What Happens When Schools Abandon Merit?

A new book by Heather Mac Donald should serve as a national wake-up call.

America’s educational institutions used to adhere to objective standards of excellence. Students and faculty members had to strive and were rewarded (or not) according to their performance. What their background might be or where their ancestors lived didn’t matter.

That was true until a corrosive idea called “disparate impact” began taking hold in the country some 50 years ago. What that meant was that objective standards were objectionable if they resulted in poorer performance by certain racial groups. The obsession with disparate impact was kick-started by the Supreme Court’s 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power decision and has been growing in destructive force ever since.

In her latest book, When Race Trumps Merit: How the Pursuit of Equity Sacrifices Excellence, Destroys Beauty, and Threatens Lives, Heather Mac Donald surveys the landscape and sees profound changes in crucial institutions: our schools and colleges, law-enforcement, medicine, and the fine arts. Everywhere, merit is being eroded due to the acceptance among “progressive” elites of what Mac Donald calls the bias fallacy—namely, that any underrepresentation or outcome disparities for blacks and Hispanics must be caused by bias against them.

Mac Donald sees profound changes in crucial institutions: colleges, law-enforcement, medicine, and the fine arts.Mac Donald rebuts that notion, writing, “The underrepresentation of blacks in many professions is the result of the unequal distribution of skills, not of bias. Sixty-six percent of black twelfth-graders nationally were ‘below basic’ in math skills in 2019, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam.” Without good math skills, many opportunities are foreclosed, no matter your race. Bias is a facile but utterly mistaken explanation.

The truth is that bias against minority groups is nonexistent among Americans who have any authority. Unfortunately, this fact has been drowned out in the frantic effort to indict America for its alleged “institutional racism.” A strong indication of the degree to which our educational institutions have fallen under the spell of the bias fallacy can be seen in the frequent statements by our education leaders that our schools are guilty of failing to advance “equity,” despite the fact that they’ve been trying frantically to do that for decades.

For example, Mac Donald quotes former Massachusetts Institute of Technology president L. Rafael Reif, who lamented that his school “has made little headway on racial equity and inclusion.” Similarly, the dean of Harvard Business School pleads that his school’s efforts at racial justice have been “painfully insufficient.” Such absurd statements show that American education leaders can’t resist groveling before the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion zealots.

That groveling does a lot of damage.

Among the trends Mac Donald identifies, perhaps the most worrisome is the inroad that DEI ideology had made in the medical profession. The American Medical Association, she notes, has been captured by ideology. Its strategic plan calls for “just representation of Black, Indigenous and Latinx people in medical school admissions as well as in leadership ranks.” Bowing to the bias fallacy, the AMA declares that the underrepresentation of people from those groups is caused by their “exclusion” by medical schools. The truth is that the medical profession has been desperate to bring in minority students, yet AMA leadership feels compelled to blame itself.

What steps are being taken to remedy this imaginary exclusion? For one thing, the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam is being watered down and actual grades abolished in favor of merely indicating whether students passed or failed. Doing that is supposed to help solve the “underrepresentation” problem by allowing medical students to “more effectively tell their stories to residency programs.”

Admissions committees are more interested in students with a “passion for social justice” than in those with the greatest aptitude.“Stories”—that’s the new coin of the realm in medical education, not demonstrated competence. Admissions committees these days are more interested in enrolling students who proclaim their “passion for social justice” than in bringing in those with the greatest aptitude for medicine.

In the same vein, the Medical College Admission Test has been changed to reduce the gap between white and Asian students and “minoritized” ones. Difficult science questions have been tossed out in favor of questions that focus on social issues and psychology. Medical schools regularly admit minority applicants who have undergraduate records that would be disqualifying for whites and Asians.

The medical-school curriculum has also been affected by “wokeness.” Mac Donald reports that the American Association of Medical Schools declares that graduates must show “knowledge of the intersectionality of a patient’s multiple identities and how each identity may present varied and multiple forms of oppression or privilege.” Mastering such leftist lingo will take time away from doctors learning things that actually matter in diagnosing and treating patients.

And suppose that someone in the medical profession dares to criticize these moves? Mac Donald relates the fate of Dr. Stanley Goldfarb (who recently wrote for the Martin Center) when he dared to publicly question the University of Pennsylvania Medical School’s embrace of the bias fallacy. For that, he was derided for making “racist statements” by the chair of the university’s Department of Medicine. Merely by suggesting that minority students might be less capable than others, he was said to have caused “deep pain and anger.” The brass at Penn never argued that Goldfarb was mistaken but simply made him persona non grata despite his years of service.

There’s much more bad news regarding medical education in the book, but let’s look at other institutions that have succumbed to DEI ideology. Music schools are badly infected. At the famous Juilliard School, for instance, the head of music theory wrote to his colleagues that “it’s high time the whiteness of music theory is examined, critiqued, and remedied,” echoing a trope that has become popular among “progressive” music professors. Juilliard has also created a “bias response” system to deal with complaints from minority students about the school’s “systemic racism.”

In a particularly telling instance, Mac Donald relates a conversation between a black Juilliard student and Earl Carlyss, the veteran violinist in the Juilliard String Quartet. Carlyss observed that the student was continuing to make the same mistakes that the older performer had pointed out to him previously and asked, “Have you practiced?” To that, the student replied, “I don’t have to. I’ll always have a job.” Thus do racial preferences undermine the drive to excel.

Racial preferences undermine the drive to excel.As another Juilliard professor told Mac Donald, “Mediocrity is like carbon monoxide: you can’t see it or smell it, but one day you’re dead.”

The art world is also infected with wokeness. Yale University canceled a venerable course on Western art using the flimsiest of pretexts, such as that students might think there are no other art traditions. The popular course had to go because it somehow supported “whiteness” and “excluded” students of color. Same for Yale’s course on major English poets. Why does Yale feel the need to eliminate such courses? Mac Donald explains, “The only possible ground for doing so is a hatred of the Western tradition, since the axed courses were voluntary and surrounded by numerous non-Western alternatives.”

Mac Donald does not offer up an optimistic conclusion. The forces behind the assault on merit are extremely powerful, and few people within our tottering institutions dare to fight back. She writes, “The costs of opposing the evisceration of standards outweigh the benefits for anyone not driven by a transcendent (if self-destructive) commitment to principle. This cost-benefit calculus means that disparate impact orthodoxy will continue to tear down excellence absent a means for protecting dissenters from retaliation.”

Currently, such a means is lacking, so the people who demand “equity” instead of excellence are in the driver’s seat. When Race Trumps Merit is a desperately needed national wake-up call.

George Leef is director of external relations at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.