Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What is best for Harvard

I highly recommend Steve Pinker's The Trouble With Harvard in The New Republic.
... Like many observers of American universities, I used to believe the following story. Once upon a time Harvard was a finishing school for the plutocracy, where preppies and Kennedy scions earned gentleman’s Cs while playing football, singing in choral groups, and male-bonding at final clubs, while the blackballed Jews at CCNY founded left-wing magazines and slogged away in labs that prepared them for their Nobel prizes in science. Then came Sputnik, the '60s, and the decline of genteel racism and anti-Semitism, and Harvard had to retool itself as a meritocracy, whose best-and-brightest gifts to America would include recombinant DNA, Wall Street quants, The Simpsons, Facebook, and the masthead of The New Republic.

This story has a grain of truth in it: Hoxby has documented that the academic standards for admission to elite universities have risen over the decades. But entrenched cultures die hard, and the ghost of Oliver Barrett IV still haunts every segment of the Harvard pipeline.

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 lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It has an astonishing library system that pays through the nose for rare manuscripts, obscure tomes, and extortionately priced journals; exotic laboratories at the frontiers of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, cosmology, and other thrilling pursuits; and a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars. The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process?

The answer, ironically enough, makes the admissocrats and Deresiewicz strange bedfellows: the fear of selecting a class of zombies, sheep, and grinds. But as with much in the Ivies’ admission policies, little thought has given to the consequences of acting on this assumption. Jerome Karabel has unearthed a damning paper trail showing that in the first half of the twentieth century, holistic admissions were explicitly engineered to cap the number of Jewish students. Ron Unz, in an exposé even more scathing than Deresiewicz’s, has assembled impressive circumstantial evidence that the same thing is happening today with Asians.

Just as troublingly, why are elite universities, of all institutions, perpetuating the destructive stereotype that smart people are one-dimensional dweebs? It would be an occasion for hilarity if anyone suggested that Harvard pick its graduate students, faculty, or president for their prowess in athletics or music, yet these people are certainly no shallower than our undergraduates. In any case, the stereotype is provably false. Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski have tracked a large sample of precocious teenagers identified solely by high performance on the SAT, and found that when they grew up, they not only excelled in academia, technology, medicine, and business, but won outsize recognition for their novels, plays, poems, paintings, sculptures, and productions in dance, music, and theater. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.
Pinker's position is similar to that of some of his distinguished predecessors on the Harvard faculty (see below). The ideal school Pinker is describing is called "Caltech" :-)
Defining Merit:
[The Chosen, Jerome Karabel] ... In a pair of letters that constituted something of a manifesto for the wing of the faculty favoring strict academic meritocracy, Wilson explicitly advocated admitting fewer private school students and commuters, eliminating all preferences for athletes, and (if funds permitted) selecting "the entering class regardless of financial need on the basis of pure merit." The issue of athletes particularly vexed Wilson, who stated flatly: "I would certainly rule out athletic ability as a criterion for admission of any sort," adding that "it bears a zero relationship to the performance later in life that we are trying to predict." He also argued that "it may well be that objective test scores are our only safeguards against an excessive number of athletes only, rich playboys, smooth characters who make a good impression in interviews, etc." As a parting shot, Wilson could not resist accusing Ford of anti-intellectualism; citing Ford's desire to change Harvard's image, Wilson asked bluntly: "What's wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn't it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?"
E. Bright Wilson was professor of chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences, later a recipient of the National Medal of Science. The last quote from Wilson could easily have come from anyone who went to Caltech! Indeed, both E. Bright Wilson and his son, Nobel Laureate Ken Wilson (theoretical physics), earned their doctorates at Caltech (the father under Linus Pauling, the son under Murray Gell-Mann). ...
Some have quibbled with Pinker's assertion that only 5 or 10% of the Harvard class is chosen with academic merit as the sole criterion. They note the overall high scores of Harvard students as evidence against this claim. But a simple calculation makes it obvious that the top 2000 or so high school seniors (including international students, who would eagerly attend Harvard if given the opportunity), ranked by brainpower alone, would be much stronger intellectually than the typical student admitted to Harvard today. (Vanderbilt researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, mentioned above by Pinker, study a population that is roughly 1 in 10k in ability. About two hundred US high school seniors with this level of talent are available each year; adding in international students increases the total significantly.)
Defining Merit: ... Bender also had a startlingly accurate sense of how many truly intellectually outstanding students were available in the national pool. He doubted whether more than 100-200 candidates of truly exceptional promise would be available for each year's class. This number corresponds to (roughly) +4 SD in mental ability. Long after Bender resigned, Harvard still reserved only 10 percent of its places (roughly 150 spots) for "top brains". (See category "S" listed at bottom.) ...

