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Meritocracy is..fluid..
August 13, 2013 11:02 AM   Subscribe


 
So if one is half-Turkish, half-Irish, that's not white, right?
posted by Mister_A at 11:10 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


But would the white firefighters have even sued, Samson said, "if Jews or Asians had taken the test and gotten higher scores?"

No, of course not. They only sued (and had standing to sue) because they thought they could gain some personal advantage from the situation.
posted by grouse at 11:11 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think you misunderstand the case, grouse: Black firefighters sued because they were disadvantaged by the test; the question is whether white firefighters would have sued if they felt they were disadvantaged by the test relative to other groups.
posted by klangklangston at 11:14 AM on August 13, 2013


...and Canadian universities informally limited Jewish enrolment in professional programs before WW II. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_quota ) Same old story.
posted by sfred at 11:15 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think you misunderstand the case, grouse: Black firefighters sued because they were disadvantaged by the test; the question is whether white firefighters would have sued if they felt they were disadvantaged by the test relative to other groups.

Nope, it was white firefighters who sued. Wikipedia on Ricci v. DeStefano:
Eighteen city firefighters, seventeen who were white and one who was Hispanic, brought suit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 after they had passed the test for promotions to management and the city had nevertheless declined to promote them.
posted by grouse at 11:19 AM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


The correct criteria for meritocracy are whatever gets your kid into Harvard.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:25 AM on August 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Canadian? The practice of Jewish quotas was common in elite US Universities through the early 1960s. Universities are institutions of privilege, not meritocracy. They appear a little less so now, but that's window dressing.
posted by spitbull at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I always took it as given that once you got past the most elementary questions of food, shelter, and basic medicine and communication, every other measure of merit was highly subjective.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Oh, that's right. The white guys sued because the test that advantaged them was thrown out. Sorry.
posted by klangklangston at 11:28 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So when it comes to "fairness," people tend to favor whatever system favors them. Fancy that.
posted by Longtime Listener at 11:29 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I don't think that Ricci v. DeStefano is even particularly relevant here. Although it was hailed as an important ruling at the time, I don't really see it as having changed much. There were a lot of very specific factors at play (and a really small sample size -- only a handful of people had ever taken the test).

The case wouldn't have happened if the FD hadn't administered a possibly-shitty test, and then panicked and voided the results when they guessed that the test might be discriminatory.

Yes, the case touched on meritocracy and race. However, the whole thing happened because the department made a series of uninformed and arbitrary decisions. It was an avoidable clusterfuck.
posted by schmod at 11:31 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


This is a really great example of how biases are introduced into "quantitative" metrics. Good post.
posted by kiltedtaco at 11:32 AM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


This kind of goal-post shifting was exactly the kind of thing that made the college admissions process ridiculously stressful for me and many others, because applicants are aware of this "it's a meritocracy unless..." mentality. It's true that these shifting standards are also due to increased competition, but it's incredibly stressful to have the measures of merit change based on some complex combination of race, class, etc. I'd see Asian-American classmates with 4.0 GPAs stressing about getting into a UC because they didn't have "leadership" experience, or weren't well-rounded enough or weren't involved in a sport.

Though it should be noted that the University of California system does guarantee admission to a UC if you are in the top 9% of your graduating class or the graduating class state-wide. Granted, that's not guaranteeing you entry into one of the more competitive UCs like UCLA or UC Berkeley, but at least it's a hard baseline for merit-based admission.
posted by yasaman at 11:42 AM on August 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of what Ivy League schools did to keep out Jews in the early 20th Century - see this article by Malcolm Gladwell.

Universities are institutions of privilege, not meritocracy. They appear a little less so now, but that's window dressing.

As far as I know, most universities in Canada admit based on the marks you got in high school, and nothing else. Extracurriculars and "leadership" are taken into account for some scholarships, but not simply admissions. And there are numerous scholarships that are limited to particular racial minorities. University campuses (in Canada anyway) are diverse enough that Macleans wrote a story originally headlined "Too Asian?" precisely because the universities best-regarded academically were admitting huge numbers of Asian students. So I don't know how you can draw any comparison to the effective racial quotas of the past.
posted by Dasein at 11:42 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


he other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state. When informed of that fact, the white adults favor a reduced role for grade and test scores in admissions -- apparently based on high achievement levels by Asian-American applicants.

