America's most celebrated college dropout had a great opportunity to boost higher education, help needy students and strike a blow against racism, but he blew it. If Bill Gates had been able to chat with Teddy Roosevelt before launching his breathtaking $1-billion program of college scholarships, America would be a better place.
Unless significantly amended, Gates' "minority" scholarships will further inflame racial tensions, delay the achievement of a colorblind society and subvert the cherished virtue of reward by merit.
But let's start at the beginning.
The Gates Millennium Scholarships for thousands of high school seniors over the next 20 years are intended to produce more scientists, engineers, doctors and educators from among American minorities, who, he claims, are woefully underrepresented in college. His commitment to arbitrarily preferred groups is bound to increase racial resentment. Gates' vague concept of "diversity" confuses the laudable diversity of cultural talents that strengthens the nation with the self-conscious racial diversity that divides it by breeding arrogance and envy.
In 1915, another time when the United States was pondering problems of the melting pot, Roosevelt said: "There is no room in this country for hyphenated Americanism. . . . The only absolute way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities." What would Roosevelt say today about African Americans, Latino Americans and other hyphenated Americans?
By restricting his grants to specified minorities, principally blacks, Latinos and American Indians, Gates seems oblivious to the social consequences of his program. Racial preferences, by whatever name, tend to corrupt the putative beneficiaries and antagonize those who are discriminated against.
Gates' scholarships also violate Martin Luther King Jr.'s admonition to judge persons only on merit, not by the color of their skin. Both Roosevelt and King believed in a colorblind America--a genuine melting pot.
By allowing "diversity" to trump merit, the Gates plan is beset by serious academic flaws. A Gates student must have a 3.3 grade-point average--good in theory, but hardly a reliable guide. Our public high schools vary widely in academic quality, and many of them inflate grades to foster self-esteem.
The Gates applicant also must submit an essay on his aspirations and commitment to service and be nominated by a teacher or community leader. Such essays often reflect the talents of friends or teachers, and letters of reference can be unreliable.
To make matters worse, Gates explicitly excludes the best single measure for predicting success in college--SAT and similar college entrance scores. Ruling out standardized tests, admittedly less than perfect, and relying on soft criteria like dubious essays and nomination letters is bound to yield many mediocre students whose performance will contribute to the further dumbing down in American higher education.
Shelby Steele of the Hoover Institution put it well: "All these ingenious assaults on merit in the name of diversity suggest a loss of faith in a racial equality grounded in merit. . . . The 'inclusion' we most need now is . . . intellectual respect, which can be gained through merit alone."
On the crucial issue of financial need, Gates is on the mark. And there are reliable ways to measure such need. Thousands of academically qualified high school students cannot afford a good college education. They deserve help and encouragement. Why, then, does Gates not provide scholarships to all needy students, regardless of race, creed or color? Why discriminate against white or Asian students? The poor white coal miner's daughter in West Virginia deserves financial help every bit as much as an equally qualified black from Harlem.
Happily, the serious flaws in the Gates program can be corrected by two simple measures: Award scholarships on academic merit and financial need alone, and rely more fully on standardized tests. So amended, Gates' generosity would strengthen higher education and, equally important, help mitigate the growing perils of a hyphenated America.