We all know what college is, right? It's the current replacement for high school -- an entitlement, in other words. Whereas once a high-school diploma fitted most Americans for most jobs, the prevailing wisdom is that you now have to have a college degree. From which it follows that the government must guarantee, or come as close as it can to guaranteeing, this formerly exotic right.
Something else follows: college replaces, or supplements, high school as the place where the rough human edges left by Nature are rubbed down and smoothed off, and where many of the more visible differences among human beings simply disappear.
I say all this in order to get to the subject of the Texas A&M board of regents and its tentatively approved proposal to offer admission to the top 20 percent of the graduating classes from low-performance high schools.
What the proposal amounts to is racial recruitment in defiance of a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision banning the use of race as a criterion in college admission.
The Aggies are trying to increase a minority enrollment they find deplorably low. And we know why: Their regents buy into the idea of college as entitlement. To set and maintain standards is to fight against the spirit of the age. A university (according to that spirit) is instrumental in character. The opening of minds is not the university's central mission -- not any more. That mission is now the socialization of the population and the uplift of those portions deemed most in need of it. On these terms, the 20 percent rule makes sense, at least to the A&M regents.
The regents' stated goals are clearly not despicable. A student capable of profiting from the college experience is far better off in college than on the assembly line. But the Aggie approach is bumptious and counterproductive.
First, as we see, the approach is coyly discriminatory and therefore likely to cause all sorts of problems, not only in the courts but on campus. Students in general don't like being measured by a variety of yardsticks. If an A student has no better shot at A&M admission than does a B minus student, this will rankle. It will be viewed as a denial of merit. In the end, intellectual success is founded on merit plus hard work. No university with a claim to distinction can afford to be seen as rewarding the less-than-meritorious.
But what does this kind of reward do in fact for the rewardees? Maybe a lot less than those who bestow such a reward have in mind. Affirmative action critics like Thomas Sowell and Ward Connerly argue persuasively that putting marginally qualified students into highly challenging academic situations does these students no favor. There's no reason they shouldn't go to college -- there may well be every reason they should. More problematical is whether they should go to a hard university instead of a softer one -- where the chances of graduation increase, even if the prestige of the degree is less than at other schools.
It may be the regents will draw back from the abyss. After all, they have approved this wretched mess only tentatively. Moreover, the university's recent abolition of the time-hallowed Aggie football bonfire is playing badly with many tried-and-true Aggies. Will the administration want more difficulties yet?
Anyway, the 20 percent plan -- so very modern, so very disingenuous -- reminds us of the cultural assumptions that for now govern America.
The phrase "for now" is important. An assumption can be overthrown -- as happened years ago to the one about college being the place where you got your mind opened instead of where the state tried to enforce a specious equality. Out of this mindset emerged the entitlement culture, in its educational form. Texas A&M, if so minded, can perform a public service by delivering to that culture the kick in the pants it richly deserves.