This is really interesting. One of my undergrad history lecturers, Patricia Roy, is an expert on race relations in Canada at the turn of the last century (ie, before WWI).

She noted that Asian exclusion legislation was based on the fear that Asians were "superior" to whites in every way, and because of that would "take over" and dominate the new dominion of Canada, especially on the west coast, in British Columbia.

Several of Roy's books are available in preview online.

She was one of the great professors I had doing my history undergrad. Thank you Dr. Roy!
posted by KokuRyu at 11:43 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


spitbull: True enough. I just emphasized Canada because that's where I teach.
posted by sfred at 11:46 AM on August 13, 2013


The main problem with strict supporters of meritocracy is that they believe in rewarding those who already have a leg up on their educational status. Which (for the most part) is well and fine for someone who got there through work, but disregards the reality that the vast majority of those who get there did so through advantages large and small they were given. It could be race, gender, family income, residence, or any of a number of other factors. At least in the US, if you're a white guy who grew up in a household with high-income parents and live in an area that gets a lot of funding for schooling (either public or private), it's extremely hard for you to fuck up enough to not get into a decent college or university. If you're lucky enough to be a legacy, or your parents are really loaded, you don't really have to worry at all.

So, to have that threatened as in the hypotheticals the study puts forth, that really switches the perspective around. Sadly, this only goes so far, and so many of them spread this viewpoint to other areas of life as well, i.e. "you deserve the job you get, McDonalds peons."
posted by zombieflanders at 11:47 AM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Man, people are mad racist.
posted by Aizkolari at 11:48 AM on August 13, 2013 [15 favorites]


Sigh, this article strikes pretty close to home. As a person of Chinese heritage within the university student - even though I was born in Canada - the number of flippant remarks I get is just fantastic.

"You don't really deserve that mark you got on the test, y'know?"

"Wow, thanks for stealing that internship from me."

"You only got that because you're just sucking up to the professor and you know it."

I also happen to be deaf and by that nature alone due to our stupid lecture-centric learning environment, I had to put in triple the number of hours you had to even be on the same playing field as you were. Since I couldn't get anything from the lectures, I had to leaf through the textbook for hours on hand, page by page, and then head to the professor's office hours on a weekly basis to grasp all the billion things that the textbook couldn't cover. I had to teach myself SQL and Java and C++ and all of these languages from online tutorials from scratch since the labs were essentially useless to me. I spent countless summer volunteer hours working in multiple labs, unpaid and subsisting off ramen, until one of them finally scrounged up enough funding to offer me a meager research position that pays barely enough for me to even afford public transit to even get to my workplace.

"Well, yeah, but unlike you I actually had to work for it! I didn't have one of those asian tiger moms!"

You do know I was born in Canada, right? And from a poor family that couldn't even afford to pay for childcare outside of school since my parents had to work day in and day night - much less all of the tutoring that you just assume I got. My only fortune was that my house was in close enough walking distance to the library that I could just spend all my time there - to the point that the librarians would recognize me and offer me free books that they were going to toss away anyway.

"Asians are just naturally smart! I wish I had things as effortless as you did!"

Basically: when it comes from you, it's effort and hard work and pulling yourself up by the bootstraps and individuality, but when it comes from me, it's selfish talent and sabotage and being a mindless drone. Even though I played by the same rules as you. Even though I played on a way higher difficulty but never even complained once because it would undermine my stance. Got it.

You know, when I was a kid, I thought that if you just played by the rules, there was no way you could be one of those "bad Asians" that all the white guys were talking about. But turns out, that was just internalized racism: the rules weren't there to protect me, they were there to make sure that I was kept in my place as subservient. So I played by the rulebook, I refused to accept any outside help, and I did my best to smash through the meritocracy: and all I get, not even at the top, not even at the middle, but even just starting out at the bottom tier and finally managing to get a footing in the academic world, is this. All my achievements are moot, because they don't count coming from an Asian.

