Thursday, September 18, 2014

Excellent Sheep and Chinese Americans

Two recent podcasts I recommend. I disagree with Deresiewicz on many points (see my comments on Steve Pinker's response here and here), but the discussion is worth a listen.
Do the Best Colleges Produce the Worst Students?

As schools shift focus from the humanities to "practical" subjects like economics and computer science, students are losing the ability to think in innovative ways, argues William Deresiewicz. When he was a professor at Yale he noticed that his students, some of the nation’s brightest minds, seemed to be adrift when it came to knowing how to think critically and creatively and how to find a sense of purpose in life. Deresiewicz explains why he thinks college should be a time for self-discovery, when students can establish their own values and measures of success, so they can forge their own path. His book Excellent Sheep : The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life addresses parents, students, educators, and anyone who's interested in the direction of American society, exposing where the system is broken and presenting solutions.

Chinese Americans and the American Dream

In many ways, Chinese Americans today are exemplars of the American Dream—moving from indentured servitude to second-class status and outright exclusion to economic to social integration and achievement. But this narrative leaves a lot out. Eric Liu, author, educator, and entrepreneur, pieces together a sense of the Chinese American identity and looks at what it means to be Chinese American in this moment. His new book A Chinaman's Chance: One Family's Journey and the Chinese American Dream is a collection of personal essays that range from the meaning of Confucius to the role of Chinese Americans in shaping how we read the Constitution to why he hates the hyphen in "Chinese-American."


Richard Seiter said...

One idea which I think ties in with this college admissions discussion is Bruce Charlton's assertion that increased selection for conscientiousness (e.g. grades over test scores) in both undergraduate admissions and more generally in the sciences results in a decline in creativity. See

Does anyone here have any thoughts about this? His ideas seem plausible to me.

aseuss said...

Dr. Hsu, it's time for you to write a book. You've managed to develop a loyal following over the years on your blog, but more importantly, your posts have catalyzed some interesting and thoughtful discussion--many of your readers volunteer not only their comments but helpful links to videos and sites that further clarify (or contradict) your findings. You now need a wider audience, especially since your work relates to hot-button topics like talent identification and college admissions. I think a book would allow you to fully develop and lay out your ideas, and catalyze lively debates among the general public. Unlike most of the people who write about college admissions and education, who are mostly journalists or social scientists, you would bring the depth of a quantitative thinker as well as practical experience working with thousands of students of varying ability. I think the papers you wrote about scholastic achievement among students in the U. Oregon Honors College would be a good starting point. For instance, while Pinker makes similar points that you have made about college students, he draws on his experience teaching psychology classes, which typically have far less spread in terms of grades and less correlation with standardized tests than coursework in physics and mathematics. In other words, his comments are largely anecdotal, while your experience teaching physics classes revealed patterns that can be demonstrated quantitatively and therefore reproduced reliably (or falsified) by others.

aseuss said...

This does make some sense. Pinker's complaint was that Ivy League schools dip down relatively low in the applicant pool, choosing students that typically have straight-A's and thick resumes but not always the best test scores. This is to allow the admissions of a large number of legacy applicants, student athletes, and persons from other groups who do not generally have sky-high test scores (maybe within the top 10% rather than the the top <<1%. Deresiewicz's complaint is that his students seemed unable to think critically or rationally, and were often "lost". Perhaps this is because many of them were really out of their element, sitting in classes taught by professors who are generally at the very top of their fields. As Pinker notes, most professors at top universities have been well-vetted for creative output in their respective disciplines. Put them together with students who simply got straight A's and ran up an down a soccer field and became high school class president, and there's bound to be a mismatch. This is one reason professors like Deresiewicz and Pinker are disappointed with their students.

ElMomentodeVerdad said...

Charlton is a Brit, so there are no grades over test scores he would be aware of.

More telling is how much "better" Chinese do in the US and Canada, the only two developed countries with "grades".

Why assign the virtue of conscientiousness to good grades and not vice? The vices of blind obedience and trying too hard?

Test only admissions would mean a much smarter elite and a much different elite in America and Canada. Using Unz, it would mean that the white gentile fraction at elite universities would more than double, the Jewish fraction would halve, and the Asian fraction would be steady or fall.

ElMomentodeVerdad said...

But what is "sky-high"?

Admitting the 1550 and denying the 1500 is a start on the re-centered SAT, but I agree with Steve or think I do...

Better would be a new SAT with a much higher ceiling. And better still would be getting rid of the SAT altogether and replacing it with subject tests. Then one wouldn't apply to a school but to a specific major in a school.

One might complain how arbitrary the cut-off is. But whatever. It would be less arbitrary than the current system. And if Harvard denied would one be ruined if he had to attend UCB?

Believe it or not...and I still can't believe it...Simon Winchester's department, geology, accepted 80% of applicants
at Oxford in the late 90s, or so said Oxford in its print bulletin, which I have. And in the US geology is the only UG natural science major which actually has employment prospects.

andrew oh-willeke said...

I am not so sure that Excellent Sheep aren't exactly what our society needs. In our winner take all economy, there are precious few slots in which really creative, out of the box thinking is an asset rather than problem. A big publicly held corporation has dozens of people who make those kinds of decisions and tens of thousands of people who carry out their plans, a large share of which need to be technically and organizationally competent, but who can't rock the boat. Ditto the big law firms, big accounting firms and big consultancies that serve them. Issac Asmiov's Foundation Series called these "Excellent Sheep" the "Grays" in the class structure of his galactic empire. The U.S. upper middle class isn't that different. We are a nation of a modest number of large institutions, not a nation of entraprenurial types running small enterprises.

andrew oh-willeke said...

He might be right. But, conscientiousness and social skills (what Hsu has called the "W" factor) are almost as important as IQ in effectiveness and personal success. Creativity can be outsourced or delegated more easily than conscientiousness and social skills. Indeed, too much personal talents and creativity can be a problem for a business manager, who should be judging impartially between options based upon hard won experience, rather than psychologically inflated belief in one's own abilities to do it yourself.

Richard Seiter said...

Agreed about the importance of conscientiousness and social skills in those contexts. Less sure about "Creativity can be outsourced or delegated more easily..." Any research to back that up? One problem with the outsourcing IMHO is that recognizing unusual opportunities is a form of creativity. Hard to outsource for something you don't notice. It is also hard to outsource creativity if the creative folks have been filtered out of a given pipeline (e.g. scientists) so aren't there at all.

The needs of science aren't always the same as the needs of business.

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