Interview by Tamar Lewin
Lani Guinier, the first tenured woman of color at Harvard Law School, went through a trial by fire in 1993, when President Bill Clinton withdrew her nomination for assistant attorney general for civil rights.
Negative publicity about her political and academic views had made her a polarizing figure. Conservatives called her "the quota queen," though her essays, published in "The Tyranny of the Majority: Fundamental Fairness in Representative Democracy," make it clear she opposed quotas and was seeking voting systems that would promote representation not just of the majority but also of a greater range of groups.
Her new book, "The Tyranny of Meritocracy: Democratizing Higher Education in America," returns to the theme of inclusion, making the case that college admissions has become a "testocracy" in which standardized test scores are seen as the most important measure of merit, and character counts for little. She argues for a rethinking of merit that would better reflect the values of a democratic society.
Q: Is there anything you find encouraging in what's been happening in higher education?
A: There have been some very interesting peer-learning developments. When Uri Treisman was at Berkeley - he's now at the University of Texas - he saw that African-American students were not doing as well in his calculus class as Asian-Americans, and he was concerned.
He hired people to follow the students with a camera for several months, to witness how they were studying. The assumption among his colleagues followed the well-known stereotypes, that the black students were not as well prepared and not spending as much time on their homework. But he found something different, that they studied in their dorm rooms by themselves, while the Chinese-Americans studied together, talking about their calculus problems while they cooked and ate their meals.
Many of the African-Americans had adopted isolation as a strategy for coping with their environment. Professor Treisman started a program to help them mirror what the Chinese students were doing. He invited them to lunch, and when they talked through calculus problems, he discovered that, in some ways, they were better at teaching each other calculus than he was. They could give more useful examples to map out how to solve a problem.
Working together, their grades improved dramatically.
At Harvard, in the context of physics and women, Eric Mazur had the same experience when he had his students work through questions together instead of listening to him lecture. Because of those results, a lot of professors have changed how they teach, to have less lecture time and more peer learning.
New York Times, 2/8/2015
New York Times, 2/8/2015