Sigh, racism.
posted by Conspire at 11:49 AM on August 13, 2013 [116 favorites]


As far as I know, most universities in Canada admit based on the marks you got in high school, and nothing else.

I think this is pretty much what happens, and it makes absolutely no sense unless you think all high schools in Canada are functionally identical.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 11:52 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


The main problem with strict supporters of meritocracy is that they believe in rewarding those who already have a leg up on their educational status.

All educational acheivement is, to some extent, the product of circumstance. Having parents who care about education, who can help you with your work, who have enough money to hire a tutor if you're not doing well, or who can advocate for you in the system. I don't know anyone who thinks that their educational achievement is solely down to their own brilliance and didn't owe anything to their circumstances.
posted by Dasein at 11:53 AM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think this is pretty much what happens, and it makes absolutely no sense unless you think all high schools in Canada are functionally identical.

Yeah, I have heard that, though they deny it, universities effectively adjust for which schools students are coming from, because an low A student in one school might only be a high C student in another school. I don't know if that's true or not - but it's still a system focussed on marks alone, even if those are weighted.
posted by Dasein at 11:54 AM on August 13, 2013


I don't know anyone who thinks that their educational achievement is solely down to their own brilliance and didn't owe anything to their circumstances.

My Facebook used to be full of people who disagree.
posted by zombieflanders at 11:56 AM on August 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


Previously
posted by Navelgazer at 11:58 AM on August 13, 2013


I had to put in triple the number of hours you had to even be on the same playing field as you were. Since I couldn't get anything from the lectures, I had to leaf through the textbook for hours on hand, page by page, and then head to the professor's office hours on a weekly basis to grasp all the billion things that the textbook couldn't cover.

Wow, without meaning to sound condescending (but I guess I probably am), that's inspirational. Reminds me of Gerald Shea, who didn't even realize he was deaf until he graduate from Yale and Columbia.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:59 AM on August 13, 2013


Fortunately, North American culture effectively wipes out the immigrant advantage in a couple of generations. We are are a brain melting pot.
posted by srboisvert at 12:01 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The notion that great grades (meritocracy) is based simply on high school records is silly.
When Texas brought a new policy to bear for "fairness" it stated that any student in the top 10% of his high school would automatically be accepted into a state school. So parents with good students, to give them a bit of a helping had, had their kids move to less demanding high schools so that instead of coming in at, say, 12 per cent, their kid would be among the top ten percent, easy enough at a less demanding high school.
posted by Postroad at 12:04 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think this is pretty much what happens, and it makes absolutely no sense unless you think all high schools in Canada are functionally identical.

Obviously they aren't - but that having been said, the disparity in schools in Canada is less dramatic than that of the United States just because our schools aren't funded through local property taxes.
posted by mightygodking at 12:06 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think this is pretty much what happens, and it makes absolutely no sense unless you think all high schools in Canada are functionally identical.

Speaking as a former teacher in Canada, yeah, since per capita funding inputs are the same, schools are generally identical. Teachers are generally identical. What matters most is the socioeconomic makeup of the student cohort.

I taught at a school that had students from suburban backgrounds (their parents were professionals and the family resided in new subdivisions built in the catchment), rural backgrounds (they were bussed in, and generally speaking the parents lived out in boony land because they wanted to get away from society), and from "dogpatch" (the wrong side of the tracks, and the parents were rednecks working in the service industry).

So it was a great opportunity to examine student performance. The kids from the subdivisions were well-dressed, well-prepared, focused, and had books and computers and internet.

The kids from dogpatch often lived in single-parent households. The parents had no money, so the kids had to work part-time jobs to pay for clothes (and gas for the car to get them to that job).

The kids from boony-land were more mixed, but included a fair number of First Nations (ie, "Indian") kids who were the real underclass of the school. On the bright side, they had special programs to help them graduate.

But, at the end of the day, schools are the same. Teachers are the same. Curriculum is the same. Resources are mostly the same (this particular school district spent a lot of money on busing, but received extra funding inputs from govt to cover that).

