When Steven Pinker writes Fenster listens. Well, not literally. He reads. But language is all a kind of metaphor, right?
From The Language Instinct on I have been amazed by this guy’s reach, educated through his insights and entertained by his prose. I only caught him in one actual error 😉 Of course it was on a minor point. In the first edition of The Language Instinct he mistakenly said it was the group Blue Cheer who recorded “I’m Your Venus”. Of course, it was not the hardcore pyschedelic band Blue Cheer, out of San Francisco, but the light and frothy pop outfit Shocking Blue, out of Holland. I sent him a note and he graciously acknowledged the error, correcting it in later editions.
He has a terrific article out in the current New Republic entitled “The Trouble with Harvard”. The article’s sub-title is “The Ivy League is Broken and Only Standardized Tests Can Fix It”. Which tells you something right there about the vector of his argument.
It is a longish argument but it goes down easy, courtesy of Pinker’s way with words. Some commenters on the TNR site thought his use of literary devices, metaphor and humor a bit rich. Me, I loved it, even when he uses the term “pachyderm in the parlor” when “elephant in the room”–itself a lumbering metaphor–would do. But why not mix up some alliteratin’ with your illuminatin’? It’s a fun read and it is brimming with insights and ideas in characteristic fashion.
But what of the actual argument? I finished the article pretty well convinced that Pinker nailed it but now I am not so sure. I hardly think I could ever catch him in another actual “error” like the shocking Blue Cheer/Shocking Blue mix-up. But I think his argument misses some important points.
So let’s see what he has to say.
The article consists of two major sections. In the first he considers another recent New Republic article on higher education: “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”, by William Deresiewicz. It says something about our current higher education obsessions (to say nothing of the New Republic demographic) that “Don’t Send Your Kids . . . ” is the most-read article in the history of the magazine!
If you’ve read it, you’ll know it is a long diatribe–entertaining in its own way–about the real lack of value added at places like Harvard, and how what results is a set of students who are (in the words of Pinker characterizing Deresiewicz’s conclusions) “stunted, meek, empty, incurious zombies; faithful drudges; excellent sheep; and, in a flourish (Deresiewicz) uses twice, ‘out-of-touch, entitled little shits.'” That’s strong language from both authors.
As we will see, Pinker in his own way goes on to question value added at Harvard in the second half of his article. But in the first half, he mostly eviscerates Deresiewicz (how’s that for a turn of phrase? Say it three times fast).
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 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 spendtwenty 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 universities—every 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.
Pinker is of course a scientist, and one with an interest in method. As such, he is most critical of Deresiewicz for what seems to be his making things up as he goes along. Where’s the evidence? In turn, Pinker is careful to cite actual scholarship as he makes his point.
So as to his gutting of Deresiewicz, bingo, more or less. More on that below.
But that’s just the warm-up to part 2 of the article. The title alone tells you that taking Deresiewicz down a peg will not be the same thing as a full-throated endorsement of either Ivy status or Ivy status quo. According to the title, Harvard has troubles that “only” standardized tests can fix. That’s a big claim. Too big IMHO.
Pinker has two beefs with Harvard. The first deals with admissions and the second the actual operation and culture of the place.
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 first sentence here is an interesting one. In saying Harvard selects 5% to 10% of its students on the basis of academic merit, I take it he means that it is only a small number that makes it into a small pile able to avoid the holistic gauntlet–students with all “A”s, tons of AP courses and perfect SAT scores. Especially the latter. Pinker is clearly an advocate of the idea that future academic and life success is better predicted by the SAT than anything else.
And if that is true, what is the purpose of the holistic gauntlet–other than perhaps a means of honoring the trinity of equity, diversity and legacy? Better is better, not better is worse.
Now, it is not as though the gautlet extracts a huge amount of value. In recent years, it seems that the average SAT of the incoming class at Harvard has been around 2240–well into the 99th percentile. That fact is what gives rise to the notion–not totally without merit–that Harvard already has too many people applying that are really very smart–already Harvard smart in fact. And that in turn Harvard uses the holistic method to distinguish between these brainy finalists.
Pinker would say no to this defense. For him there is very likely a significant difference in the long run between the 99th percentile scores around 2240 and the 99+ perfect scores. In his view, students capable of the latter, perfect scores are not just grinds and drudges, and are not simply apprentice researchers ready to move on to Ivy teaching later in life. They are in fact the best students with the greatest chances of both academic and life success. And for this reason Harvard and other elite institutions need to emphasize standardized tests.
Here’s an oddly mustachioed Pinker making the argument in a nutshell:
Any flies in ointment?
I think so.
Let’s consider the rest of Pinker’s argument. He goes on to criticize Harvard and the Ivies for “anti-intellectualism.” I mean here he is, a perennial Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, and students regularly skip his lectures. Overall, they skip lots of lectures and tend not to pay a lot of attention to academics. Why? The same frenetic activity that got them past the holistic gauntlet now commands their attention when in school:
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.
Worse, it’s not just the students addicted to movement and on auto-pilot. It’s the entire system.
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.
To the victors belong the spoiled.
So let’s think about the implications of what Pinker is saying. He’s not saying the same thing as Deresiewicz–that students are stunted zombies and sheep. But he’s saying something that rhymes: that they are not being given a real education–indeed that they are avoiding one, with the connivance of the system. The resources may be there in the library and in the classrooms. But they are not getting through.
But if that is the case, how does a shift in favor of standardized testing help all that much? The current cohort with average SATs of 2240 are skipping his lectures and off doing “sports, dance, improv comedy, and music, music, music”. If we move the dial to 2400 SATs would it make that much of a difference?
In other words, I think Pinker is pushing on a wet noodle in thinking that a shift in SATs from the 99th percentile to the 99+th will change the institution. The institution is the way it is, as he himself acknowledges, for a ton or reasons that go beyond the last couple of questions on a standardized test.
Investment bankers have a saying “no one knows the value of the last 5 basis points”, meaning even the best trader can’t tell you for sure whether the yield on that A-rated corporate bond should be 4.3% or 4.35%. Will pushing SATs into that last gap transform the place in its habits, incentives and actions?
Higher SAT scores may be on balance a good thing for Harvard, and for society. But I think it will take a lot more than a heavier reliance on standardized tests for deep institutional change to happen.