Typology used for all applicants, at least as late as 1988:

1. S First-rate scholar in Harvard departmental terms.
In the end, however, I have to agree with old Wilbur Bender, the Harvard admissions dean who fought off idealistic faculty committees in the the 1950s. A Harvard that followed Pinker's advice would, after a generation or two, be reduced in status, prestige, and endowment size, to a mere Caltech or Ecole Normale Superieure. (Both schools, by some estimates, produce Nobel Prize winning alumni at a rate several times higher than Harvard.)

What is good for our nation, and for civilization as a whole, is not what is best for Harvard.


stephen zhang said...

What is good for civilization as a whole, is not what is best for Harvard. Your ending is too interesting to be there without explanation!

Gregory Sedroc said...

Elitism isn't all its cracked up to be and it can be a good thing. Should we really hunt down every group and institution that is disproportionally represented racially and religiously? What about Yeshiva, who is challenging Bob Jones's admission policy? If it weren't for Harvard's success, admittedly gained through a focus on wealth and power, nobody would care. Although I didn't go to Harvard and have some envy for what sometimes appears to be a free pass to higher pay later in life, I'm tired of those trying to dismantle its achievements. Its like whining that some MMA fighter is too successful because he throws left hooks and studied grappling under Gracie. If you want a university's students to have similar successes then imitate Harvard's best qualities. You'll find its not an easy thing to do. For those who are working exceptionally hard today to be successful and do so; that hard work will likely coalesce into a selective process of patterns, routines and beliefs that are self affirming and will one day appear to have elitist qualities itself. I would much prefer to read about what makes a Harvard successful. Last and not least, thank goodness there are establishments wealthy enough to buy rare books, manuscripts, and hire the rock stars of education and achievement. Better to have such things available than squirreled away in some secretive collection.

CarlShulman said...

"But a simple calculation makes it obvious that the top 2000 or so high school seniors (including international students, who would eagerly attend Harvard if given the opportunity), ranked by brainpower alone, would be much stronger intellectually than the typical student admitted to Harvard today. (Vanderbilt researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, mentioned above by Pinker, study a population that is roughly 1 in 10k in ability. Not even counting international students, more than two thousand US high school seniors with this level of talent are available each year.)"

Over 2000 students at 1/10,000 levels would indicate over 20,000,000 high school seniors, but there are only ~300 million Americans, and under 4,000,000 American high school graduates annually.

steve hsu said...

Oops, that's a typo -- should be 200 not 2000.

aseuss said...

It's clear that "holistic" criteria simply allow Ivy admissions committees to rationalize the admission of whomever they want. They then will point to the high average SAT scores of each admitted cohort as proof that academic merit remains a top consideration. However, the SAT no longer has strong resolution at the top: recentering bumped up scores about 80 pts in the mid-90s, and question types that exhibit strong correlation with general intelligence, like analogies, were removed. The result has been a test with a low ceiling. This allows Harvard to admit hockey stars and high school class presidents and point to their top scores as "proof" that their admissions scheme sacrifices little in the way of academic merit while serving their goal of predicting society's future leaders.

aseuss said...

