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The Trouble With Harvard
Higher Ed

The Trouble With Harvard The Ivy League is broken and only standardized tests can fix it

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The most-read article in the history of this magazine is not about war, politics, or great works of art. It’s about the admissions policies of a handful of elite universities, most prominently my employer, Harvard, which is figuratively and literally immolated on the cover. 

It’s not surprising that William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” has touched a nerve. Admission to the Ivies is increasingly seen as the bottleneck to a pipeline that feeds a trickle of young adults into the remaining lucrative sectors of our financialized, winner-take-all economy. And their capricious and opaque criteria have set off an arms race of credential mongering that is immiserating the teenagers and parents (in practice, mostly mothers) of the upper middle class.

Deresiewicz writes engagingly about the wacky ways of elite university admissions, and he deserves credit for opening a debate on policies which have been shrouded in Victorian daintiness and bureaucratic obfuscation. Unfortunately, his article is a poor foundation for diagnosing and treating the illness. Long on dogmatic assertion and short on objective analysis, the article is driven by a literarism which exalts bohemian authenticity over worldly success and analytical brainpower. And his grapeshot inflicts a lot of collateral damage while sparing the biggest pachyderms in the parlor. 

We can begin with his defamation of the students of elite universities. Like countless graybeards before him, Deresiewicz complains that the kids today are just no good: they are stunted, meek, empty, incurious zombies; faithful drudges; excellent sheep; and, in a flourish he uses twice, “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.” I have spent my career interacting with these students, and do not recognize the targets of this purple invective. Nor does Deresiewicz present any reason to believe that the 18-year-olds of today’s Ivies are more callow or unsure of their lives than the 18-year-olds of yesterday’s Ivies, the non-Ivies, or the country at large.

The charges on which Deresiewicz indicts students are trumped-up. He waxes sarcastic that they try to get an A in every class (would he advise them to turn in shoddy work in his course, or in some other professor’s?); that they don’t read every page of every book they pick up, or of every book whose review they have read (confession: neither do I); that they seek affluence, success, and prestigious careers (better they should smoke weed and play video games on their parents’ couches?); that they “superficially” spend no more than “A whole day!” with renegade artists (and if they spent two days with them?). 

The only mitigation that Deresiewicz allows his young defendants is that they suffer from “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” But the survey he alludes to simply found that about half of today’s college students rate themselves “above average” in emotional health, compared to more than 60 percent in 1985. Perhaps we should be impressed that fewer students today are victims of the Lake Wobegon fallacy! More to the point, the data don’t show that Ivy League students are worse off than their non-Ivy peers, and if anything they point in the opposite direction: the students at private universities are more sanguine about their emotional health than those at the public universities and four-year colleges that Deresiewicz romanticizes.

It’s true that many off-brand institutions in the matchless American university system are bargains. The honors program of a 50,000-student campus is likely to have an aggregation of talent that rivals that of the Ivies. Liberal-arts colleges in the boondocks, with their paucity of non-academic diversions, can nurture a student culture that is more engaged with ideas and books. The PhD glut has sent brilliant scientists and humanists into every outpost of the academic archipelago. And in many fields the best programs are at lesser-known universities, which can nimbly expand into new intellectual frontiers while their Ivy League counterparts, stultified by tradition and cushioned by reputation, become backwaters.

Still, there are no grounds for the sweeping pronouncements about the virtues of non-Ivy students (“more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive”) that Deresiewicz prestidigitates out of thin air. It’s these schools, after all, that are famous for their jocks, stoners, Bluto Blutarskys, gut-course-hunters, term-paper-downloaders, and majors in such intellectually challenging fields as communications, marketing, and sports management. In another use of the argument “If I say it, it’s true,” Deresiewicz decrees that obscure religious colleges “do a much better job” in teaching their students “how to think,” and that they “deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word” than elite universitiesand then, breathtakingly, elevates an assertion that was based on nothing but his say-so (and that is almost certainly false) into an “indictment of the Ivy League and his peers.”

But the biggest problem is that the advice in Deresiewicz’s title is perversely wrongheaded. If your kid has survived the application ordeal and has been offered a place at an elite university, don’t punish her for the irrationalities of a system she did nothing to create; by all means send her there! The economist Caroline Hoxby has shown that selective universities spend twenty times more on student instruction, support, and facilities than less selective ones, while their students pay for a much smaller fraction of it, thanks to gifts to the college. Because of these advantages, it’s the selective institutions that are the real bargains in the university marketplace. Holding qualifications constant, graduates of a selective university are more likely to graduate on time, will tend to find a more desirable spouse, and will earn 20 percent more than those of less selective universitiesevery year for the rest of their working lives. These advantages swamp any differences in tuition and other expenses, which in any case are often lower than those of less selective schools because of more generous need-based financial aid. The Ivy admissions sweepstakes may be irrational, but the parents and teenagers who clamber to win it are not.

