Gray is Good

December 27, 2015

My mind has been wandering of late, into the space where black and white meet gray, and gray is good.

Retracing my “steps” reveals, to me, that the thinking started with the research for One-Person/One-Vote. Really? (MRW on 12/7/2015.) The piece focused on Evenwel v. Abbott, No. 14-940 and Harris v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, No. 14-232, argued before the Supreme Court on December 8.

Evenwel, in particular, focused on attempts to get absurdly precise about composing legislative districts. The case deals with the difference between voters and people when redistricting occurs, and the difference raises an interesting philosophical question for our democracy: Do representatives work for voters, or for people? However, redistricting occurs every 10 years, and during a decade people are born, voters/people move, and voters/people die. Precision, at a point in time, gets very blurry very quickly.

The Court provided my next stopping point, with the writing on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, No. 14-981. Fisher—this is the second time Abigail Fisher’s case has made its way to the Court—deals with affirmative action in college admissions. The notion that GPA + SAT = In or Not seems patently absurd. If all we need to worry about is two numbers, why do higher learning institutions have admissions offices? Is a GPA from high school X equal to the GPA from high school Y? And should a student’s future depend so heavily on 3-4 hours in some room, filling in boxes with a No. 2 pencil?

Fisher gave me more reason to think about gray when I read What Chief Justice Roberts Misunderstands about Physics, written by Thomas Levenson for The Atlantic on December 23. The article grows out of the Chief’s comment about physics:

What unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class? I’m just wondering what the benefits of diversity are in that situation?

Well, Mr. Levenson answers the question by referencing Albert Einstein. Amazingly, Professor Einstein did not come up with the relativity thing alone, in a moment or three. He spent 10 years on the project and had to depend on, get this, philosophy, to get to E=MC2. Mr. Levenson writes, quoting from Einstein’s own writing:

As he struggled to finish the theory, Einstein found that “even scholars of audacious spirit and fine instinct can be obstructed in the interpretation of facts by philosophical prejudices.” Einstein himself had to reach out of physics to develop the habits of mind that allowed him to see past the prejudices that obscured the relativistic universe he ultimately discovered. “The type of critical reasoning which was required for the discovery of this central point” he wrote, “was decisively furthered, in my case especially, by the reading of David Hume’s and Ernst Mach’s philosophical writings.”

My mental journey ended—at least for now—early this morning, as I sat down to start reading The Road to Character by David Brooks. Here’s how Mr. Brooks begins his introduction:

Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former.

Haven’t we all, Mr. Brooks, haven’t we all. We can’t measure what is inherently immeasurable, so we spend inordinate amounts of time and energy measuring what we think we can measure. Redistricting—and everything else—about a representative democracy is messy, but if you’re unhappy about electoral outcomes, you’ll find listening ears if you argue for a more precise way to put people in the right places. If you’re a student, you don’t get in, and anyone with darker skin and lower numbers does, you’ve got a case. And everyone knows science is right or wrong, true or false, black and white.

Maybe it’s the election season, or end days for our exceptional nation, but gray seems to be out of fashion. That’s a bad thing! A really, really bad thing!!!

[But for the Curator’s end-of-year post, MRW is done for the year. Best wishes for an enjoyable end of the year, and for a happy and healthy 2016.]

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