Footnote of the Day: Guinier on Admissions Officers and Sorting Hats

For a project on affirmative action and admissions processes, I am reading a voluminous 2003 Harverd law review article by Lani Guinier, “Admissions rituals as political acts: Guardians at the gates of our democratic ideals.” The article argues that we should treat admissions decisions as political acts because they so influentially determine life chances, and then goes on to discuss in detail the 2003 Supreme Court decisions. I’m still near the beginning of the article, and just hit the perfect footnote for this particular week.

In a section on how to think about the relationship between education and democracy, Guinier draws on a lovely metaphor:

In our society education means opportunity, higher education offers heightened opportunity, and elite higher education confers not just heightened opportunity, but also elevated status. Admissions officers may not view themselves as the “sorting hats” of our society,105 but many Americans construe the fat or thin envelopes mailed in April as serving just this purpose.

The Sorting Hat refers to an artifact in the world of Harry Potter. But, this being a Harvard Law Review article, it can’t just say ‘This is a reference to Harry Potter, in case you’ve been out of the world for the last decade.’ Rather, footnote 105 is this brilliant summary and elaboration:

105. The term “sorting hat” comes from the popular novel Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It refers to a magic cap that reads minds and evaluates character in a sorting ceremony in order to assign future witches and wizards to residential houses. See J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 114-21 (1997). The selection determines their friends, classmates, and the noble history to which they begin to fasten their identities. The hat itself can “cap them all,” since “there’s nothing hidden in your head the Sorting Hat can’t see.” Id. at 117 (emphasis omitted). The sorting ceremony determines a wizard’s destiny. Here in the “Muggle” world, id. at 53, we ask standardized testing and admissions officers to play a similar role. Unfortunately for us, educational selection rituals are no magic hat.

Well-played, Professor Guinier. It’s nice to see that law professors take advantage of the complete lack of word limits in their publications to have some fun. I think I will check out that reference.*

*Also, it’s really amusing to think of some Harvard Law Review editor checking that citation for accuracy.

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