Socioeconomic status and the educational sophistication of the parents is the biggest factor in Canada, in my experience (unless we are talking about private schools or First Nations schools).
posted by KokuRyu at 12:08 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I always took it as given that once you got past the most elementary questions of food, shelter, and basic medicine and communication, every other measure of merit was highly subjective.

What does this even mean? What measures of merit are related to elementary questions of food and shelter? Aren't measures of merit in, say, athletic competitions, highly objective? I mean, you can tell who crosses the finish line first, you can measure how long it takes someone to sprint 40 meters. And there are vast efforts in educational testing that attempt to quantify and ameliorate the subjectivity of tests, regardless of what you take as a given.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:16 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


So parents with good students, to give them a bit of a helping had, had their kids move to less demanding high schools so that instead of coming in at, say, 12 per cent, their kid would be among the top ten percent, easy enough at a less demanding high school.

Makes perfect sense and it's a completely rational decision if Texas decided to just say "top 10% of each school" without any effort to normalize grades across different schools.

College admissions is Serious Business. If you're going to start handing out scholarships or guaranteed admission, then you should expect people to take absolutely full advantage of every possible way that it can be exploited. In the realm of rules that need to be considered in light of a very hostile environment, it's like one small step down from the tax code.

Maybe we shouldn't have gotten rid of all the decent jobs for people without college degrees and then we wouldn't have quite the amount of pressure bearing on the process as we do, but unfortunately that ship has basically sailed.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:17 PM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Obviously they aren't - but that having been said, the disparity in schools in Canada is less dramatic than that of the United States just because our schools aren't funded through local property taxes.

This is a relatively recent development. Anyone who completed OAC spent time in a secondary-school system funded through local property taxes. And there are still significant funding disparities between provinces.

Even so, the idea that a 90% is a 90% is a 90% is still wishful thinking.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:18 PM on August 13, 2013


This is why my hapa baby has a European first name, and my European last name, not her mom's asian last name. I hope there is no more institutional bias against asians by the time she applies to college in like 2030, but we don't know that.
posted by w0mbat at 12:20 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you come from a privileged background and are academically well-prepared, you are probably going to do well no matter which college you go to. If you come from an underprivileged background and are not well-prepared, it is much more challenging to achieve the same outcome even with preferential admissions policies. GIGO. Although some underprivileged students definitely benefit from preferential admissions policies alone, the majority will need increased support at every step, from pre-K to graduate school, or they will simply fail out. Just look at the 6 year graduation rate differences between privileged and underprivileged students at institutions across the board. It's depressing but it's a solvable problem if we are willing to commit the monetary resources to supporting these students for the long haul.
posted by fraxil at 12:25 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a relatively recent development. Anyone who completed OAC spent time in a secondary-school system funded through local property taxes. And there are still significant funding disparities between provinces.

Only from within do the variations seem large. Spend some time in other countries and you will be stunned by the variability.
posted by srboisvert at 12:26 PM on August 13, 2013


Oh racism, is there anything you can't ruin?
posted by blue_beetle at 12:30 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sorry, KokuRyu, nothing against you personally since I know you don't mean offense (and also because I'm in a grawr mood), but calling a person with a disability "inspirational" for just living everyday life is really a horrible insult at times. I recognize that I don't have things on a level playing field, and sometimes I do have to go the extra mile - but at the same time, this is me, this is my life, these are the cards I've been dealt. I mean, what's the alternative to just making use of what I have in going about life? Am I supposed to just lie down and flop like a dead fish? Is that what it takes to make me not inspirational?

A good rule of thumb is: would you be similarly impressed if it were an able-bodied person doing the same thing? Making my way through university and academia doesn't strike me as particularly impressive.

But that's a derail, so I digress.
posted by Conspire at 12:31 PM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Only from within do the variations seem large. Spend some time in other countries and you will be stunned by the variability.

Been there, done that.

I know Canada's schools are more homogeneous than those in the U.S., but when you are filling a university class, the idea that there is absolutely nothing worth considering other than grades is a pretty poor one.
posted by one more dead town's last parade at 12:32 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


So parents with good students, to give them a bit of a helping had, had their kids move to less demanding high schools so that instead of coming in at, say, 12 per cent, their kid would be among the top ten percent, easy enough at a less demanding high school.

