Friday, September 5, 2014

Steven Pinker Rebuts William Deresiewicz

A month or so ago William Deresiewicz wrote a long and impassioned essay for The New Republic. In it he argued that Ivy League schools are not worth the money or the time or the effort. He charged them with not teaching students how to think, with not helping them to develop a self and with being insufficiently diverse.

Your humble blogger commented on this essay when it was published. Link here.

Today Steven Pinker rebuts it from within the hallowed walls of Harvard. His is a long and thoughtful essay, well worth a read.

Perhaps predictably he does not address one issue I raised, that being how Ivy League Humanities teachers have been purveying political correctness in the guise of serious thinking. Being a scientist, Pinker wisely avoids that issue.

Nevertheless, he offers many useful and salient ideas about the Deresiewicz screed.

Happily enough, Pinker defends his students against the Deresiewicz slander. By my lights, Deresiewicz was making Ivy League students look like junior Fausts who sold their souls for a piece of parchment.

To which Pinker responds:

Like countless graybeards before him, Deresiewicz complains that the kids today are just no good: they are stunted, meek, empty, incurious zombies; faithful drudges; excellent sheep; and, in a flourish he uses twice, “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.” I have spent my career interacting with these students, and do not recognize the targets of this purple invective. Nor does Deresiewicz present any reason to believe that the 18-year-olds of today’s Ivies are more callow or unsure of their lives than the 18-year-olds of yesterday’s Ivies, the non-Ivies, or the country at large.

True enough, if you believe that students in the Ivy League are that much worse than those at state schools you ought to provide some evidence. Dersiewicz provides none.

Pinker continues:

More to the point, the data don’t show that Ivy League students are worse off than their non-Ivy peers, and if anything they point in the opposite direction: the students at private universities are moresanguine about their emotional health than those at the public universities and four-year colleges that Deresiewicz romanticizes.

Since Deresiewicz believes that universities should teach students how to think, Pinker is well within his rights to ask what that means.  Or better, how good an example the author is setting:

Deresiewicz knows what it does not mean—“the analytical and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions”—but this belletristic disdain for the real world is unhelpful. The skills necessary for success in the professions include organizing one’s thoughts so that they may be communicated clearly to others, breaking a complex problem into its components, applying general principles to specific cases, discerning cause and effect, and negotiating tradeoffs between competing values. In what rarefied ivory chateau do these skills not count as “thinking”? In its place Deresiewicz says only that learning to think consists of “contemplating things from a distance,” with no hint as to what that contemplation should consist of or where it should lead.

One grants, willingly, that students in Pinker’s courses will learn how to think. One is less sanguine about students who have wasted their time learning how to deconstruct the canon.

Pinker does not believe that Deresiewicz himself thinks very clearly and he demonstrates the point by asking what the author means when he suggests that universities should be helping students build a self:

This leads to Deresiewicz’s second goal, “building a self,” which he explicates as follows: “it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.” Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time. 

One suspects that the issue ought to have been articulated in terms of building character. If character is at issue, one might expect students to attend lectures, to hand in assignments on time, to dress appropriately for class, to participate in classroom discussion civilly, to learn to respect differing points of view and to write their own term papers.

Pinker himself points out that students are so distracted by their extracurricular activities that they rarely have time to attend lectures, even when they  know that material from the lectures cannot be found anywhere else.

For his part Pinker wants to address a larger and to his mind more important point. Students are no longer admitted to Harvard based on aptitude, but on what are called holistic criteria.

In his words:

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. … 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). 

But why, Pinker asks would Harvard privilege people who have folded clothes for poor children in Africa when it could fill its ranks with the brightest young people out there? Is it afraid that the most brilliant adolescents are not sufficiently well-rounded to excel in the real world?

He critiques this point:

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. 

Of course, we know why this is so. If schools did not admit enough legacy candidates they would lose a considerable portion of their endowments. And if they did not admit underqualified minority candidates they would be denounced as racist.

How do you solve the problems that Pinker sees? Simple, he says: admit students to Harvard primarily on the basis of standardized tests. This is the most fair and equitable way to do so. Most other countries do it this way. Why don’t we?

