The econometrics of Rwandan pear blossoms

Genius glinted off every sentence she wrote. A sophomore in my first class at Duke University in the Spring of 1991, she sat in my office three hours each week, both wrists wrapped in bandages; we rarely spoke of that. She read to me from her stories; I read to her from Zora Neale Hurston. A natural-born English major, she majored in econ, for which she cared not a fig. Her tyrannical father refused to pay tuition for any major but econ. Hospital gauze hid the wounds of her war with him.

I thought about her as I read the study by Peter Arcidiacono and Kenneth Spenner, who insist that black students at Duke remain less well-prepared than their white counterparts. Evidence that black students catch up quickly is mistaken, they say; the mirage of their progress reflects that blacks select “less demanding” majors at far higher rates than whites.

Black undergrads here are fodder for this attack on affirmative action and liberal arts. “What Happens After Enrollment” is a political tract disguised as scholarly inquiry. Arcidiacono speculates disingenuously that all the attention might be “because others are using the study in a lawsuit against racial preferences in admissions.” How can “others” use his unpublished work without him? How can a Duke prof be “very surprised” that the newspapers follow a racially-loaded U.S. Supreme Court case? History, anyone? Who appointed him to weigh the merits of black folks being allowed into the room?

No one disputes the academic freedom of these professors to engage in politics around their own points of view; Duke’s treasure, the late Dr. John Hope Franklin, whose legacy Arcidiacono treads upon, provided research for Thurgood Marshall in the Brown v. Board of Education case. But there is no constitutional right to R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha might put it. BSA members who question “the research’s intent, methodology, analysis and conclusion, in addition to its validity,” display a generosity and deliberation far exceeding those of this study.

Arcidiacono and Spenner dress their Little Lord Frankenstein in academic robes, an unconvincing costume. In their bizarre econometrics, our black students, failing to choose the “more challenging” majors, bear the blame for the lack of minority “representation” in economics, engineering and the natural sciences. Other explanations abound; possibly the company. But the authors’ pretense of caring is undercut by their crusade to reduce the numbers of black students at the elite institutions where research careers begin. Stingy polemics, yes; good scholarship, not so much.

Their pamphlet expounds on “racial difference” without contemplating what “race” might be. Nor do the authors consider the very nature of these decisions. Their inquiry into the deeply personal choices of black students fails to ask one black student, not that we should take anyone’s words at face value. Apparently white males at Duke once devoted to econ and engineering in high school mostly cling to their calculators, despite this claim that “the average student finds engineering the most challenging field, followed by economics.” Less-average students might diagnose lack of curiosity or fear of the unfamiliar. But to explain would require individual inquiry; we would have to check our assumptions, not just boxes on a questionnaire. Neither God in Her Divine Wisdom nor our destiny as a species would make us all engineers or economists; to major in econ when poetry holds your heart defines failure, not success. Is it possible that black students, each one unique, on the whole come from cultural and intellectual traditions different than—not less than—most white students at Duke?

Econ majors in my seminars complain of the staggering amounts of reading. And the paucity of “right answers” in history, literature and theology intimidates many, though they catch up quickly. Once they stop inhaling the economist’s elixir—the hokum that crazy humanity is a profit-maximizing choice-machine—people often blossom in sunlight.

I have watched fire seize the minds of erstwhile engineers, causing bad grades—in economics. They just can’t “value-maximize” anymore, not when drunk on James Baldwin and James Brown. If you want a “more challenging” major, get entangled in Ellison’s “blues impulse” and trace the dust tracks from Bethlehem to Rwanda; “finger the jagged grain” of humanity, sharp with our “myriad subtleties.” Sit on the steps of Atlanta University with Du Bois, shotgun cradled on his lap, and wait for the mob; let Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi” behold Armstrong’s genius of jazz; wander with Hughes among “the people of the night,” who “will give even a snake/a break.” How then to stumble home to mute econometric formulas? Sometimes these renegades light out for territory unseen. If only we built higher walls around Duke, we might bar such fools that learn and lose their way; resolute youth could scale the heights of economics without leaving their own intellectual cul-de-sac, unimpaired by poetics—or by education.

Not long ago, I saw her walking her dog near East Campus. No more bandages; her little family and her part-time teaching job leave a light on her face never seen on that sophomore. Inspired by Hurston’s heroine, Janie, she finally told her father to go to hell. He groused about it, but she’d finally majored in English—double-majored in econ to shut him up. She couldn’t remember much econ, she said, but she still reads “Their Eyes Were Watching God” every spring when the pear trees blossom.

Tim Tyson, Senior Research Scholar, Center for Documentary Studies


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