Given that presumably the parent moving their child from a demanding high school to a less demanding high school is moving their privileged child into a more deprived environment, would it be wildly optimistic of me to hope that at least one side effect of this policy would be to help level teaching and quality standards across Texas high schools? Yes, I guess it would.
posted by ambrosen at 12:46 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


...would you be similarly impressed if it were an able-bodied person doing the same thing?

If an able-bodied person put in triple the number of hours that everyone else did to even be on the same playing field; leafed through the textbook for hours on end, page by page, and then went to the professor's office hours on a weekly basis to grasp all the billion things that the textbook couldn't cover; self-taught SQL and Java and C++ and other languages from online tutorials from scratch; spent countless summer volunteer hours working in multiple labs, unpaid and subsisting off ramen, until one of them finally scrounged up enough funding to offer a meager research position that pays barely enough for public transit to even get to the workplace, yes I would be similarly impressed.

That is not a description of just living everyday life. I would call it inspirational.
posted by Longtime Listener at 12:47 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I do what I do out of necessity; any drive, motivation or integrity you may be reading into my actions are purely incidental.

You are absolutely free to privately be impressed with what I do, that is your right. But at the same time, when I - or others - hear the word "inspirational" multiple times on a weekly basis for doing things as mundane as taking a bus alone, I get really tired of what comes off as an othering, ableist and privileged remark. What I do is done to benefit me; my actions are not done with the intention of being re-purposed and re-possessed as a feel-good tool for others.

This isn't an argument over my merits; it's an explanation of privilege.
posted by Conspire at 12:58 PM on August 13, 2013 [14 favorites]


I wish the study had included a third group that was given a prompt that mentioned Blacks were under represented in the undergraduate population.

Because it's not clear whether the change in perception is due to them being reminded that Asians are "over-represented" versus simply being reminded that the undergraduate population doesn't reflect the general population in terms of race.
posted by justkevin at 1:09 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


This kind of goal-post shifting was exactly the kind of thing that made the college admissions process ridiculously stressful for me and many others, because applicants are aware of this "it's a meritocracy unless..." mentality.

You should never think that admission to a selective American college is in any way a meritocracy. It's a straightforward matter of the college putting together an incoming class that it thinks will best serve the institutional needs of the college. Merit doesn't enter into it very much, and really selective schools could assemble another incoming class that looks pretty much like the one they admitted from the students they rejected.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:28 PM on August 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think this is pretty much what happens, and it makes absolutely no sense unless you think all high schools in Canada are functionally identical.

In BC 40% of your grade 12 mark in core courses like english and math comes from a provincially administered final exam. Everyone (at least when I sat for it years ago) writes the same exam at the same time. While it doesn't eliminate the problem of easy vs. hard marking teachers it greatly reduces the variability of assigned grades.
posted by Mitheral at 1:35 PM on August 13, 2013


The Grade 12 provincial exams were pretty easy to prepare for, because the old tests are available online etc (were bound in books when I was a student).

However, the BC provincial scholarship exams were a different matter altogether. I aced all the provincials, but had no prep for the scholarship exams (it was on material not covered in the general currriculum), so I did not get a scholarship.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:47 PM on August 13, 2013


Screw college admissions, nothing is a meritocracy. Some things come closer than others, but the idea that fortune always favors everyone who's good or talented at something is a Hollywood myth that breaks more spirits and enables more assholes than I've had hot dinners.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:49 PM on August 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


It amazes me when people denounce college admission diversity policies without realizing that in gross numbers white people are their primary beneficiary, even if under-represented minorities might have the greatest percentage benefit.

The leadership, character, well-roundedness and creativity soft criteria are used for essentially no other ends than to admit white students with lower grades and SATs than Asian applicants.

The choice to assign most or all extracurricular recruiting allowances to athletics, versus few or none to music, has a very significant disparate impact against Asians and in favor of whites.
posted by MattD at 2:56 PM on August 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Cal Tech has about 40% Asian students, and that % steadily increased over the past 25 years at the same rate as the increase in the US college-aged Asian population. All the other elite schools have an amazingly similar 15-18% Asian student population--and the trends at those schools have remained flat for the last 25 years. Asians represent the largest group at Cal Tech.

