Here is an interesting dialogue of articles about higher education. It is from The New Republic magazine.
The initial article is by William Deresiewicz. It is based on his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. There were two critical responses I came across, one by Steven Pinker and another by J.D. Chapman. The last article is Deresiewicz’s response to his critics.
I didn’t care too much about the issue in and of itself. I don’t know enough about higher education to have an informed opinion, and so I won’t claim to know whether or not Deresiewicz makes sense about that issue. What interested me was the conclusion Deresiewicz offered, the opposition between a false meritocracy and a functioning democracy. That central point goes way beyond any aspect of education. It touches upon the root of nearly every problem in our society.
On this issue of democracy, Deresiewicz hit a raw nerve. I didn’t get the sense that Pinker grasped this aspect of the argument, as is indicated by his own conclusion where he seems to praise meritocracy in place of democracy. Pinker seems to genuinely believe in meritocracy, not just in theory but as it functions in our society. I get a bit of a reactionary vibe from Pinker (see this post by Kenan Malik, Human Conditions, and also notice how much attention Pinker gets by a popular neoreactionary like hbdchick).
Chapman disagreed with much of what Deresiewicz wrote. However, in his own conclusion, he supported the severe doubts about meritocratic claims.
In his final comments, Deresiewicz restates his basic case for an education based on an egalitarian vision. The only thing I wish is that he had grounded this into the larger problems we face with growing inequality, unemployment/underemployment, mass incarceration, structural racism, and a permanent underclass. What is at stake is far more than access to quality education for all citizens.
He does point in that direction, and so he is far from ignoring the implications. I understand he was purposely keeping his focus more narrow in order to deal with a single issue. His personal bias is from working in higher education and so that is where he naturally focuses his attention. That is fine, as long as the larger context is kept in mind.
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Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League
The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies
By William Deresiewicz
“Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal. But in the end, the deeper issue is the situation that makes it so hard to be anything else. The time has come, not simply to reform that system top to bottom, but to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.
“The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. Of course, they have to stop cooperating with U.S. News.
“More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.
“The changes must go deeper, though, than reforming the admissions process. That might address the problem of mediocrity, but it won’t address the greater one of inequality. The problem is the Ivy League itself. We have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions. However much they claim to act for the common good, they will always place their interests first. The arrangement is great for the schools, but is Harvard’s desire for alumni donations a sufficient reason to perpetuate the class system?
“I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.
“High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.”
“So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? 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. Deresiewicz writes as if any correlation between affluence and Ivy admissions is proof that we don’t have a true meritocracy. But that only follows if the more affluent students are without merit, and without a measure of aptitude that is independent of affluence, how could you ever tell? For the same reason, his conspiracy theory of the historical trend in which Ivy students have been coming from wealthier families—namely that the Ivies deliberately impose expensive requirements to weed out poorer families—is glib. Hoxby has shown that the historical trend was propelled by students’ no longer applying to the closest regional colleges but to the ones with the most similar student bodies anywhere in the country. The law of supply and demand pushed the top schools to raise their academic admissions standards; the correlation with parental income may just be a by-product.
“After first denying that we have ever tried meritocracy, Deresiewicz concludes by saying that we have tried it, and now should try “democracy” instead, by which he seems to mean a world in which the distribution of incomes of Ivy League families would be identical to that of the country as a whole. But as long as the correlation between wealth and aptitude is not zero, that goal is neither possible nor desirable.
“Still, he’s right that the current system is harmful and unfair. What he could have said is that elite universities are nothing close to being meritocracies. We know that because they don’t admit most of their students on the basis of academic aptitude. And perhaps that’s what we should try next.”
“I agree with Deresiewicz that liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence and Reed are uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students, and I champion them when I can. I don’t believe the Ivies are for every bright kid, and I have occasionally counseled students capable of admission to them to favor other options. And I agree that class lines are hardening in dangerous ways; the Ivies have too much money and power; and meritocracy is a delusion. That does not mean that an Ivy League diploma isn’t valuable, especially for someone whose family has no history of access to elite careers like teaching at Yale or writing for The New Republic. It means that it is valuable. Whether it should be is another discussion altogether.”
Your Criticism of My Ivy League Takedown Further Proves My Point
By William Deresiewicz
“Nor was it—or is it—an either/or situation: Either a general, liberal arts education or a specialized, vocational one; either building a soul or laying the foundation for a career. American higher education, uniquely among the world’s systems, makes room for both. You major in one thing, but you get to take courses in others. The issue now is not that kids don’t or at least wouldn’t want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one (you’d be surprised what kids are interested in doing, if you give them a chance). The issue is that the rest of us don’t want to pay for it.
“That is finally what’s at stake here. Are we going to reserve the benefits of a liberal education for the privileged few, or are we going to restore the promise of college as we once conceived it? When I say, at the end of my book, that the time has come to try democracy, that is what I am talking about.”