Campus Free Speech

Race-Based Admissions, Legacy Status, and Other Nonsense Ruined the Ivy League


Veasjon / Wikimedia Commons

What's the matter with Harvard? Psychologist Steven Pinker—a Harvard professor and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Declined—has written a belated response to William Deresiewicz, who argued that meritocracy has failed the Ivy League.

Preposterous, writes Pinker. The Ivy League isn't nearly meritocratic enough. After all, elite colleges don't actually admit the objectively smartest students; they select applicants who check off racial boxes, satisfy legacy and donor considerations, improve the performance of athletic clubs, etc:

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).

… 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.

Holistic admissions are a waste of Ivy League resources, argues Pinker. Harvard spent tons of money to build some of the greatest libraries on the planet. It hires the smartest teachers and maintains the nicest facilities. But then it turns around and stocks its dormitories with kids who just want to play sports and join squirrel clubs!

The quest for extra-curricular activities is particularly absurd when admissions are scrutinized, Pinker writes:

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.

Pinker's solution? Admissions based solely on standardized testing. I don't know if that's a particularly libertarian solution, but it's interesting nonetheless. Full thing here.


NEXT: F*ck Canada! Ir*ny is a Four-Letter Word at Colleges Up There!

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  1. They are private schools. If they only want to admit kids named George, it’s their business not mine.

    1. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize them.

    2. Just because they can do it, doesn’t mean it is right. More importantly, it doesn’t alleviate the need for calling them out on it.

    3. Well, except for the fact they get all kinds of government money for all kinds of things, and most damningly, many of the students who go there will pay with federal student loans that, in the end, are subsidized by the rest of us.

      1. And their goal is to train the future bureaucrats of America.

      2. So what? Why should a loan given by the government to a student give “society” any more say in how the school runs itself? That is the exact same argument that progs use against school choice policies in favor of public schools.

    4. They still might be fucking themselves by doing so. And they largely claim to be meritocracies, so it seems good to call them on their bullshit.

      1. Considering that the ivies are the incubators of the ruling class I’d say they are fucking us all.

    5. Not when students get federal financial aid.

  2. I always think about the Feynman biography when I read about the importance of extra circular activities. As I remember, the only think “extra circular” Feynman ever did was become the boy genius radio repairman of his section of Brooklyn. He got into MIT because they were more Jewish friendly than a lot of other schools and all they cared about was how he did on an entrance exam.

    Today, Feynman probably wouldn’t get into MIT. Oh sure, he would have a perfect score on the math section of his SATs and probably a near perfect one on his verbal, but without a list of bullshit extra circular activities, he wouldn’t get in.

    1. I think Feynmann would have gotten in; as part of making himself look attractive, he went after an essay writing prize, which he won by writing an essay that he made as pompous and redundant as possible.

      I was about to write a simple theme about this dumb question when I remembered that my literary friends were always “throwing the bull” ? building up their sentences to sound complex and sophisticated. I decided to try it, just for the hell of it. …
      So I wrote stuff like, “Aeronautical science is important in the analysis of the eddies, vortices, and whirlpools formed in the atmosphere behind the aircraft…” ? I knew that eddies, vortices, and whirlpools are the same thing, but mentioning them three different ways sounds better! That was the only thing I would not have ordinarily done on the test.
      The teacher who corrected my examination must have been impressed by eddies, vortices, and whirlpools, because I got a 91 on the exam ? while my literary friends, who chose topics the English teachers could more easily take issue with, both got 88.
      That year a new rule came out: if you got 90 or better on a Regents examination, you automatically got honors in that subject at graduation! So while the playwright and the editor of the school newspaper had to stay in their seats, this illiterate fool physics student was called to go up to the stage once again and receive honors in English!

      1. Fair point. He was a clever bastard and not above playing the system and telling stupid people what they wanted to hear.

        So yeah, he would have done things differently and got it.

    2. And MIT still does (at least 5 or so years ago they did) admit people who can simply demonstrate that they are smart in the right ways. I’m sure they do legacy and racial crap too, but I think that the best tech schools still know that they actually do need the best and brightest to maintain their position at the top.

      1. At least when I went there, Johns Hopkins (not Ivy League, I believe they’ve been invited to join and turned it down) specialized in snapping up students who were high achievers but didn’t make it into places like Harvard or Yale for various reasons, including things like being white or Asian or not having the various “holistic” requirements. It did very well for them, but I don’t know if that’s changed at this point.

        1. Hasn’t JH been devolving into typical progressive insanity for a while now? That’s the impression that I’ve gotten from talking with relatives in the area, but I am not sure.

          1. I’ve heard that it’s become much more like other “typical” schools as well. I mean, it’s not surprising, the incentives are the same so it would be surprising if it didn’t happen.

        2. Pfft. I smoked weed with Johnnie Hopkins!

    3. To be fair, at some point, elite colleges are going to have to pick some kids from a group of many who have similar test scores and GPA, and at that point I don’t see the problem using stuff like extracurriculars to decide whom to choose. Granted, many schools do take it too far IMO.