"What's wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn't
it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to
afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most
important consideration?"
I sympathize with Wilson's exasperation: He is not arguing against the meaningfulness extra-academic criteria, per se. Perhaps factors other than academics might serve a particular college's mission statement. But why do all top national universities (like Harvard) and top liberal arts colleges (like Williams) employ what Steve Pinker refers to as "eye-of-newt-wing-of-bat" admissions schemes? Shouldn't there be at least a few arts and sciences universities that employ purely merit-based formula like Caltech?

Elliot said...

"A Harvard that followed Pinker's advice would, after a generation or two, be reduced in status, prestige, and endowment size, to a mere Caltech or Ecole Normale Superieure."

Pinker's advice would be best for civilization as a whole, because it'd be devoting more resources and granting more status to the most capable students.

Cornelius said...

How would a more meritocratic - using the academic's definition of merit - admissions process at Harvard be better for the nation/civilization as a whole?

It is Harvard's endowment that allows it to build the facilities and attract the faculty that it does. That endowment has been funded primarily by the alumni who would not have been admitted under the academic's definition of merit.

aseuss said...

Actually, only a tiny proportion of alumni contribute appreciably to Harvard's endowment of $33b--the vast majority of Ivy League alums contribute only incrementally to these universities' endowments. I think it was Ron Unz (who wrote The Myth of the American Meritocracy) who said that Harvard was essentially one huge hedge fund. In The Price of Admission, Daniel Golden also demonstrated that it was possible to have a university with top-notch faculty and research facilities and still admit students solely based on merit--that university is Caltech. At any rate, what's the point of having the best faculty and research facilities if the largest population of students--the undergraduates--isn't going to take advantage of these academic resources? One of Steve Pinker's complaints is that most students at his school blow off their schoolwork in favor of what he calls "recreational" activities, and that this is largely because of the type of students Harvard admits. He's right.

Cornelius said...

From the perspective of someone who cares about Harvard's reputation and the size of its endowment:

The point of having the best faculty and facilities is to produce the best research and most publicity for Harvard. This in turn drives the wealthy to send their kids to Harvard, even if they have to make a "donation" for the privilege of associating Harvard with their name. It also helps bring in even more donations from wealthy alumni.

From the perspective of someone who cares about the advancement of knowledge:

By bringing the best graduate students, post-docs, junior fellows (e.g. Steve Hsu) and faculty together, Harvard is able to produce the best research and do more than any other institution to advance our knowledge of the universe. If Harvard raised the average intellectual ability of its undergraduate population, it would eventually find the average intellectual ability of its postgraduate population declining.

highly_adequate said...

While it's fair enough to say that Harvard selects only a fraction of its students based on academic merit, I think it's hard to argue that it doesn't choose a significant fraction -- perhaps 20-30% -- effectively on that basis.

It admits about half of those with perfect SAT scores, which (at least in the early 2000s) is on the order of 250 students per year (of a total of over 500 who apply). That's close to about 13-15% of the class (assuming a very high yield) of 1600. No doubt some of these perfect scorers had less than perfect GPAs, so it was not unreasonable that not all of them were admitted. And God only knows how many scored, say, 1580 or 1590, with perfect GPAs who were also admitted. Really, at this level the distinction between 1600 and 1580 is very hard to turn into something significant, especially when other variables -- signs of intellectual curiosity perhaps -- also would appear relevant to future achievement.

It may be that Harvard does as good a job as possible in selecting the most academically gifted and promising students, given the limitations of the information they are working with, at least for 20-30% of the class they might really target mostly for academic merit. Sure, some number of students who will in fact go on to great achievements will slip through their fingers, but the reality is that is true no matter what criteria they may use for academic merit. Such predictions are just very hard.

It's really difficult to look at the overall intellectual success of Harvard graduates at the very top level -- including not just the sciences, but also the humanities including writing -- and declare they've done a botch job with their admissions on that score.

Josh said...

not sure about harvard, but everyone i know who went to yale was as good at some sport as they are smart. It seems like this is a pretty good mix.

Endre Bakken Stovner said...

Brainiac extraordinaire has a pretty funny blog post about Pinker's essay at

"Today, a major effect of “holistic” admissions is instead to limit the
enrollment of Asian-Americans (especially recent immigrants), who tend
disproportionately to have superb SAT scores, but to be deficient in
life’s more meaningful dimensions, such as lacrosse, student government,
and marching band."

