N A T
I O N A L
By William Buckley
Published June 2, 1998
Miseducation, the polls
instruct us, remains the primary cause of concern of the American public,
beating out even crime. The undecided question is: Whose fault is it?
Marginally, of course, the parents'. But the principal contestants for blame
are: the teachers and the students themselves.
What happened in New York
City in 1969 happens in this or the other mode widely. In New York, the
politicians felt pressure to ease into college a bulk of the high school
population. "Open admissions," they called it: If you have a high
school diploma, you are guaranteed admission into the CUNY college complex.
But now the sad results are
apprehended and will be acted on. Buying an encyclopedia does not
guarantee you an education, and matriculating at college doesn't either.
The great New York reform
announced last week was prompted not only by the failure of "remediation"
to pull up a sufficient number of students unqualified in reading,
writing and arithmetic. What also happened was a progressive degradation of the
prestige of the member colleges. And if a college can't give good learning to
good students because of the distractions of open admissions, its reputation
begins to flag. The result? The brighter students from high schools look
elsewhere to go to school and the downward slide of the city colleges
It is proposed in New York
City, under the primary initiative of Trustee Vice Chairman Herman Badillo, to
enact the new admissions program in September 1999. Remedial education faces
major and minor problems. Almost 50 percent of students who matriculate at
Berkeley have needed lessons in remedial reading and writing. But -- the record
suggests -- these students advanced in natural intelligence, ambition and
determination coped with their shortcomings, whatever their cause.
In New York, CUNY estimates
that 13,000 students who would normally enroll in September 1999 will be
barred, given their predicted performance in reading and writing. A mammoth
effort will be made to instruct as many of these as possible, to overcome their
handicap/sloth. The question inevitably arises: If l3,000 New York students are
that deficient in the elementary skills, what makes anybody confident that the
delinquencies can be corrected? By whom? The teachers? Well, why did they
let their students sink so low? Was it the fault of the students? Well, what
will cause them to cultivate skills they have refused to cultivate this long?
Inevitably, critics of the
reform look for legal devices to act on. In America, the default
complaint of those who complain about such matters is: race. And, yes, a disproportionate
percentage of blacks and Hispanics will be turned away next year. That lifts
the hearts of civil rights lawyers who are turning to Title 6 of the Civil
Rights Act. No institution that receives federal money may discriminate by race
The inclination to go to the
courts alleging discrimination is hampered by the existence of white students
who will also be turned down. That would suggest that admissions standards are
being applied to the uniform disadvantage of anyone who can't read or write,
even albinos. That probably won't stop the litigators. But they have failed in
California in attempting by law to set aside the provisions of Proposition 209
that barred preferences for racial or ethnic reasons, and they'd have a tough
time against the trustees of CUNY.
We see in New York a fine
example of the chaos brought on by public action. We have 1) public colleges,
2) publicly decreed admissions requirements, 3) public funding (city, state and
federal); and 3) publicly protected teachers' unions. But they have run into
two forces, one flexible, one inflexible.
The flexible student who can
afford to do so is free to apply to go to college elsewhere. That's what they
call voting with one's feet: the inertial movement, in this case, of the
brighter, mobile students away from campuses whose standards are wilting.
And the inflexible factor
is, quite simply, genuine education. In the last analysis, you can read, or you
can't; can write, or can't; can multiply, or cannot. There is no way in which
the lettering of a diploma can invest the student with skills he hasn't
This brings on a free-market response, even as if the
Coca-Cola you're served is half water, you'd stop buying it. The corrective
pressures in New York are being brought by students acting through the market,
and by academic truths that can't be vitiated. As ever, market corrections are