Steven Pinker has an essay up at TNR, The Trouble With Harvard, which covers a lot of ground. “Read the whole thing.” But this section jumped out at me:
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).
When I began interacting with people with undergraduate Ivy backgrounds, if they weren’t in the sciences, I was shocked to find them incredibly vapid and more interested in signalling erudition than actually knowing anything.* I haven’t thought much of this reality over the years, as most of the Ivy people I encounter now went for graduate school, and don’t exhibit those ticks. But this aspect of undergraduate selection in admissions makes it much clearer to me why I perceived this.
Of course the average Harvard undergraduate has excellent grades and standardized test scores coming in. But if it wanted to Harvard could stock up on many more individuals with perfect test scores than it does. Among the population with high IQs there is variation in intellectual curiosity.
I’m not going to make a judgment as to whether Harvard’s policy in selecting applicants with the 21st century version of “good moral character” is the right way to go or not. But obviously these policies explain the difference between those who arrive at Harvard for graduate work, and those who land there as undergraduates. Some of the most intellectually curious people I know went to Harvard as undergrads. But unfortunately they’re the exception, not the rule.
* Here’s a concrete example. I am interested in Roman history, and had a discussion with someone with a background in classics and history at one of the Ivies. They kept quoting garbled and watered down versions of Peter Brown, rather than expressing their own original thoughts and ideas, in relation to the concept of material decline (a la Bryan Ward-Perkins). My impression was that this individual was somewhat taken aback that someone with a science background from a state school wasn’t impressed by the bluffing, and actually knew some of the literature in this area. They didn’t seem to comprehend that my goal wasn’t to seem smart, but to mine them for more information and insight. I came back empty in that regard.