Steven Pinker on What Ails Higher Education–or at least Harvard

Fenster writes:

Steven Pinker, Psychologist/Cognitive Scientist, Cold Spring Harbor, NY 6.1.09

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 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.

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.

Admissions first:

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.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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10 Responses to Steven Pinker on What Ails Higher Education–or at least Harvard

  1. peterike2 says:

    Much to comment on here, but I still with one topic for now. The “holistic” gauntlet.

    That’s how Harvard and the other Ivies ensure they get the “right sort” of people. In other words, budding young Progressives. This is why things like “charity, activism, travel” matter, and OF COURSE race, gender and sexual preference. If you spent your high school years working to help prisoners or “bringing justice to the transgendered community” that’s going to push you up the stack. If, on the other hand, you spent time doing Christian mission work, anti-abortion efforts, or ROTC, well forget it. Hear that? It’s the sound of your application being tossed.

    Oh they probably make a tiny handful of exceptions just to “prove” they aren’t biased.

    As for this:

    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”

    Translation: we want our students to be or to become wealthy, so they in turn can funnel large donations back to us, so we can keep our excessively high-paid administrative jobs and great pensions. (Note to Harvard: nobody reads Newsweek any more.)

    The Ivy League, like everything else in America, is just another racket. That’s why nobody cares what the kids do once they get there. In effect, it’s a gigantic head nod toward HBD. If Harvard is selective enough in its admissions, those kids will go on to be successful no matter what they learn at Harvard. So let ’em have fun, because we want them to remember us fondly (i.e. open their checkbooks).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. agnostic says:

    Getting Harvard (or whoever) to admit only the 3+ s.d. students would mean the student body would be better able to utilize the college’s intellectual resources, though not necessarily that they would feel motivated to actually do so.

    Attitudes and motivations these days are to get rich quick, so those super-smarties would likely spend their time prepping to join the quants on Wall St, the M&A lawyers who aid mega-corporations to swallow each other up and destroy more economic value than the rag-sifters of the world ever could, and whatever the next big thing is going to be.

    Those students would be no different on average in their motivations than their generation mates lower down the IQ ladder. Get rich quick. But with their brains and skills, they would be far better positioned to transfer huge wealth and perhaps blow up the economy.

    Even if you required them to declare a major that would not lead to big bucks after graduation, the status-strivers would still have the “win at any costs” mindset as their money-grubbing peers. Only geared toward fame and prestige rather than wealth per se.

    Note: *not* toward illumination, but toward whatever will garner an academic fame and prestige in the short term, no matter how vapid, disposable, or dishonest the work may be. Do strippers who are ovulating get higher tips than those who are not ovulating? “Hmm, that monkey looks like he’s turning his head to the right, but that would mean a null result. Maybe if I squint at it, he’s actually turning his head to the left. Bingo, statistical significance! Publication in a high-impact journal! Citations that keep on giving!”

    Even if the researcher were curious about something interesting, and felt a basic repulsion about dishonest and fame-whoring ways, he still needs to be pursuing a project that will cost 100 million dollars, so that his funding pipeline can be bragged about by the university. Did the Paleo-Eskimos eat a gluten-free diet? Give me $400 million, and we’ll drill one mile down into the polar ice caps to extract centuries-old Eskimo poop.

    The status-striving and overly competitive mindset is what lies under all these perversions of intellectual life, and that’s what needs to change more than boosting the average IQ of accepted students at Harvard.


  3. Paul says:

    Pinker should argue for a return to the pre-1995 SATs which better measured the 99%+. It’d likely strengthen his argument.


  4. Toddy Cat says:

    I probably agree with Pinker more than I agree with Deresiewic, but I have say that the phrase “out-of-touch, entitled little shits’” is a pretty accurate description the whole modern American “elite”.


  5. j. says:

    I agree with the analysis of Pinker’s article, although I don’t think Pinker ever said that the SAT was the answer. He just said standardized testing. If you made the test harder, then you could distinguish between the people normally scoring higher than 2250 on the SAT.

