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.