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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.

• Tags: Harvard, Miscellaneous 
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Update: Harvard Students in Cheating Scandal Say Collaboration Was Accepted.

Harvard Says 125 Students May Have Cheated on a Final Exam:

Officials said that nearly half of the more than 250 students in the class were under investigation by the Harvard College Administrative Board and that if they were found to have cheated, they could be suspended for a year. The students have been notified that they are suspected and will be called to give their accounts in investigative hearings.

“This is unprecedented in its scope and magnitude,” said Jay Harris, the dean of undergraduate education.

Administrators would not reveal the name of the class or even the department, saying that they wanted to protect the identities of the accused students. The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student newspaper, reported that it was a government class, Introduction to Congress, which had 279 students, and that it was taught by Matthew B. Platt, an assistant professor.

Anyone have opinions on this? I know plenty of readers are in the local area in various capacities. My working assumption is that these kids will get off with a slap on the wrist. The meritocracy does not eat its own young. With such widespread cheating in this course this not a matter of intellectual incompetents, but very smart kids who simply wanted to push their advantages on the margin. This is the university that was sending half its graduates to investment banks a few years ago, so what’s new?

Seeing the workings of the hyper-elite probably turn the average person in two directions. If they lean Right, it’s guns & gold. If they lean Left, some sort of Red revolutionary urge. There’s a reason history goes in cycles….

• Category: Science • Tags: Culture, Harvard 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"