Steven Pinker on Harvard and Meritocracy

Harvard Seal

Harvard Seal

Steven Pinker, one of my favorite thinkers ((The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature) tackles the evolution of admissions at Ivy League schools, notably Harvard, and how a system which once kept out better-qualified Jews now keeps out better-qualified Asians. The piece (“The Trouble With Harvard: The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it”) is well worth the time to read it, and I saw much of this back in my Harvard-MIT days:

…It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge. If on top of all this, students want to build a self, they can do it on their own time.

I heartily agree with Deresiewicz that high-quality postsecondary education is a public good which should be accessible to any citizen who can profit from it. At the same time, there are reasons for students to distribute themselves among colleges with different emphases and degrees of academic rigor. People vary in their innate and acquired intelligence, their taste for abstraction, their familiarity with literate culture, their priorities in life, and their personality traits relevant to learning. I could not offer a course in brain science or linguist theory to a representative sample of the college-age population without baffling many students at one end and boring an equal number at the other. Also, students learn as much from their peers as their professors, and benefit from a cohort with which they can bat around ideas. Not least, a vibrant research institution must bring smarter undergraduates into the fold, to challenge received wisdom, inject energy and innovation, and replenish its senescing membership.

All this is to say that there are good reasons to have selective universities. The question is, How well are the Ivies fulfilling their mandate? After three stints teaching at Harvard spanning almost four decades, I am repeatedly astounded by the answer.

And it’s not pretty. He discusses how admissions committees resort to intangible factors to admit students who may not be as bright but who may forward the institution’s influence with old-boy networks who will help keep it on top. Showing diverse interest through activities is designed to weed out those who are less socially accomplished, and “diversity” goals tend to admit upper class people who happen to be of “disadvantaged” racial and ethnic classes even when the individual students have grown up in privilege. Asians who would otherwise be over-represented because of their aptitudes are discriminated against.

At the admissions end, it’s common knowledge that Harvard selects at most 10 percent (some say 5 percent) of its students on the basis of academic merit. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomber”). The rest are selected “holistically,” based also on participation in athletics, the arts, charity, activism, travel, and, we inferred (Not in front of the children!), race, donations, and legacy status (since anything can be hidden behind the holistic fig leaf).

The lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It has an astonishing library system that pays through the nose for rare manuscripts, obscure tomes, and extortionately priced journals; exotic laboratories at the frontiers of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, cosmology, and other thrilling pursuits; and a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars. The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process?

The answer, ironically enough, makes the admissocrats and Deresiewicz strange bedfellows: the fear of selecting a class of zombies, sheep, and grinds. But as with much in the Ivies’ admission policies, little thought has given to the consequences of acting on this assumption. Jerome Karabel has unearthed a damning paper trail showing that in the first half of the twentieth century, holistic admissions were explicitly engineered to cap the number of Jewish students. Ron Unz, in an exposé even more scathing than Deresiewicz’s, has assembled impressive circumstantial evidence that the same thing is happening today with Asians.

Just as troublingly, why are elite universities, of all institutions, perpetuating the destructive stereotype that smart people are one-dimensional dweebs? It would be an occasion for hilarity if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students, faculty, or president for their prowess in athletics or music, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates. In any case, the stereotype is provably false. Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

What about the rationalization that charitable extracurricular activities teach kids important lessons of moral engagement? There are reasons to be skeptical. A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. This involved driving the boy for 45 minutes to a community center, cooling her heels while he sorted used clothing for charity, and driving him back—forgoing income which, judiciously donated, could have fed, clothed, and inoculated an African village. The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that children are entitled to treat their mothers’ time as worth nothing, that you can make the world a better place by destroying economic value, and that the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Zing! What this requirement for social service does do is weed out rebels who might want to intensely focus on areas of knowledge they care about in favor of conformist resume-packers who understand that showing obeisance to well-meaning social goals will help them advance in politics (public or private.) There’s certainly a place for the self-motivated do-gooder to get admissions points for such activities, but that should not come at the expense of the very bright and intensely focused kids.

Knowing how our students are selected, I should not have been surprised when I discovered how they treat their educational windfall once they get here. A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do. Obviously they’re not slackers; the reason is that they are crazy-busy. Since they’re not punching a clock at Safeway or picking up kids at day-care, what could they be doing that is more important than learning in class? The answer is that they are consumed by the same kinds of extracurricular activities that got them here in the first place.

Some of these activities, like writing for the campus newspaper, are clearly educational, but most would be classified in any other setting as recreation: sports, dance, improv comedy, and music, music, music (many students perform in more than one ensemble). The commitments can be draconian: a member of the crew might pull an oar four hours a day, seven days a week, and musical ensembles can be just as demanding. Many students have told me that the camaraderie, teamwork, and sense of accomplishment made these activities their most important experiences at Harvard. But it’s not clear why they could not have had the same experiences at Tailgate State, or, for that matter, the local YMCA, opening up places for less “well-rounded” students who could take better advantage of the libraries, labs, and lectures.

