Racial Myopia, CMC, and Why I Can’t Deal with Charles Johnson

The title of Claremont McKenna College (CMC) alumnus Charles Johnson’s article on the recent college scandal is “Did Top Liberal Arts College Falsify SAT Data to Legitimize Racial Preferences?” I think this is a misguided and misinformed question, to which I shall assert the complication, “Does the SAT manufacture racial preferences?” Or perhaps, to take things just a tad further, “Did top political, educational and economic leaders use standardized testing in order to legitimize racial preferences?” I am not interested in his argument for many reasons (few of which I detail here): the SAT as a measure of “intelligence” is already faulty; the college’s motivations for lying about the scores is likely never to be revealed to us; in the case that this gesture was made to assure CMC’s position as a “top-ranked” institution, this whole debacle says a lot more about the desire to be “the best” than it does about the intellectual value of students on scholarship. What I will say is that such an article does make for a very hostile social world in which it becomes very difficult to be a person of color and excel academically. As Florida Evans from Good Times says, “This ain’t no time to be black.”

As my Microsoft Word file scribbles green under that final sentence, forcing me yet again up against the legitimacy of Black English, I have to think about whom this article is for. Am I trying to convince the people who agree with Charles Johnson that he is wrong, am I trying to make sure that poor students and students of color know that the The Student Life recognizes and values their knowledge or am I trying to make myself feel better by performing political advocacy? I’m sure that all of these things are involved, but what I’m really concerned with is critiquing a mode of thought that I feel many of us are part of. And that is: in a culture ruled by rankings and prestige, despite the “truth” of Johnson’s research (he did his damnedest to get those numbers and connect those dots) the correlation (and if we really want to go there, the causation) between poor students’ and students of color’s SAT scores and the score inflation have nothing to say about the caliber of these students and has more to say about the caliber of our culture.

Johnson’s article astutely investigates two related trends in CMC’s history, namely that CMC has been admitting Posse and Questbridge Scholars to the school since around the same time as CMC started falsifying their average SAT scores. The jump from that statement to implying poor people and people of color are ‘bringing down’ richer whiter students is a large one. One must rather ask, “From what radical heights exactly are CMC students being brought down?” Interestingly enough, the answer—the whole reasoning behind this scandal—only appears at the end of the article: positions in rankings. Because really, the article doesn’t lie wholesale, it just race-baits to the point of excitement and, in the end, fizzles out with some generalized statement about integrity: “But Vos’s cheating and prompt resignation—and Gann’s failure to monitor him—have many alumni wondering how deep the fraud goes and whether Gann should go, too. Claremont’s motto is ‘civilization prospers with commerce,’ but commerce demands honesty and integrity, not games and fraud.” Funnily enough, in this whole final section of the article (wherein I think the truth lies) references to students on scholarship are conspicuously absent. Now, this could be just because Charles Johnson is a terrible writer, but I don’t think that’s it. I think the reason this last, most truthful section doesn’t mention poor students or students of color is because they are not the problem. The “race to the top” for rankings is the problem.

I’m not a sociologist, nor am I an economist, and I don’t have the time or interest to go back through Johnson’s documents and disprove what he’s saying. I don’t even really care if students of color and poor students don’t do as well as rich students on a test that historically would have required you to know that “A runner is to a marathon as an oarsman is to a regatta.” (If you do know what a regatta is, congratulations). I do, however, know how to critique a structure, and that’s what I would like to do very quickly so as to redirect the conversation from saying poor students and students of color being ruinous to talking about how the academic state of affairs is imperfect, and ruinously so (for some of us more than others).             

The Scholastic Aptitude Test is basically another form of intelligence testing—something I think we can all recognize considering the examination’s name. From its Wikipedia page:  “It was first called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, then the Scholastic Assessment Test, but now SAT does not stand for anything, hence is an empty acronym.” How interesting that the acronym is “empty” considering the historical use of intelligence testing in the United States. Nell Irvirn Painte, in her book The History of White People, has a whole chapter, entitled “Intelligence Testing of New Immigrants,” explaining the role of intelligence testing in the U.S. In this chapter, Painter talks about how immigrants brought from Europe to Ellis Island would receive tests that asked questions like, “Why do soldiers wear wrist watches rather than pocket watches?             

Because a. they keep time better

b. they are harder to break

c. they are handier

Glass insulators are used to fasten telegraph wires because:             

a. the glass keeps the pole from being burned

b. the glass keeps the current from escaping

c. the glass is cheap and attractive

Why should we have congressmen? Because

a.     the people must be ruled

b.     it ensures truly representative government

c.      the people are too many to meet and make their laws.”

Painter continues: “Testers aimed high, promising to measure innate intelligence, not simply years of education or immersion in a particular cultural milieu. This claim was obviously absurd, but no matter. The allure of mental testing proved irresistible, because demand for ranking people was high, and the process was cheap, and, best of all, apparently scientific.” This test would go on to be developed by Professor Robert Yerkes, who taught at Harvard. Even if this an extreme example, it is still very difficult to ignore that measuring knowledge is difficult. That is why I take issue with Johnson’s article, in which he states things like, “Although we do not know the statistics for the Posse students, we do have reason to doubt their academic qualifications as a group. At least one student flunked out and several took leaves of absence for academic reasons. A 1998 evaluation of the Posse program at Vanderbilt University found that athletes entered with an average of 1042 SAT score and maintained an average GPA of 3.13, while Posse students came in with a 900 average SAT and finished with a 2.93 average GPA. Due to the low grades of Posse students in their engineering programs, Rice and Lehigh canceled their involvement with Posse, according to the L.A. Times in 2004.” What forces could be at play so that athletes and Posse students occupy similar positions in Johnson’s constellation of intellect? Whether or not his opinions are just simple obvious fact or opinions that have a particular history and come from a particular person is not my right to say. It is funny, though, that Harvard Professor Steven Jay Gould administered this same test to some of his students and some were found to be at what Gould called “the intellectual borderline… fit only for buck private duties.”

Intelligence testing is very difficult and being intelligent is very important if you’re going to college, especially if you attend a corporate college that wants more money and higher rankings so that it attracts students who can afford to trade in money for esteem. The SAT is no measure of “intelligence” writ large—it only codifies a certain type of intelligence, a certain type of intelligence that requires you to recognize Greek and Latin structures (surely whether or not you can afford or your school provides Greek or Latin has no bearing upon this). And my ultimate issue is not with the existence of the SAT, it’s with Johnson’s opinions and his centralization of race and class as the problems. I agree wholeheartedly, but it’s the wrong race and class that he’s paying attention to—we are not asked to define words in Yoruba or Swahili and he seems to have no issue with, you know, having to pay for a test and an application to get into college.

Johnson’s article goes on to talk about Keri Dunn, a former professor who faked a hate crime and spent much of her life advocating for students of color. As if this were integral to CMC’s grade inflation. CMC’s potential reasoning for grade inflation appears most clearly in the second to last paragraph of his article: Gann has made the college rankings front and center of her tenure at Claremont, explicitly encouraging donations to game the rankings. Her fall 2003 fundraising letter explains that alumni giving “demonstrate[s] overall alumni satisfaction…[and] plays an important role in advancing the reputation of CMC, including the U.S. News & World Report college rankings.” The college has set a “new goal” to increase alumni donations by 50 percent to 55 percent over the next five years. “This goal not only will place us within the range of Williams, Swarthmore, and Amherst colleges—the top three liberal arts institutions as ranked by U.S. News—but will also secure a position that is superior to every national university in the country except Princeton,” she wrote.

Funnily enough, no mention of poor students or students of color. We are not the problem. Rankings and testings are.

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