I don't know what Cal Tech does differently in their admissions process, but it clearly is different compared to other elite institutions.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 3:19 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


But Caltech doesn't admit huge numbers of Asian-Americans--there's also a lot of just plain Asians from Asia--just like at the UCs. Foreign students whose governments or parents pay full tuition are eagerly sought by lots of elite universities and colleges.
posted by Ideefixe at 3:35 PM on August 13, 2013


It is a small school, but what difference does that make? The percentages are vastly different. By comparison, Stanford has 18% Asians--in line with other elite schools. Also, only 6% of Cal Tech students are international students and not all of those are Asian. My point here is that the numbers suggest that Cal Tech uses different criteria when crafting an incoming class compared to other elite schools. All the other elites have virtually identical demographics.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 4:06 PM on August 13, 2013


I'm not sure if MetaFilter has very many programmers, but "meritocracy" is a word I hear a lot in the field, and I wish I could be as eloquent as @Conspire in expressing my disdain for the term.

Today's tech industry is anything but a meritocracy — maybe back when RAM came in sizes that start with the letter "k" and people were unsure if this "mouse" thing was gonna catch on. However, nowadays, computers are so complex that you can no longer learn by tinkering with an old box. It requires a lot of money and time for someone to become a modern programmer, which are two things most disenfranchised folks don't have. This doesn't stop a lot of rich, white technologists from parroting how they got there through bootstraps and hard work, and how dare women want to learn how to program in an environment that isn't hostile to them rah rah linking this in mensrights.

Obviously this study backs up what a lot of people here already knew — that everyone thinks their advantages were earned — but it should be noted that elsewhere, people really do think the world is fair and righteous just because they're at the top of the pyramid, and it's a concept that pervades some pretty influential industries.
posted by ceol at 4:18 PM on August 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


an low A student in one school might only be a high C student in another school. I don't know if that's true or not

My old school system recently changed to the more standard grading scale, citing a need for students to stay competitive in colleges. I didn't know, when I was in school, that most other schools were much, much more lenient.
posted by Night_owl at 9:56 PM on August 13, 2013


However, nowadays, computers are so complex that you can no longer learn by tinkering with an old box. It requires a lot of money and time for someone to become a modern programmer, which are two things most disenfranchised folks don't have. This doesn't stop a lot of rich, white technologists from parroting how they got there through bootstraps and hard work, and how dare women want to learn how to program in an environment that isn't hostile to them rah rah linking this in mensrights.

Sorry, I think this is bunk. Computers are more complex, but you can interact with them in far easier, more intuitive ways. Writing code is far more accessible than ever, ever-ever before. They're also insanely cheaper, "old hardware" that people sometimes pay to have disposed of (perhaps because of some goofy software/spyware issue that they'd rather not pay to resolve) is mind-blowingly powerful compared to what you could beg for or steal in the 90's or earlier; open source is huge and real and serious and fun and can be used for all sorts of creative pursuits. Software development in nothing more than a web browser is a reality, and with a basic Linux install on an old computer the sky's the limit in what types of software you can write, what languages you use, from the simplest boring utility to a graphical or multimedia masterpiece that transcends what's under the hood in ways that were simply not at all possible for a typical, single person to accomplish 20 years ago. A 10-year-old computer with 256MB of RAM and Ubuntu 6 installed would blow my 12-year-old self away entirely.

In my case, my privilege has nothing to do with the fact that computers were cheaper when I came up on them starting in 1990, but that I had access to them despite them being far more expensive then in normal and adjusted-for-inflation dollars, despite the fact that my parents were relatively broke, mainly thanks to the Army Reserve and my dad's willingness to put in 20 years. He was gone for those billion weekends a year and the two weeks and the Gulf War and the Bosnia bullshit and when he got back from these things with some extra cash he'd sink it into my future without even knowing it -- he just loved the shit for himself, stayed up all night tinkering, and realized what he'd done for me after a year or so after he returned from the first Gulf War and I started teaching him stuff.