The anti-intellectualism of Ivy League undergraduate education is by no means indigenous to the student culture. It’s reinforced by the administration, which treats academics as just one option in the college activity list. Though students are flooded with hortatory messages from deans and counselors, “Don’t cut class” is not among them, and professors are commonly discouraged from getting in the way of the students’ fun. Deans have asked me not to schedule a midterm on a big party day, and to make it easy for students to sell their textbooks before the ink is dry on their final exams. A failing grade is like a death sentence: just the first step in a mandatory appeal process.

It’s not that students are unconditionally pampered. They may be disciplined by an administrative board with medieval standards of jurisprudence, pressured to sign a kindness pledge suitable for kindergarten, muzzled by speech codes that would not pass the giggle test if challenged on First Amendment grounds, and publicly shamed for private emails that express controversial opinions. The common denominator (belying any hope that an elite university education helps students develop a self) is that they are not treated as competent grown-ups, starting with the first law of adulthood: first attend to your priorities, then you get to play.

The time spent on activities at Harvard pays off in contacts and friendships that offer access to professional and business opportunities of an elite old boys network (now multiracial and sexually balanced, but still the same privileged group.)

[When he asked why consulting and financial firms snap up Harvard graduates] …I was told that Ivy League graduates are a prestige good: having a lot of them in your firm is like wearing a Rolex or driving a Bentley. Also, if something goes wrong, your keister is covered. As they used to say about computers, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

Is this any way to run a meritocracy? Ivy admissions policies force teenagers and their mothers into a potlatch of conspicuous leisure and virtue. The winners go to an exorbitant summer camp, most of them indifferent to the outstanding facilities of scholarship and research that are bundled with it. They can afford this insouciance because the piece of paper they leave with serves as a quarter-million-dollar IQ and Marshmallow test. The self-fulfilling aura of prestige ensures that companies will overlook better qualified graduates of store-brand schools. And the size of the jackpot means that it’s rational for families to play this irrational game.

What would it take to fix this wasteful and unjust system? Let’s daydream for a moment. If only we had some way to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system. If only we had some way to match jobs with candidates that was not distorted by the halo of prestige. A sample of behavior that could be gathered quickly and cheaply, assessed objectively, and double-checked for its ability to predict the qualities we value….

He then wonders why objective, culturally-balanced aptitude tests, which where supported by liberal educators and enabled the Ivies to escape their monoculture of dying Northeastern WASP influence after WWII by admitting bright, qualified students from all over the country and from all cultures, have been denigrated and are no longer considered a good measure:

A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.

But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments. They’re not perfect, but intuitive judgments based on interviews and other subjective impressions have been shown to be far worse. Test preparation courses, notwithstanding their hard-sell ads, increase scores by a trifling seventh of a standard deviation (with most of the gains in the math component). As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs. Fortunately, SAT doesn’t track SES all that closely (only about 0.25 on a scale from -1 to 1), and this opens the statistical door to see what it really does measure. The answer is: aptitude. Paul Sackett and his collaborators have shown that SAT scores predict future university grades, holding all else constant, whereas parental SES does not. Matt McGue has shown, moreover, that adolescents’ test scores track the SES only of their biological parents, not (for adopted kids) of their adoptive parents, suggesting that the tracking reflects shared genes, not economic privilege.

Regardless of the role that you think aptitude testing should play in the admissions process, any discussion of meritocracy that pretends that aptitude does not exist or cannot be measured is not playing with a full deck.

Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples OrganizationsDeath by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations

[From Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations,  available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]

The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game. Here’s the condensed version; view the entire review here.

Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”

Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.


More on education and child development :

Student Loan Debt: Problems in Divorce
Early Child Development: The High Cost of Abuse and Neglect
Child Welfare Ideas: Every Child Gets a Government Guardian!
Tuitions Inflated, Product Degraded, Student Debts Unsustainable
Free Range Kids vs Paranoid Child Welfare Authorities
“Crying It Out” – Parental Malpractice!
Brazilian For-Profit Universities Bring Quality With Quantity
The Affordable, Effective University: Indiana and Mitch Daniels
Real-Life “Hunger Games”: Soft Oppression Destroys the Poor
“Attachment Parenting” – Good Idea Taken Too Far?
Real Self-Esteem: Trophies for Everyone?
Public Schools in Poor Districts: For Control Not Education
YA Dystopias vs Heinlein et al: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again
Social Justice Warriors, Jihadists, and Neo-Nazis: Constructed Identities

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