OlegS76 said...

wait, are you seriously arguing that donating to university SHOULD implicitly buy special treatment in terms of admissions? Why don't we just auction Harvard diplomas to the highest bidder then and skip all the pretense?

OlegS76 said...

Exactly. And is there any university worse than Caltech, or, dare I say it, University of California schools, like Berkeley?

Cornelius said...

If you want to maximize Harvard's reputation and endowment, then yes, you SHOULD be willing to sell special treatment in admissions, assuming you have no other constraints. The same priority leads you to oppose selling Harvard diplomas.

This really isn't that hard to understand if you take the perspective of those designing the admissions process. Unfortunately, for this issue and most others, people generally try to rationalize the decisions of others without ever taking the time to understand the priorities and constraints of others.

Maybe it will help if you start backwards. Harvard has designed a particular admissions process. The people at Harvard are smart so let's assume they've tried to optimize that process given some set of priorities and constraints. What set of priorities and constraints could they be operating under?

MUltan said...

It appears that Unz's methods were sloppy and his statistics wrong. See:

A Critique of Ron Unz’s Article “The Myth of American Meritocracy”
by Nurit Baytch.
Using the same method used by Unz to determine the percentage of Jewish
National Merit Semifinalists to gauge the percentage of Jewish Harvard
undergraduates yields comparable numbers: 6-7% for NMS and 5-6% for
Harvard. Unz used an estimate based on NMS surnames to estimate the high
ability Jewish percentage, then switched to an apparently baseless
estimate from a campus Jewish group for the Harvard Jewish percentage,
then proceeded to invalidly compare these numbers.

A direct questionnaire reports that the Harvard entering class is less then 10% Jewish. (Showing that using last names as a proxy substantially under-represents the percentage of Jews.)

steve hsu said...

Unz has replied to these claims in detail. I'm sure you can find his rejoinder easily via Google.

MUltan said...

Thanks for your reply.

Yeah, I read his responses, and they dance around his clear-cut methodological error of using incomparable sources when comparable ones are available. If he had brought up intermarriage and ethnic Jews identifying as atheists (as Steve Sailer did in the comments) that would have been at least plausible, but he doubles down on trying to cast the criticism as political and as disputing his conclusion, rather than as noting that he simply hasn't yet made a valid statistical case for his conclusion. His conclusion may be valid, but his argument simply isn't.

Worse, Unz refused to look at the data and made false statements: see this comment by nb (presumably Nurit Baytch).

Then there is this strawman:Mertz argues that I should ignore these Hillel estimates—which everyone else always uses—and instead perform Weyl Analysis on the surnames of all of America’s major universities to determine their
Jewish enrollments.

But this is a total absurdity. To the best of my knowledge, American universities do not make their complete lists of past graduates publicly available, and even if they did, the total number of such names for the Ivies, the University of California campuses, and the various other schools I considered would run into the millions over just the few decades I considered. Counting the Jewish names among them all would be insanity.

So his argument is "everyone else uses lousy data", "the real data isn't public" [though it really isn't hard to find nearly complete lists of graduates for given years and schools, as nb tried to show him], and best of all "it would be hard to do a perfect job, so I'll just go with made-up numbers", as if we should credit a statistical analysis by someone who feigns not to understand statistical sampling.

Unz seems a decent fellow most of the time, and I'd certainly like to believe his conclusions, but Charles Murray he ain't. His critics on this matter don't seem to be political axe-grinders (at least on this issue) but rather pointing out a methodological problem. It would have been better for Unz to recognize the problem and get better data and do better analysis, but he seems to be approaching the issue as political rather than factual.

Rather than relying on a chain of inferences based on poor data, the question could be much more accurately answered by a direct study asking the ethnic backgrounds of the grandparents of students at elite schools. This isn't trivial, but it needn't be that hard, either -- a question or three could piggyback on the psych departments' usual surveys.

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