Of course, he must know New York City’s best high schools, places like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science follow this policy and that they are approximately 70% Asian.

To balance out incoming classes Pinker recommends a modified version of merit-based admissions:
If, for various reasons, a university didn’t want a freshman class composed solely of scary-smart kids, there are simple ways to shake up the mixture. Unz suggests that Ivies fill a certain fraction of the incoming class with the highest-scoring applicants, and select the remainder from among the qualified applicant pool by lottery. One can imagine various numerical tweaks, including ones that pull up the number of minorities or legacies to the extent that those goals can be publicly justified. Grades or class rank could also be folded into the calculation. Details aside, it’s hard to see how a simple, transparent, and objective formula would be worse than the eye-of-newt-wing-of-bat mysticism that jerks teenagers and their moms around and conceals unknown mischief. 

Many serious thinkers today disparage aptitude tests. They have persuaded large numbers of people that aptitude tests only show how many prep classes a child’s parents could afford.

Pinker responds:

But all of these hypotheses have been empirically refuted. We have already seen that test scores, as far up the upper tail as you can go, predict a vast range of intellectual, practical, and artistic accomplishments. They’re not perfect, but intuitive judgments based on interviews and other subjective impressions have been shown to be far worse. Test preparation courses, notwithstanding their hard-sell ads, increase scores by a trifling seventh of a standard deviation (with most of the gains in the math component). As for Deresiewicz’s pronouncement that “SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely,” this is bad social science. SAT correlates with parental income (more relevantly, socioeconomic status or SES), but that doesn’t mean it measures it; the correlation could simply mean that smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores, and that smarter parents have more intellectually demanding and thus higher-paying jobs. 

Where Deresiewicz argues that Ivy League schools are too meritocratic and should become more democratic… that is, diverse... Pinker turns the argument on its head. He believes that the Ivy League is not sufficiently meritocratic:

Still, he’s right that the current system is harmful and unfair. What he could have said is that elite universities are nothing close to being meritocracies. We know that because they don’t admit most of their students on the basis of academic aptitude. And perhaps that’s what we should try next.

On this question I am with Pinker.


MidKnight said...

My primary memory of Harvard is, on the college tour, whilst standing in the hall commemorating the Harvard dead that gave their lives in the Civil War, the lady giving the tour gushing about all the campus activities - why, just last week she'd been to a couple anti-war rallies.

David Foster said...

The real problem is that there is far too much emphasis of "elite" universities.

Way back in 1969, Peter Drucker wrote:

"One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…"

American society today is much closer to accepting Harvard, Yale, etc as annointers of aristocracy than it was when Drucker wrote the above.

Drucker also said:

"It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman. Yet this is the flexibility Europe needs in order to overcome the brain drain and to close the technology gap."

It is a flexibility that we in the US will lose if we continue on the path of excessive reverence for "elite" universities.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

David Foster @September 5, 2014 at 8:42 AM:

Part of what you are pointing to here is reliance on standardized testing, and its almost total emphasis on analytical intelligence. This drives the elitist "meritocracy" that the vaunted Ivy League colleges claim they are responsible for creating. It's very good marketing and branding, but not necessarily the truth.

Secondly, a great proportion of our political and government staffs went to Ivies and studied liberal arts. I find it very difficult to believe that Ivies are turning out truly superior graduates in the liberal arts. I suspect it is again branding, and the SAT is the ticket that gets them in. Yes, a 1560 on the SAT can get you inti a darn good school and shows you're smart. Does that mean they're the "cream of the crop" thinkers to lead our nation? I doubt it's that decisive. Judging by the politics and avarice of many in public service, I doubt that smarts is the most compelling criterion for a job. I'd like to see greater emphasis on ethics, but that's an elective. So is rhetoric, judging by the quality of writing we see today.

A Northern Idaho A&M liberal arts graduate may be a steal, and a fine contributor. But it takes a deep man or woman to look beyond the candidate's veneer and see what's inside, beyond the knee-jerk pull to hire a recently-minted Harvard graduate who exudes confidence because they've a golden ticket.

Anonymous said...