      1. There is that too. A place like Harvard has a big enough pool of applicants that they can find plenty who have the academics and test scores as well as all the right extracurriculars.

    4. Are you sure MIT has fallen as far as Harvard has?

      You really do have to be smart to understand the stuff they teach there…unlike say stuff they teach in a poli-sci class at Harvard.

      1. Racial Threat in School Districts? Impact of Hispanic Population on Approval of School Tax Measure
        Krista Loose
        Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Department of Political Science
        May 16, 2014
        MIT Political Science Department Research Paper No. 2014-5

        Context matters. A relatively robust research agenda finds that White opinions and behavior on racially- or ethnically-charged topics varies based on the surrounding demographics. However, in some places and on some issues, Whites do not appear to react to increased diversity. This paper argues that the role of segregation may help clarify the places we are likely to find that White hostility towards minorities increases with the size of a minority group. I leverage a distinctive setting-a 2000 education funding referendum-and find that White voters showed evidence of racial threat toward Hispanics only when local school districts were segregated. I conclude that a large minority population in a segregated community creates a setting uniquely likely to induce hostility. In these places, the ethnic context is changing but Whites and Hispanics are no more likely to engage in personal contact that could improve relations.


  3. Legacies are to the Ivy League what inbreeding is to royals.

  4. They are not going to select on merit as long as they remain private universities. And a public system like in France with the grandes ?coles won’t work because they won’t be federally supported and the selection pools are too small.

    1. And, of course, they should get a credential downgrade for accepting well-connected and/or identity-correct students and for employing ludicrous grade inflation. But they don’t. Which is kind of weird.

  5. It hires the smartest teachers

    No it doesn’t. It hires teachers on much the same basis as they admit students: they try to check off as many demographic boxes as they can. The reason for that is Harvard wants to suck government cock to get taxpayer money for all sort of programs.

  6. Pinker’s solution? Admissions based solely on standardized testing. I don’t know if that’s a particularly libertarian solution, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

    That’s what you take umbrage with as opposed to this?

    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

    1. We’ve certainly made it accessible to millions of people who don’t profit from it.

  7. Admissions based solely on standardized testing.

    It would be cool if new university did this.

    If Harvard is only picking 10% based on academic merit it would seem the market would be ripe for at least one university which focuses solely on academic merit.

    Anyway I am guessing engineering science and medical schools do just that, And Harvard gets away with it mostly because it focuses more on humanities.

    1. I think the dynamic has changed some since states started providing prepaid tuition options and (bigger) subsidies for in-state schools. In Florida, for instance, far fewer students leave the state, just because of the massive financial benefits to staying in state.

    2. Nope. Harvard Med gets a shit-ton of federal grants.

      1. Are Harvard Med admissions boards and criteria the same as vanilla Harvard for a BA?

    3. Harvard gets away with it mostly because it focuses more on humanities.

      Really? That must come as a surprise to students of it’s second oldest school, founded 1782, you know…Harvard Medical School.

      Bryn Mawr, as a small private liberal arts college, “focuses on the humanities”; Harvard is a large research university. That is, its main focus is on research and graduate/doctoral education. If the entire undergraduate body of Harvard disappeared tomorrow, the school would take a second to shrug and then continue on its merry way without an appreciable loss of income. And that income isn’t coming from research into critical post-modern masculinities of left-handed Chinese railroad workers.

      1. If the entire undergraduate body of Harvard disappeared tomorrow

        I am pretty sure the above article and the discussion is about admissions into that undergraduate body not its post graduate schools.

        1. The point is, since they aren’t a teaching university, they aren’t dependent on an undergraduate student body for income. They don’t care how rigorous it is in actuality, as long as its elite reputation is intact. The students are just decoration.

          And if you think MIT or CalTech is really that different, you’re sadly mistaken.

          1. And if you think MIT or CalTech is really that different, you’re sadly mistaken.

            Actually I don’t know.

            Do people get BA undergraduate degrees from MIT?

            1. If they exist at all its only for English majors and the like.

              Of course, HM has already performed large scale mind reading and determined that they don’t care about rigourous education for the undergrads. So, you know, no point in further debate.

  8. Honestly, I’d say the Ivy League meritocracy argument is bullshit anyway. Even in Pinker’s idealized model, Ivy admission will be demonstrative of one’s academic skills in one’s mid-teens. From that dubious basis, the candidates are afforded access to a network that effectively multiplies one’s opportunities for high-status achievements. One can claim this is “meritocratic”, and I guess in some nominal ways it is. But, I can’t help but think that any system defining itself as merit-based should be based on merit as an ongoing observable, rather than a one-time observation

  9. Agree with most of Pinker’s argument but (among a few other things) I disagree w/ this:

    “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.”

    Think the word “necessarily” should come after the word “not” to make it true.

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