Last night, I treated myself to a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. A few years ago, I splurged and bought myself a ticket for my 40th birthday. Since then, it has been an annual tradition. For me, this ritual is not just the chance to see a nice show—though it is a pretty amazing show. For me, this is a celebration of black bodies.
Now, more than ever, when I am confronted on an almost daily basis with the fear and revulsion with which black bodies are met, the Ailey company reminds me of the sheer beauty and power of black bodies. In a culture that presents bodies like mine for exploitation; in a society that promotes the idea that black bodies like mine are expendable, the Ailey dancers reminds us that black bodies that look like mine—that move like mine—are sacred and holy.
With a mix of new and classic pieces, I was delighted. I watched After the Rain barely breathing—mesmerized by the beauty and grace of the pair. By the time they got to the third piece, Exodus, premiering this year, I could feel my own body responding to the rhythm of the music and the dance. The audience was alive with exuberant joy. And the dancers were on some special kind of fire tonight. Here’s a little bit of Revelations – just for old time’s sake.
Lani Guinier, in her new book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America, raises the question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is the purpose of education to cultivate an informed and engage citizenry? Is the purpose to prepare laborers to participate in the marketplace? Or is the purpose of education to reproduce social hierarchy based on academic credentials? A look at our overreliance on standardized testing—the creep from college admission testing down into the lower levels of elementary education—suggests the third option. Despite our reliance on standardized tests, such as the SAT for college or the LSAT and GRE for graduate school, to decide school admission, these tests are actually a very poor predictor of who will do well in college and graduate school. Rather, if we are honest with ourselves, these tests are more accurately used to determine deservedness. Students who score well on these tests may or may not do well in higher education. But students who score well on these tests “deserve” to be admitted to a “good” school. Standardized tests become another tool of “entitlement.”
What would it look like if the purpose of higher education were to cultivate an engaged and informed citizenry – not just to reward those who have already had access to opportunities? In a recent Supreme Court case about race conscious admission in higher education (Fisher v University of Texas, 2012), Justice Clarence Thomas argues that using a criterion such as race in admissions decisions does a disservice because it leads to a mismatch. You can read more about Fisher here, but this mismatch argument is what is interesting, and we use it more broadly than in race considerations. The idea is that when we consider criteria other than, say high test scores, (think race, or class, or service in the community) we run the risk of admitting students who are not academically prepared and are thus a mismatch to the schools and all of the high-achieving students. We weed out those un-deserving students for their own good—so that we don’t set them up for failure.
We like this argument because by using something like test scores, we can imagine that we are using objective criteria. Test scores are objective. Students who do well on test scores are smart and hard-working. They deserve to be admitted into institutes of higher education. The higher the score, the more competitive the school. Except test scores are not an objective measure of smartness or hard work. Test scores are more a measure of family wealth than anything else. (Read about that here and here and here and here. Oh, and here.) Yes, there are exceptions. But let’s be real: on a macro-level, test scores are a measure of wealth—not intelligence, not hard work, and not deservedness.
But what if the goal of admissions teams at institutes of higher education were not simply to cull the unprepared and reward the high achievers? What if the goal of admissions were to foster democracy and this cultivation of an engaged and informed citizenry? And what if the purpose of institutes of higher education were to take a diverse and complimentary student population and to actually prepare them for collaboration and achievement in the world?