I had white privilege certainly, and benefited from a father who was passionately interested in computers and was willing to buy a few during my childhood and adolescence (VIC-20, 286/12, 386/16, and a Pentium 75MHz over the years) and I got to have the hand-me-down each time he moved up a notch. Even the hand-me-downs were quite valuable for awhile and not something you'd just scrounge up or collect from people willingly trying to dispose of them.

When we got the Packard Bell 286, a 12 megahertz 286 processor computer with one megabyte of RAM and a 40 megabyte hard drive was around $2,000 in 1990's dollars, and it ran MS-DOS 4. It was nice of DOS to come with a GW-BASIC interpreter and that was cool, but it was nothing like what we have today, and we still have simple BASIC and assembly language and Pascal, etc environments to play in if we so please.

Comparable computers like Amigas weren't cheap either. Alternative operating systems were expensive and had little ecosystem development going on, and there wasn't a good affordable UNIX/Linux option at the time. Good compilers like Borland C++, Turbo Pascal, QuickBASIC (yes I said it) and such were not cheap though you could certainly pirate them.

Malcolm Gladwell (I know...) makes the point that Bill Gates was extremely lucky to have access to the ancient mainframe computer that sparked his curiosity. Yes. But today the technology is more affordable than ever before, it's available in public libraries, connectivity is available nearly everywhere in urban areas, and yes, there's still privilege beneath it all, but even my most down-on-their-luck friends living out of their cars during phases of their twenties were able to keep in touch with me with a laptop they had scrounged up and kept working. The first hand-me-down laptop I got through work felt like a gold brick both in its actual weight and its "free old hardware squee!" factor because laptops at the time (early 2000s) were in the thousand+ dollar range, $2,000 for a decent machine if I recall correctly. Today they're insanely cheap and you can take an amazingly complex, capable old-ass laptop, throw Ubuntu on it with no expensive Windows license to install or obtain, and you've got a development environment that completely blows away anything just about anyone had access to prior to the 2000s.

Yes, it's complex, because it can handle countless real-world problems, but you have libraries that allow you to stand on the shoulders of giants and single-handedly achieve amazing things. And if you want to, you can just emulate some ancient piece of hardware that would've probably cost 5000% as much as what you're tinkering with and still be able to watch cat videos on YouTube.

But yes, YouTube...computers are so freaking entertaining in completely passive ways now, and the graphics and sound and everything are light-years away from where I started, and I suspect if there is a dearth of deep knowledge and active interest in technology (beyond enjoying it and evangelizing it) that a large part of it may be attributed to the fact that starting with those simple languages or environments in this day and age just seems kind of silly when you have access to so much cooler shit, and hey, let's watch a cat eat a fox that just jumped on a porcupine or some shit bro
posted by lordaych at 11:24 PM on August 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


that a large part of it may be attributed to the fact that starting with those simple languages or environments in this day and age just seems kind of silly when you have access to so much cooler shit, and hey, let's watch a cat eat a fox that just jumped on a porcupine or some shit bro

What? Why would people think it silly to start with simple languages and environments? I mean, learning about computers is like learning about anything else, you start with simpler concepts before moving on to the advanced stuff.

And I don't think the culprit for lack of computer knowledge is because of the recreational uses of computers. People who watch Youtube videos want to watch them. People who want to learn about computers will go learn about them. I mean, you made the point that computers are now more widespread and can do more than ever before. Thus, there's more types of users too, not all of them want to learn every aspect of the computer, some just want to watch movies.
posted by FJT at 3:46 AM on August 14, 2013


I don't know anyone who thinks that their educational achievement is solely down to their own brilliance and didn't owe anything to their circumstances.

You don't know any white conservative / libertarian Americans.
posted by dirigibleman at 6:41 AM on August 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


My point was that you don't have to think that merit is entirely natural to believe in meritocracy. You can understand that luck played a role in getting you the skills you have, and still object to favouring someone with fewer skills because of their race (or whatever). Objections to meritocracy sometimes seem to assume that proponents think they triumphed over the state of nature or something.
posted by Dasein at 8:16 AM on August 14, 2013


Re: Texas 10% rule for getting into college and unintended consequences --

There was a scandal in a tiny town near where my brother lives. It seems that a teacher altered grades so that a kid could graduate from highschool who otherwise wouldn't, at least not that year. All because of the 10% rule.

