I have a new piece up at *Discourse* tying into the Olympics to talk about affirmative action.

This idea was pitched to me by one of the editors there, and I initially balked a little, because it seemed to well-worn, too pat of an argument to contrast racial preferences against the pure meritocracy of the Olympics. But when I thought about it, I realized has an opportunity to make a case that is not pat or well-worn.

To begin with, in keeping with my policy of offering one cheer for wokeness, I offer the “steel man” case—that is, the opposite of a straw man—for racial preferences. The Olympics is supposed to be a pure meritocracy, but it has its own instances of bias and corruption, as any fan of figure skating knows, and that’s before we get to the flagrant Russian doping scandals.

This is what the “woke” think has been happening all along in

everyarea of life: bias and outright corruption, which has to be counteracted by a bias against the supposed cheaters.This is what you might call the steel man case for racial preferences, and there is a point to it. Rooting out bias is hard. The counterpoint, however, is that rooting out bias is actually

hard. You have to prove it, you have to identify it specifically and you have to figure out what will actually correct the problem, as opposed to what will make people feel good or satisfy the lust for revenge.

What I think is far more interesting is to look at instances of unequal results at the Olympics that are clearly *not* the result of bias. My case study is the extraordinary Jamaican dominance in sprinting.

The Jamaicans, for example, are famously at a disadvantage when it comes to winter games like bobsledding—not surprising for a country where it never freezes—yet they dominate in the sprinting events, achieving astonishing success for a nation of fewer than 3 million people.

Some people speculate that this might be due to genetic and environmental factors, but most of the credit seems to go to simply having a good athletic development and training system. To compete at the top level takes raw athletic talent, which depends on genetic factors and early experience. But to develop that talent requires training, coaching, a reserve of experience and constant practice from a young age. Countries that do well in a particular sport are those that have good systems for finding young talent and developing it. And when you have a good system, all the athletic talent in the country tends to get filtered into that one sport rather than, say, bobsledding.

Here’s my conclusion.

Racial preferences for admission to elite universities, for example, are a solution to the wrong problem—like trying to pass out track and field medals to make up for unequal results that come from differences in training and support 15 or 20 years earlier.

We are trying to preserve racial preferences for college admissions at the same time that some urban school districts are canceling middle school algebra classes. How do we expect these kids to get into MIT, or keep up once they get there, if they didn’t get the training they needed in math when it really mattered? The problem isn’t what happens when kids apply to college, it’s what’s not happening long before they get to that point.

But I also go on from there to challenge the zero-sum premise, usually accepted by both sides, that is really driving these debates.

In the Olympics, there are a limited number of medals, and only a few people are going to get them. That’s where this analogy reaches its limit.

Too much of our debate over racial preference in America is put in competitive, zero-sum terms—as if one person getting ahead means somebody else has to fall behind. And then we wonder why the issue provokes so much resentment on both sides.

That zero-sum assumption keeps popping up in one issue after another. We’re two centuries into the Industrial Revolution, and the massive, continual growth and progress that it made possible—but we still haven’t caught up intellectually, and we still assume that stasis is the norm. That’s a topic I’ll be exploring more fully soon.

In the meantime, read the whole article.

#### Welcome to Harrison Bergeron Junior High

In this article, I provide a link in passing to the roiling controversy over middle-school algebra. This is an article I’ve been saving for a little while to share with my readers, and I’ll get to it in a moment.

But in the meantime, it was surpassed in stupidity by a widely-mocked *Washington Post* opinion piece arguing that we should generally reduce the amount of math education in schools because math is useless. No, really.

As a functioning adult in society, I have no use for imaginary numbers or the Pythagorean theorem. I’ve never needed to determine the height of a flagpole by measuring its shadow and the angle of the sun.

Only 22 percent of the nation’s workers use any math more advanced than fractions, and they typically occupy technical or skilled positions. That means more than three-fourths of the population spends painful years in school futzing with numbers when they could be learning something more useful.

The “something more useful” is supposedly “applied logic.”

This branch of philosophy grows from the same mental tree as algebra and geometry but lacks the distracting foliage of numbers and formulas. Call it the art of thinking clearly. We need this urgently in this era of disinformation, in which politicians and media personalities play on our emotions and fears.

This article is self-refuting, because this author didn’t apply any “applied logic” to his original claim, if he can’t think of any reasons why we teach math in school. He demonstrates the main reason kids need math instead of just more of the humanities: so that they know the difference between an answer than can be rigorously proved and an argument you can blather and hand-wave your way through in a *Washington Post* op-ed.

But there’s also something kind of sad about his description of the quadratic formula as “one of many alphabet soup combinations crammed into our heads in high school long enough to pass a math test, then promptly forgotten.” Which just proves that he didn’t have very good math teachers. This leads back to how the public schools are struggling at the basic tasks of teaching.

Check out the piece I mentioned about the debate over middle-school algebra.

[A]lgebra functions as a crucial crossroads in the education system. Students who fail it are far less likely to graduate. Those who take it early can take calculus by 12th grade, giving them a potential edge when applying to elite universities and lifting them toward society’s most high-status and lucrative professions.

But racial and economic gaps in math achievement are wide in the United States, and grew wider during the pandemic. In some states, nearly four in five poor children do not meet math standards.

To close those gaps, New York City’s previous mayor, Bill de Blasio, adopted a goal embraced by many districts elsewhere. Every middle school would offer algebra, and principals could opt to enroll all of their eighth graders in the class. San Francisco took an opposite approach: If some children could not reach algebra by middle school, no one would be allowed to take it….

New York’s dream of “algebra for all” was never fully realized, and Mayor Eric Adams’s administration changed the goal to improving outcomes for ninth graders taking algebra. In San Francisco, dismantling middle-school algebra did little to end racial inequities among students in advanced math classes. After a huge public outcry, the district decided to reverse course.

The contrast between the two policies is revealing. One seeks to alleviate inequality by trying to lift people up (even if public schools are unlikely to be able to achieve that goal).

The other attempts to make people equal by keeping everyone down—a perfect expression of a policy based on altruism and envy.

I can't remember where I read it, but another factor that encourages the zero-sum attitude is that schools like Harvard and Yale are restricting admissions. Instead of offering more programs and classes for more students, some schools are artificially restricting admissions in order to preserve their reputations as being elite.