn’t we also consider the instances where racial preferences have had bad results? Here is one.

Patrick Chavis was the black student admitted to UC-Davis medical school instead of white applicant Allen Bakke, giving rise to the famous case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

The Court ruled that admission quotas for racial groups was unconstitutional, but opened the door to preferences meant to bring about more “diversity.” That ruling didn’t affect the students who had already graduated and Chavis embarked on his medical career. Unfortunately, whatever “democratic merit” Dr. Chavis might have had, he proved to be so incompetent and indifferent to the welfare of his patients that his medical license was revoked by the state of California.

Dueling anecdotes won’t settle the matter, but if there were any evidence that students admitted under racial preferences are on the whole more inclined to work for the public good than those who aren’t, you would think that Guinier would trumpet it. She doesn’t and I don’t think there is any such evidence. Racial preferences don’t give the country better, more public-spirited graduates.

In trying to defend racial preferences in admissions, Guinier points to the often-cited research by Professor Scott Page purporting to show that “diverse” groups are necessarily better at solving problems. Page’s conclusion was so perfect for the advocates of racial preferences that it took on the status of engraved wisdom—until last year when mathematics professor Abigail Thompson carefully examined Page’s work and concluded that it was a “misuse of mathematics” that proved nothing about the real world.

In short, Guinier’s case for changing our colleges so they reward democratic merit rather than testocratic merit falls flat on its face.

Still, through her fog of misconceptions, Guinier discerns something important: many young Americans need mentoring if they are to succeed in college. She especially praises the Posse Foundation for helping students get into and through college. She also praises the efforts long ago of Father John Brooks of Holy Cross College, who took under his wing a number of bright young black men, including Clarence Thomas.

Predictably, Guinier complains about Justice Thomas’s opposition to racial preferences in his opinions. But there is an enormous difference between the true “affirmative action” practiced by Father Brooks in seeking out and guiding young scholars and the current practice of automatically admitting students from “under-represented” groups just to fill a de facto quota—and then leaving those often ill-prepared students to fend for themselves.

The truth is that large numbers of American students of all races are poorly served by their K-12 education and desperately need adults to encourage and help place them in the right post-secondary institutions. That won’t mean using racial preferences to get the group percentages that most of our prestigious schools aim for. Big research universities may be regarded as “elite” but for most students, they aren’t the ideal learning environments.

Nor will that approach advance Guinier’s notions of “democratic merit” since most of the students will go on to the kinds of useful business and professional careers she disdains. The rest of America will be better off, though. 

Higher education will work better for all Americans if academic theorists like Lani Guinier would stop using it for social engineering and just let each individual search for the education or training that best suits his abilities and circumstances.