Paul L. Caron

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Wax: The University Of Denial — Aggressive Suppression Of The Truth Is A Central Feature Of American Higher Education

Following up on my previous posts (links below):  Wall Street Journal op-ed:  The University of Denial: Aggressive Suppression of the Truth is a Central Feature of American Higher Education, by Amy Wax (Pennsylvania):

Somewhere deep in a file drawer, or on a computer server humming away in a basement, are thousands upon thousands of numbers, with names and identities attached. They’re called grades. They represent an objective reality, which exists independent of what people want reality to be. They sit silently, completely indifferent to indignation, angry petitions, irritable gestures, teachers’ removal from classrooms—all the furor and clamor of institutional politics.

Those numbers are now solely within the control of the individual students who earn them and the educational institutions that generate them—powerful entities ruled by bureaucracies that serve as gatekeepers to privileged positions in our society. They are jealously guarded, protected by cloaks of confidentiality and secrecy. But they are what they are. Hiding facts is not the same as changing them. ...

The problem is that students, including law students, go out into the real world. They are hired, paid and expected to perform, and their actions have real consequences for others. Whether we like it or not, grades help predict future performance. Some social actors acknowledge this, implicitly or overtly. As a law professor, I observe, for example, that federal judges unapologetically select clerks based on academic record and rank, and that elite law firms are also highly grade-conscious.

The mindset that values openness understands that the truth can be inconvenient and uncomfortable, doesn’t always respect our wishes, and sometimes hurts. Good feelings and reality don’t always mix. But there is a price to be paid for putting the quest for psychological comfort over openness on matters central to how our society is organized. While some people benefit from the favored view, others lose out. People accused of bigotry and discrimination—claims that are more pervasive than ever—are understandably unhappy about being deprived of the ability to defend themselves by pointing to alternative reasons for group differences. Hoarding and hiding information relevant to such differences, which amounts to predetermining a verdict of “guilty as charged,” violates basic principles of fair play and gives rise to justified resentment.

Universities, like other institutions, scheme relentlessly to keep such facts from view. Yet although the culture war is now tilted against those accused of discrimination, politics persists, and frustration tells at the ballot box. The deeper price is that people come to believe that truth yields to power, and that political pressure should be brought to bear to avoid inconvenient realities.

Some in this camp claim benign motives. They seek to safeguard the feelings of those who might be distressed by public knowledge. One can argue about when, how and in what form the disclosure will best balance personal privacy and our society’s need to know. But when facts are concealed, they do not change. They have consequences whether or not we are prepared to face them.

That belief that political force determines objective reality has characterized totalitarian regimes world-wide and throughout history—regimes that are responsible for untold amounts of human misery. That mindset is dangerously inconsistent with the kind of free society Americans have painstakingly built and defended over many centuries, at the cost of blood and treasure. Perhaps we no longer want such a society. But we relinquish it at our peril.

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

Legal Education | Permalink


Based on what little I have observed (from a great distance, I might add), I don’t find Wax very likeable as a person. But her critics’ responses indicate that she’s likely more in the right than wrong.

Consider, for example, ohwilleke’s comment. After offering a conclusory condemnation, he (1) tries to change the subject; and (2) asserts without evidence that law students can authorize disclosure of their class rank, a claim that is false with respect to Penn Law and likely false at all other law schools.

Penn Law’s website flatly states that its “students are not ranked in class.” My alma mater, UT Law at Austin, would not disclose class rank, not even to students. Unless, one was admitted to the Order of the Coif, which only accepts the top ten percent of the class, students had no way of assessing class rank beyond guessing. This was not an oversight; it was and remains the school’s deliberate policy.

Mike Livingston’s comment is a somewhat more obnoxious version of changing the subject: “There are more immediate problems. I suggest everyone calm down and she resume teaching her courses next year.” This non-sequitur would be somewhat less absurd had Penn Law not barred Wax from teaching mandatory first-year courses, something that Wax’s adversaries have been advocating since 2017 based on nothing more than her politically unpalatable views.

Posted by: Curmudgeonly Ex-Clerk | Mar 29, 2018 10:53:35 AM

Professor Wax is identifying the problem as students not being able to deal with the real world after they graduate.  Disclosure of grades does not resolve that issue for the student. It also isn’t necessary for a potential employer. A potential employer will employ a graduate based on grades and past performance.

Disclosure of grades does help Professor Wax argue that certain groups should not be admitted to school based on their performance after they enter school.  Thus, it can be used as evidence against Affirmative Action.  This is to the extent that one believes that the burden of admitting people that do not meet certain credentials outweighs the benefits.

Doctor Locketopus.  It depends on whether the person still holds power after murdering 100 million people.  If he is a “winner,” then the universe will say he is a hero.  If he is a “loser” then he is a murderer.

JC. Professor Wax supports “Bourgeois Culture” and it is a feature of her work.

