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The Quality of Ivy League Undergraduates
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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.

 
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  1. Dahlia says:

    * 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

    Not such a nice thing to say about your benefactor! Joking 😉 Nah, he’ll express his own original thoughts and ideas… 40,000 words at a time (which I love dearly,btw).

    Reihan is a gem.

  2. I work at a $50K/yr liberal arts school so I think on this often. in short, it’s modeled the same way (with a focus on “diversity.”) I worry we’re risking the reputation of our certificate by bringing in lower IQ people yet our ranking continues to rise because the people who rank liberal arts schools *value that model* (low income students, study abroad, racial diversity has a HUGE emphasis, etc.) Practically speaking, the science majors are the real value and then there’s everyone else: athletes (a way to bring in minorities), arts people, AN/SO folks, Thought Leaders, and people who pay good money to practice medieval sword fighting. they literally even built a 10 million dollar log cabin for thought leaders. And so it goes…
    Oh, and none of them know crap about anything but they know what The Right Way to Think is. Just like Louis CK said – he’d rather talk to the cab driver than the student with two graduate degrees.

  3. Eh. I thought that it was quite funny that after lambasting Deresiewicz for supporting his claims with empty assertions, Pinker turns around and cites “common knowledge” to make one of his central claims about Ivy League Admissions.

  4. “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). ”

    This reminds me of a scene from the movie “Good Will Hunting” (1997)

    Chuckie: Are we gonna have a problem here?

    Clark: No, no, no, no! There’s no problem here. I was just hoping you might give me some insight into the evolution of the market economy in the southern colonies. My contention is that prior to the Revolutionary War, the economic modalities, especially in the southern colonies, could be most aptly described as agrarian pre-capitalist.

    Will: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first-year grad student; you just got finished reading some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison probably. You’re gonna be convinced of that ’till next month when you get to James Lemon. Then you’re going to be talking about how the economies of Virginia and Pennsylvania were entrepreneurial and capitalist way back in 1740. That’s gonna last until next year; you’re gonna be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood, talkin’ about, you know, the pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.

    Clark: Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social…

    Will: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth”? You got that from Vickers’ “Work in Essex County,” page 98, right? Yeah, I read that too. Were you gonna plagiarize the whole thing for us? Do you have any thoughts of your own on this matter? Or do you, is that your thing, you come into a bar, read some obscure passage and then pretend – you pawn it off as your own, as your own idea just to impress some girls, embarrass my friend?

    Will: See, the sad thing about a guy like you is, in 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re going to come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life: one, don’t do that, and two, you dropped 150 grand on a fuckin’ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!

    Clark: Yeah, but I will have a degree. And you’ll be servin’ my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.

    Will: That may be, but at least I won’t be unoriginal. But I mean, if you have a problem with that, I mean, we could just step outside – we could figure it out.

    Clark: No, man, there’s no problem. It’s cool.

    One more completely separate observation:

    School prestige is more important than grades and test scores in hiring for top entry level jobs. FWIW, the elite institutions in the U.S. have bet that Harvard’s analysis sorts better than a couple of data points and have thrived on that approach.

    They have done so with immense $$ on the line, so their judgment deserves some deference.

  5. “School prestige is more important than grades and test scores in hiring for top entry level jobs. ” OK, then what exactly is the source of the prestige ? The Pinker article knocked me over. I had envisioned the Ivies as being the concentration of the most brilliant and most dedicated undergrads in America. To learn that the American Elite recruit the type of graduates who spend four hours a day at “crew” and consider that the most fulfilling part of their educational experience might go a long way toward explaining the drift the Nation seems to be experiencing. The Pinker article deserves a lot more circulation and discussion than it has thus far received.
    By the way, does Harvard, and the other Ivies, use the same “holistic” approach to admission and work expectation of their Graduate Schools ? Do they weigh the applicants based on the “prestige” of the applicants undergrad program or a demonstrated ability to do first class work ?

  6. I did my undergrad in classics at an Ivy and my grad degree in the same at a non-Ivy. I’m not surprised your interlocutor was unfamiliar with the declinist position on Late Antiquity. I didn’t encounter it meaningfully at either place. The “Peter Brown position” is by far the majority position in the field and has a great deal of prestige attached to it.

    I’m not sure your encounter says as much about Harvard as about classics as a field.

  7. By the way, does Harvard, and the other Ivies, use the same “holistic” approach to admission and work expectation of their Graduate Schools ?

    harvard grad students are not spending 4 hours a day at crew 🙂

  8. I lived in Princetion NJ but went to Rutgers so your insight is no revelation to me. It is right on point.

    From my interactions with students and faculty, the Ivies are essentially finishing schools for what the schools hope will be the ruling class of tomorrow. The students I met were generally pleasant but superficial and a bit too calculating for people their age. Many of the undergraduate faculty were beyond parody in their trendiness and lack of breadth.

