Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, April 16, 2012

The Swim Test

A few weeks ago John Derbyshire, who wrote for (but was not an employee of) the National Review, penned a bigoted essay describing "the talk" that non-black parents allegedly have with their children. Everyone was rightly outraged, and the National Review has terminated its relationship with Derbyshire. I don't want to downplay the awfulness of the piece, but (like Noah Millman) I want to focus on just how terrible and sad the "advice" is qua advice.

I keep thinking of a kid who drowned at Amherst College when he tried to pass the then-mandatory swimming test (this was several decades ago). The kid was black, and presumably he had little or no swimming instruction. I am sure that those present tried to save him (something that Derbyshire would have advised against), but they failed, and he died. Of course the college soon got rid of the archaic swimming requirement.

Why was there a swim test in the first place? I don't know. We are surrounded by barriers, some of them sensible, some of them impossible to avoid. One of the biggest barriers is simply the difficulty of reaching another person, establishing a real connection. Even in the city, we live like farmers: we are lonely and separated by vast distances.

How perverse it is to advise your children to throw up even more barriers, to wall themselves off from so many of their fellow humans, for the sake of these feverish abstractions about race and safety. Think of all the interracial couples who would not have found their love if they took this advice. But it's not just romantic relationships, or even friendships. Daily life (at least in any large urban area) would be completely poisoned by this kind of attitude. Riding the subway, going to a baseball game, going for a walk in the park (an example Millman cites)—these kind of activities are bound to bring you into close, temporary contact with all sorts of people who are very different from you. If you walk around with alarms going off in your head every time you encounter black people, you are going to have an awful time of it. Save the alarms for legitimately dangerous circumstances, and leave open the possibility of a human connection with the people you meet. You can't afford to impose swim tests on the world, they are bound to end badly sooner or later, and not just for the other person.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Most schools that used to have swim tests had them because a wealthy donor lost a young relative to drowning. They then think, if college is supposed to prepare people to for the world, why didn’t they teach my nephew to swim, then he’d still be alive today.

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