Posted by: Find your group | Mar 26, 2018 9:16:55 PM

What an incredibly flowery and obscure argument for revealing everyone's grades? And, honestly, equating student grades with "truth" is a bit over the top. There is plenty of secrecy to be concerned about in the world. But, suppression of truth, for example, in the forms of not publishing most court opinions, or keeping juvenile justice utterly secret, are far deeper concerns than not giving a full breakdown of individual law school grades, even while still releasing class rank information to anyone a student authorizes.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Mar 26, 2018 1:14:53 AM

The Republic shall not survive anonymous testing in law schools, as the Republic was destroyed long ago. It lives on only in words, usually uttered or written by those running the resulting Empire or their knaves.

Posted by: jimmieb | Mar 26, 2018 12:17:15 AM

Anyone who uses the term “bourgeoisie” is likely a supporter and perhaps even a part of the suppression of truth in higher education of which Professor Wax speaks. And a major reason why respect for higher education in this country is rapidly eroding.

Posted by: JC | Mar 25, 2018 7:02:28 PM

"Your contributions to the universe will be awarded appropriately."

One may hope that this holds true for Marxists, as well. Tell me: what do you imagine might be an appropriate "award" for murdering one hundred million people?

Posted by: Doctor Locketopus | Mar 25, 2018 5:23:06 PM

hiding law school grading by race (which I think this is about) is just one aspect of truth suppression

there is lots and lots and lots more truth suppression in law school and in government and at charities and in the private sector also

the question is whether a given piece of truth suppression does harm - in some cases, e.g., military capabilities, there may be value to the country in suppressing the truth

in others, e.g., ability of fire fighting trainees to do their job, the suppression of truth for the potential employers of such trainees, such suppression might be dangerous to society

Posted by: Martin Weiss | Mar 25, 2018 5:04:10 PM

Employers only have access to grades when individual students authorize the sharing of transcripts.

Collective, anonymized data is controlled by the institutional bureaucracies.

The data is there, but access to it is restricted by federal law.

Posted by: Looking for Group | Mar 25, 2018 4:53:08 PM

And then we have bridges designed by feminist engineers to whom beauty is more important that reliability.

Posted by: Michael T Kennedy | Mar 25, 2018 4:07:11 PM

To "Find your group":

Groups lie, and seek to acquire and defend power. Our system was in theory based on individual merit and substantive, fact-based sources. At this point that system no longer exists and our so-called "pretend discourse" has imposed taboos and protected areas of inquiry that are not to be pursued. There are so many important matters about which we are not allowed to speak. Amy Wax has discovered this because she attempted to discuss things that are outside the defined limits of what has become modern discourse. The ironic thing is that I find that many of her critics are either advocates for a specific identity group's agenda or more or less ignorant critics spouting the positions approved by their particular group and that are intended to help achieve a power grab and privileged status for their interest group. There is essentially no honest discussion at this point about any issue of consequence and Wax is taking a beating mainly for attempting to recreate honest discourse. She doesn't have to be correct in her assertions but the fact that her attackers can't respond in any way other than to basically curse her out, call her a bigot, announce that the traditions of Western culture--many of which deserve criticism but others deserve significant admiration--are racist garbage to be condemned and banned from our discourse are ignorant, malicious and undesirable forms of identity group self-interested political propaganda.

Posted by: David | Mar 25, 2018 2:17:20 PM

I’m pretty sure the Republic will survive anonymous grading in law schools.

Posted by: Guest | Mar 25, 2018 12:04:26 PM

Wax is right, but it's hard to see what either side of this debate is contributing right now. There are more immediate problems. I suggest everyone calm down and she resume teaching her courses next year.

Posted by: Mike Livingston | Mar 25, 2018 3:26:57 AM

Information is power. The universities possess the information on student admissions and college grades that could be used to evaluate affirmative action, but they keep it secret. Whoever can bust it open at even one university might cause a revolution in how people think about the subject. A lot would come out about admissions based on political connections, personal connections, and paternal wealth too-- and on how those people perform in college.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | Mar 24, 2018 8:09:23 PM

It's a form of science denial: Group differences in ability, interest, or even life priorities, must be denied. To admit that groups would not naturally be equally represented in every high-status human endeavor would destroy the foundation of "disparate impact" imputation of discrimination. The high political stakes explain the harsh treatment of heretics who refuse to accept the "blank slate" dogma.

Posted by: AMTbuff | Mar 24, 2018 7:07:37 PM

Obfuscation. Employers have access to grades, and make decisions based on grades. However, in the long run past performance on the job matters more. Ms. Wax is now being judged based on past performance to her disdain. If your life’s work is dismantling Affirmative Action in higher education and being a proponent of Bourgeoisie culture, so be it. Your contributions to the universe will be awarded appropriately.

Posted by: Find your group | Mar 24, 2018 1:03:42 PM