    Here is one possible alternate take on your interaction with the Ivy classics historian. Such people learn not to give information but rather to suck it up from others. Now this is the exact opposite to the spirit of scholarly enquiry, in which the scholar both absorbs and shares information. This is the mentality of the courtier who by habit, refuses to divulge information but is hungry for information from others in order to reprocess and exploit for his own purposes. Perhaps not in this instance but this is very common now.

  9. “They have done so with immense $$ on the line, so their judgment deserves some deference.”

    I’d have to say that such deference was understandable before the 2007-2008 mortgage meltdown and subsequent economic crisis. Now it isn’t. The financial industry is well-known for hiring Ivy League graduates, regardless of how qualified they are for the work, because it is commonly supposed that Ivy League graduates are smart enough to absorb what needs to be done in short order. If it turns out that Ivy League graduates aren’t necessarily the most intelligent people of their generation, but rather very socially adept and skilled at extracurricular activities such as playing instruments or rowing, then that means that it’s time for the financial industry to evaluate its hiring process.

  10. To optimize admission process on a single parameter of some General Intelligence metric? How about an even better monoparametric optimization, admitting those applicants who pay the most?

    Simple optimizations generally don’t work well in the long term game perspective. Much randomness in living nature, probably including our notion of free will, stem from the fact that perfect optimization to a certain status quo doesn’t pay well in the long term. Red Queen rules.

    Experienced matchmakers can achieve great success with a holistic approach to pair bonding. Experienced party organizers can do miracles with table seating assignments at weddings. The ultimate metric of an educational institution is to make it highly desirable among bright young people. This strongly depends on the right people mix, on money, on fame, on playing the poorly compatible notions of selectivity and solidarity. A school needs lots of people excited about going there and believing in their chances. Not as much about its ultimate performance as about its perception, both presently and in a long term. That’s a serious wodoo magic.

    Now if Harvard was the only place where your kid can get decent undergrad education, then the woodoo admission mill should have been abolished as a highly subjective discriminatory system. But with so many decent alternatives to Harvards, there may be little reason to destroy their holistic admission blackboxes. When their practices will hurt rather than help the applicants’ perceptions of the Ivies, only then will the woodoo mixes change in composition.

  11. Hm, is Harvard’s goal necessarily admit to the best students? I don’t think so. The goal is to perpetuate itself as a marker of elite-dom, in accordance w/ the prevailing value system of that elite. Ergo: The elite zeitgest thinks highly of “diversity” & global community, which fits well with sprinkling, say, children of foreign dignitaries in the class; it likes “transformative figures”, so maybe there’s some checklist looking for motivated minorities w/ a political bent somewhere. They like “Great Books”, so maybe they’re looking for someone with the moxie to get on the NYT Best Sellers’ list—who couldn’t make heads or tails of Hume—or perhaps those who lateral themselves into their own media outfits w/ scarcely five years experience to get an expert fired…if the next great rock star is a Harvard dropout, so much the better for Harvard.

    Also I don’t think it clear even if elite privates were operating according to the highest ideals pure weighting on standardized tests is necessarily the correct choice. One thing I know it is hard for the top engineering schools to balance is gender in admissions; even the most competent nerd would feel stifled without any hope of dating, so accordingly one hears whispered rumors of easier breaks for women getting in—is there something wrong with that?

    In any case any step towards Pinker will have to deal with the fact both selected students & alumni, not just institutions per se, share these preferences. You talk about the incuriosity of many elite non-science majors, which is a nice segue; I’ve noticed that even amongst science-y people there’s an undercurrent that seems to say, “I am not some Philistine interested in only science, I appreciate the higher calling in [X]”; i.e., many science people seem to feel cultured in the presence of humanistic discussion, to demand it, even if the level of that discussion falls short of the standard they usually discourse at. Indeed, I’m surprised you didn’t mention that there’s a school that works this way–Cal Tech—and you notice it is often omitted from discussions from elite institutions, though its metrics are high as any of theirs, there’s something uncool about it in comparison to others of its stature.

  12. Sergei Bernstein was certainly top-10 among American math students going to college in 2009.
    He was rejected by Harvard

    http://hovashka.livejournal.com/38857.html

    I know of several students with similar or even better credentials in mathematics who have been rejected by Harvard since then. One had a silver medal and a gold medal from the International Mathematical Olympiad. Two others each had two IMO gold medals.

