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Radio review: File on 4 and Open Book

26 May 2023

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File on 4 (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) examined affirmative action in the university admissions process in the United States

File on 4 (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) examined affirmative action in the university admissions process in the United States

IF EVER one needed reminding that the United States is a mysterious, complicated place, then last week’s File on 4 (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) provided the evidence. Nomia Iqbal’s report on affirmative action, and the legal challenges currently facing university admissions policies which operate according to its principles, revealed attitudes on both Left and Right which — however close we might think we are to American culture — would be bewildering to the Left and the Right in the UK.

The story at the heart of this discussion concerns the lobby group Students for Fair Admissions (SFA). This has recently brought cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina for discrimination against Asian-American and White American applicants respectively. These institutions argue that their “holistic-admissions” processes take into account a variety of contextual factors that extend beyond ethnicity, to considerations such as socio-economic background and extra-curricular activities. But, at the heart of this debate, is the suspicion that Asian-Americans, in particular, are being passed over because of certain prejudiced assumptions regarding their educational aspirations.

Although it is rarely spoken out loud, a similar anxiety afflicts admissions directors in British universities; but I doubt that we would produce an activist such as Edward Blum, the director of SFA, whose interview formed the centrepiece of this investigation. Mr Blum is keen to do away with affirmative action for university admissions. In response to the argument that this would reduce diversity on campuses, he points to the success of higher-education institutions in Texas, which have very high proportions of Hispanics, and colleges such as Spelman in Georgia, which (almost) exclusively comprises black women.

In contrast, the admissions counsellor interviewed at the end of the programme was choking back the tears as she described how impoverished university culture would become if she and her colleagues were not able to vet applications by such factors as ethnicity and thus manufacture a diverse cohort.

It is difficult for Brits to navigate this world; and it would have helped to get a crash course in what Lyndon B. Johnson’s affirmative-action legislation actually said. For one thing, it was not clear whether it means the same as “positive discrimination”. The trouble is, one wonders whether the actors in this drama fully understand themselves.

With the passing of Martin Amis, we will no longer have the opportunity to enjoy — or wince at — that unique form of coruscating commentary that he delivered on these cultural debates. In a swift schedule change, Radio 4 replayed an edition of Open Book (Sunday) from 2020, in which Amis’s “late style” was on display: gentler, nostalgic, and, above all, fulsomely appreciative of the friendships that sustained him.

Death was, in this interview, a preoccupation. Fear, not of the moment itself, but of the getting there; a process that was, for his friend Christopher Hitchens, especially traumatic. But, at the age of 70, the world “shifted on its axis”. Amis ceased to engage with the contemporary literary cut-and-thrust: instead, “I collapse into the arms of sentimentality.”

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