Its all going to be internet based in another generation. Why not give undergrads the top minds in the world for a fraction of the cost of bricks and mortar.

Unless, of course, the purpose is mating opportunities.

Jocker said...

Better parents, better children? ;) Pinker did not hear about epigenetics, and Flynn effect? For example here

Dennis said...


It takes a very deep thinker to go beyond one's experiences and education to gain wisdom. For in the final analysis it is how one uses the "tools" that one has garnered in life to do the "right" thing at the "right" time in the "right" way. One has to know when discretion is the better part of valor and when valor is required.
The idea that just because one graduates from an Ivy that some how makes them more prepared to lead is specious at best and misleading.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis @September 6, 2014 at 6:00 AM:

Agreed. It's interesting that so many Ivies got rid of ROTC in the Vietnam era, and some never brought the program back. Fitting, methinks.

Aristotle's key point is "Know thyself," and the point of education is to know what it means to live a good life. Philosophy, at its root, it the love of wisdom. Today's education is much more pragmatic: what do I need to earn the big bucks? Life isn't on the radar screen, because evaluating a good life requires value judgments, and choosing values is anathema to today's academy.

David Foster said...

Ignatius.."reliance on standardized testing"

But what the Pinker article said was: "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. … 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)."

Meritocracy actually has a fairly short run in the Ivy League. Prior to, say, the late 1950s, subjective assessments of "character" were used to weed out Jews, etc. Now it seems they are back to something similar, only with a focus on weeding out dweebish Asians who haven't learned how to play the demonstrating-concern-for-the-underprivileged game.

Why in the world should American society agree to grant power to a small bunch of university admissions officers? How much do we know about who these people are, how they think, what their values might be, and what their real agends are?

Dennis said...

It was not until I had attained undergraduate, graduate degrees, professional certifications, continuing education, et al that I began to realize I really don't know much in the scheme of things. Real intelligence is the ability to adapt to changing conditions and situation and to recognize that one does not know every thing.
If my plane goes down in the Kalahari desert and I am the only survivor that was pulled from the wreckage by a pygmy tribesman I better be smart enough to realize that I may have more education than the one who saved me, but he is the one who has the education to aid in our survival. The sadness here is that far too many people would look down on this tribesman as beneath them.
I have never understood how anyone can intimate that people like Obama are intelligent when they seem not to have the ability to change or adapt to meet the exigencies of life and the responsibilities thereof to the citizens of the country. It must be that Ivy League education that produces such rigid ideological stances and ideas.
It is when you have access to every thing that you lack access to the truly important things in life and most of those things have been there right in front of you the whole time. A simple gesture like a truly engaging smile or true friendship. We have so many unhappy people, especially women, because they fail to see that the joy of life is in the living of it.

JKB said...

Before getting to enamored with the SAT, I would suggest considering this from Seth Godin:

In 1914, a professor in Kansas invented the multiple-choice test. Yes, it’s less than a hundred years old.

There was an emergency on. World War I was ramping up, hundreds of thousands of new immigrants needed to be processed and educated, and factories were hungry for workers. The government had just made two years of high school mandatory, and we needed a temporary, high-efficiency way to sort students and quickly assign them to appropriate slots.

In the words of Professor Kelly, “This is a test of lower order thinking for the lower orders.”

A few years later, as President of the University of Idaho, Kelly disowned the idea, pointing out that it was an appropriate method to test only a tiny portion of what is actually taught and should be abandoned. The industrialists and the mass
educators revolted and he was fired.

The SAT, the single most important filtering device used to measure the effect of school on each individual, is based (almost without change) on Kelly’s lower-order thinking test. Still.

The reason is simple. Not because it works. No, we do it because it’s the easy and efficient way to keep the mass production of students moving forward.

And why in this centennial of the multiple choice test, with the start of the new school year are we not commemorating the "achievement?

As for the Ivies, it is best to keep in mind, that while many smart people go to Harvard, et al, attending Harvard, et al, does not mean you are smart. Although, one can assume the student performs well on tests, follows directions well (for years) and is very conformist as those are the basic selection criteria. Almost no one who has taken a risk with a chance of real failure even gets consideration unless they are very lucky.