    It would be interesting to know how many students admitted by Harvard do not know how to add fractions. I’m sure there are some.

  13. “The students I met were generally pleasant but superficial and a bit too calculating for people their age.”

    Sociopaths? Wouldn’t be surprising, considering the set of people we’re talking about.

    “one hears whispered rumors of easier breaks for women getting in—is there something wrong with that?”

    Pinker addressed this in The Blank Slate–it makes it harder for the women who actually are qualified.

  14. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Der Alte said:

    Sergei Bernstein was certainly top-10 among American math students going to college in 2009.
    He was rejected by Harvard

    http://hovashka.livejournal.com/38857.html

    I know of several students with similar or even better credentials in mathematics who have been rejected by Harvard since then. One had a silver medal and a gold medal from the International Mathematical Olympiad. Two others each had two IMO gold medals.

    It would be interesting to know how many students admitted by Harvard do not know how to add fractions. I’m sure there are some.

    Maybe Harvard and Princeton are ahead of their time and figured out that quantitative studies are a dead end in the future. All this stuff will be done by computers pretty soon, and a whole better, faster, and flawlessly. These folks may have great math aptitude, but hey, Kasparov had great chess aptitude. Too bad for him he was born in the emerging computer age.

  15. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    Here is a summary of what Pinker gets wrong.

    Summary: More than 80% of admissions at Harvard (and other elite schools like Williams) is determined by academic merit, measured by past success in high school (high grades in the most rigorous classes with the best teacher recommendations and top standardized test scores), all of which best predicts academic success in college.*

  16. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Well, my personal experience with Ivy League admissions is dated—but, from much of what I read—still relevant. I applied to Harvard a long time ago—back when tuition, room, and board was less than $2K per year.

    I had elements of the kind of applicant that seems to be frowned upon in the above discussion—I was good looking not ugly, tall, athletic team captain, leadership role in my church youth group, etc. But, I wasn’t socially connected. My urban public high-school, located more than a thousand miles from Boston, was pretty much blue collar; I worked Saturdays in a warehouse; my parents did not know anybody involved with Harvard. I had good grades and good SAT scores—scores well above the median of those of students admitted to Cal Tech—and was a National Merit Scholar.

    Harvard admissions then was probably even “worse” by the criteria criticized above than it is now. Even so, they managed to admit a lot of students who were much smarter than I and worked harder to boot. Many of the students were wildly different from me—a science nerd. There were playwrights, people who had dropped out to work as fashion designers, trust fund kids, people who really wanted to get into medical school, etc. I learned a lot from my classmates and a reasonable amount in the classroom or studying.

    Apparently, Harvard still manages to attract some strong intellects. I looked at the results of the William Lowell Putnam mathematics competition for the last ten years. Harvard was among the top five institutions nine of those ten years and was first five of the ten.

    I don’t think one should judge the admissions process by individual cases—look at the average outcome.

    I haven’t given any money to Harvard since they canned President Summers for raising a politically-incorrect question. But, they still manage to select strong students—in spite of all the problems noted above.

  17. Harvard basically means your very intelligent to be sure, but more importantly were a very disciplined teenager.

    I remember being vastly more interested in the latest juvenile hi-jinks we had brewing, planning silly parties, jumping in unguarded pools naked, drinking and painting the guard tower. Those who were focused at that age were socially incurious, and so as we are social animals, incurious in general. I thought anyone who was really disciplined at that young age was basically a bore, someone who does the conventional thing, or worse, a poseur who schemes deliberately at a young age.

    I grew up in a rather working/middle class town, and I’m sure in nicer suburbs normal kids aspire to straight As and science fairs. Yet that implies that most of our talented youth aren’t at Harvard; there’s just not that many well adjusted neighborhoods where Harvard aspirations are normal.

  18. The Economist on Ivy League grade inflation. One Prof. apparently gives his students 2 grades – one for their transcript and their real grade in private.

  19. As someone named SWPLord said on Sailer’s blog, your expectation of what any undergraduate (Ivy or otherwise) can be expected to know, let alone to have original thoughts about, is a bit too idealistic.

  20. The main commonality I’ve found among Yalevard graduates is self regard.

    FWIIW, if you’re into the Roman thing, after Gibbon and a few of the big Roman historians, check out Hodgkin’s “Italy and her invaders.” I discovered it reading a Tito Perdue novel (all of which have been pretty good, though “New Austerities” is the most caustic so far). His character Lee is right: it may actually be better than Gibbon. Only on the first book so far, but it’s wonderful stuff to be savored.

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