You see, there was another student, a brilliant girl who wanted to be an engineer. She couldn't afford a private college, so in Texas that means University of Texas at Austin. But UT limits it's enrollment to keep up the prestiege, which means that after the guaranteed admissions (the 10% plus a few other categories), competition is fierce for the few remaining places. Some years, the entire enrollment is taken up by guaranteed admission. And to be honest, UT still isn't entirely sold on wasting a good engineering education on a woman, no matter how brilliant. So if she didn't get in by the 10% rule, it's unlikely she could get in at all.

The problem was, that if the other kid failed to graduate, there would only be 9 in her graduating class, so there would be no 10%. They had to have at least 10 kids in the graduating class for her to get into UT. So the teacher fudged the grades to let the other kid graduate. His life plan was to get married right after high school, work on his dad's farm that he would eventually inherit, so the teacher thought it wasn't that important. Personally I happen to agree.
posted by pbrim at 8:38 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


UT limits it's enrollment to keep up the prestiege

UT Austin limits its enrollment because they do not have the capacity for more than the 51,000 students they already have, either in terms of teaching faculty or physical space. There are also several other public universities in Texas that offer engineering degrees.

UT still isn't entirely sold on wasting a good engineering education on a woman, no matter how brilliant.

Citation needed.
posted by grouse at 9:00 AM on August 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The other half received a different prompt, one that noted that Asian Americans make up more than twice as many undergraduates proportionally in the UC system as they do in the population of the state.

By the way, if anyone else was curious whether the prompt in the story was misleading (just me?), I went to look up California demographic data and was kind of surprised to find that Asians are a smaller proportion of the college age population than the overall state population (my calculations, as of 2013):
Race	 All Ages		18-24	
Total	 38,118,386 	100.0%	4,041,556	100.0%
White	 14,925,450 	39.2%	1,271,440	31.5%
Black	 2,209,668 	5.8%	256,254		6.3%
AmerInd	 165,507  	0.4%	17,520		0.4%
Asian	 4,950,167 	13.0%	461,438		11.4%
PacIsl.	 135,847 	0.4%	16,701		0.4%
Latino	 14,739,555 	38.7%	1,884,686	46.6%
Two/More 992,192 	2.6%	133,517		3.3%

posted by psoas at 8:57 AM on August 15, 2013


Meritocracy Isn't Fair: Lead Edition
[T]he current cohort of black teens is still more than three times as likely as the cohort of white teens to have had lead levels of 25 mcg/dl as little kids. And exposure levels as low as 10 mcg/dl among children under the age of 6 are associated with an over 5 point decline in IQ among adults.

Needless to say, children under the age of 6 do not exercise a great deal of choice over where they live or what level of soil testing is done. Nor is it an accident that low-income parents are more likely to be inhabiting the kind of dwellings where their kids are likely to be exposed to toxic levels of lead. I think it takes a fairly perverse outlook on life to believe that a person deserves lifelong economic hardship as a consequence of his parents' having lived in an old house near a freeway when he was a toddler. But the name for that social system is "meritocracy." The non-poisoned infants really will grow up to be adults who really are smarter and really do have better impulse control and ability to do long time-horizon planning. They have more "merit" than the poisoned kids just like Dwight Howard is very genuinely taller and stronger than you or I.

Obviously the right response to lead and other atmospheric toxins is to clean them up. But the fact of the matter is that we're not going to eliminate lead from the build environment next year, and we're certainly not going to go back in time to the late 1960s and clean up the environment that today's 45 year-olds grew up in. And though lead is very important, it's also obviously not the only source of relative cognitive disadvantage out there (consider mercury or bad school lunches or just noise). The point, however, is that the unfairness that who your parents were and where they lived 30 or 40 years ago has a major impact on your income and opportunities today isn't a contrast to the idea that the American economic system in some sense rewards merit—this happens precisely because the system rewards merit and possession of "merit" is largely driven by factors that are themselves totally beyond a person's individual control.
posted by zombieflanders at 7:03 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


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