 

Any rethinking of elite university admissions must begin with an inkling of the goals of a university education. As the song says, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. One contributor to the admissions mess is that so few of a university’s thought leaders can say anything coherent about what those goals are. Deresiewicz’s fumbling attempt is typical.

It’s easy to agree with him that “the first thing that college is for is to teach you to think,” but much harder to figure out what that means. Deresiewicz knows what it does not mean“the analytical and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions”but this belletristic disdain for the real world is unhelpful. The skills necessary for success in the professions include organizing one’s thoughts so that they may be communicated clearly to others, breaking a complex problem into its components, applying general principles to specific cases, discerning cause and effect, and negotiating tradeoffs between competing values. In what rarefied ivory chateau do these skills not count as “thinking”? In its place Deresiewicz says only that learning to think consists of “contemplating things from a distance,” with no hint as to what that contemplation should consist of or where it should lead.

This leads to Deresiewicz’s second goal, “building a self,” which he explicates as follows: “it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique beinga soul.” Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time. 

I think we can be more specific. 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.

 

Like many observers of American universities, I used to believe the following story. Once upon a time Harvard was a finishing school for the plutocracy, where preppies and Kennedy scions earned gentleman’s Cs while playing football, singing in choral groups, and male-bonding at final clubs, while the blackballed Jews at CCNY founded left-wing magazines and slogged away in labs that prepared them for their Nobel prizes in science. Then came Sputnik, the '60s, and the decline of genteel racism and anti-Semitism, and Harvard had to retool itself as a meritocracy, whose best-and-brightest gifts to America would include recombinant DNA, Wall Street quants, The Simpsons, Facebook, and the masthead of The New Republic.

This story has a grain of truth in it: Hoxby has documented that the academic standards for admission to elite universities have risen over the decades. But entrenched cultures die hard, and the ghost of Oliver Barrett IV still haunts every segment of the Harvard pipeline. 

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 Unabomer”). 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 backforgoing 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.

 

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.

  

My third surprise was what happens to Harvard students at the other end of the pipeline: they get snatched up by the big consulting and investment firms, helping to explain that 20 percent boost in their expected earnings. Why, I wondered, do these cutthroat institutions hire rowers and baritones who know diddly-squat about business just because they have a transcript with the word “Veritas” on it? Wouldn’t they get more value by hiring the best finance major from Ohio State? I asked some people familiar with this world to explain what seemed to me like a massive market failure. They responded candidly. 

First, an Ivy degree is treated as a certification of intelligence and self-discipline. Apparently adding a few Harvard students to a team raises its average intelligence and makes it more effective at solving problems. That, the employers feel, is more valuable than specific knowledge, which smart people can pick up quickly in any case.

Second, a little education can go a long way. As one business-school professor put it, “I have observed many smart people who have little idea of how to logically think through a problem, who infer causation from a correlation, and who use anecdotes as evidence far beyond the predictability warranted. Most of the undergrads who go to the consulting firms did take a course in social science, and much of this basic logic can be obtained there.” 

More disconcertingly, 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….

 

We do have this magic measuring stick, of course: it’s called standardized testing. I suspect that a major reason we slid into this madness and can’t seem to figure out how to get out of it is that the American intelligentsia has lost the ability to think straight about objective tests. After all, if the Ivies admitted the highest scoring kids at one end, and companies hired the highest scoring graduates across all universities at the other (with tests that tap knowledge and skill as well as aptitude), many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight. Other industrialized countries, lacking our squeamishness about testing, pick their elite students this way, as do our firms in high technology. And as Adrian Wooldridge pointed out in these pages two decades ago, test-based selection used to be the enlightened policy among liberals and progressives, since it can level a hereditary caste system by favoring the Jenny Cavilleris (poor and smart) over the Oliver Barretts (rich and stupid).

If, for various reasons, a university didn’t want a freshman class composed solely of scary-smart kids, there are simple ways to shake up the mixture. Unz suggests that Ivies fill a certain fraction of the incoming class with the highest-scoring applicants, and select the remainder from among the qualified applicant pool by lottery. One can imagine various numerical tweaks, including ones that pull up the number of minorities or legacies to the extent that those goals can be publicly justified. Grades or class rank could also be folded into the calculation. Details aside, it’s hard to see how a simple, transparent, and objective formula would be worse than the eye-of-newt-wing-of-bat mysticism that jerks teenagers and their moms around and conceals unknown mischief. 

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 familiesnamely that the Ivies deliberately impose expensive requirements to weed out poorer familiesis 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.

Steven Pinker is the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard. His book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century will be published in September.

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