    For instance an 800 math score is equivalent to only about an 80 out of 150 on the AMC math test (the first level of the U.S. math olympics team selection)


    • Fenster says:

      I agree that the subtitle went further than Pinker himself in stating that “only” standardized testing can save Harvard. And he probably didn’t write the subtitle. Still, he does seem to assume that higher test scores will reverberate somehow in ways that may deeply affect all the other forces that are causing the “trouble” that the title is referring to. I am still not sure that it so.

      But it could also be the case that writing an article about elites was a safe way for Pinker to introduce an otherwise potentially toxic topic, which is that standardized testing does measure something, and is a good predictor. And that the gauntlet serves purposes other than education.

      So while I doubt the difference between 2240 and 2400 will change Harvard down to its bones, Pinker may be laying the groundwork for a broader argument: let’s start down the difficult road of returning the educational process to the center of the collegiate experience as a general matter. Then let those chips fall where they may.


  6. agnostic says:

    If the goal is to get the brightest kids into a setting that will prepare them for intellectual or research work, why force them to go through four years of the undergraduate experience? Why not make it a kind of apprenticeship a la joining a trade out of high school?

    These kids would head off to grad school after high school, only with an extra two years at the beginning in order to cover the pre-requisites that are traditionally covered in undergrad. Shave off a year’s worth of required hours for the graduate degree, and this gets them out in six years.

    I’d shave off anything that requires the participants to be fairly well read, experienced at doing research, and clear-minded. Some kid in their early 20s just is not capable of adding much to a seminar or journal club. They are basically glorified science fair presentations and high school debate club meetings, complete with the indulgent “they’re so cute” attitude of the faculty sponsors. Let them participate in those things once they’ve had enough experience doing real research, rather than draw out their credentialing process and charge up more debt to participate in them when they’re not prepared.

    If this were the main way to get into a grad program, to prepare for a career of research, they could kill two birds with one stone and raise the test score requirements of grad programs. There, too, standards are so low because more admissions means more tuition dollars, a larger captive audience to stabilize the job security of tenured faculty who teach graduate seminars, and greater wage competition among the aspiring PhD’s, which means the administrators and tenured faculty can lower compensation and standard of living to poverty for the few newcomers who are allowed in.

    The “PhD glut” is one great big pushing of an open door: hordes of students striving to get high-status quick, and gatekeepers who get rich quick from their admission and exploitation.


  7. From reading the article I didn’t get the idea that Pinker wanted to raise the required scores on standardized tests — I thought he rather wanted to enforce the existing requirements more evenly across the board, rather than making exceptions for legacy students, minority students, etc.

    One thing that I find odd about the argument of the article, is that first he seems to say that education is a public good and that we will benefit from making sure that everyone has access to it, and then he seems to say that we should restrict the best education to smartest students. If education is so important, shouldn’t we be trying to raise the standard of education for students who don’t do as well, rather than lavishing more resources on the students who are already pretty smart and motivated?

    Also, I think Pinker and Deresiewicz are talking past one another, because what P wants to emphasize is the analytical aspect of education, and what D wants to emphasize is the moral aspect of education. I’m glad that P is so sanguine about the prospect of teaching students how to think critically (I’m not), but he seems to think it’s impossible to give students any meaningful moral instruction. I personally don’t see the big difference — both involve learning how to recognize specific instances of a general case, the only difference is that in applying a moral rule, we have to find the additional motivation to act. But it’s very important that education should produce not only smart people, but also good people, or education will produce the very kind of thing we are accustomed to fear from intelligent computers: super smart “machines” that are very clever at achieving their ends but exercise no judgment in selecting them.


    • Fenster says:

      Interesting points! I’ll take the opportunity to comment back.

      First, you write that P may not want to raise scores as much as stop making exceptions. But wouldn’t that have the same effect? If you stop taking in students with lower test scores for reasons of diversity and legacy, your average SAT goes up.

      I appreciate your second point about public good, too, and can only try to answer it the way I think P sees it. I think he would say that yes higher education is a public good, and the best way FOR HARVARD to play a role in maximizing the public good is to maximize its unique and rich EDUCATIONAL resources, making them available to a kind-of intellectual/cognitive elite who will put them to the best use for all. Let others do what they need to do to contribute to the public good–community colleges, big state universities, etc.–each in their own way.


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