An anonymous indie-cinema-loving hermit friend from Amsterdam sends me an article in this week’s Economist entitled “Poison Ivy: Not so much palaces of learning as bastions of privilege and hypocrisy” (unfortunately, only available to subscribers). The article is a summary of an excellent Wall Street Journal series by Daniel Golden (again, unfortunately, only available to subscribers), which I’ve been following with great interest. Golden has also put out a book about this topic, called The Price of Admission (“How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates”), which I just ordered from Amazon. In the meantime, I’ll simply quote a few passages from the Economist piece:

Mr Golden shows that elite universities do everything in their power to admit the children of privilege. If they cannot get them in through the front door by relaxing their standards, then they smuggle them in through the back. No less than 60% of the places in elite universities are given to candidates who have some sort of extra “hook”, from rich or alumni parents to “sporting prowess”. The number of whites who benefit from this affirmative action is far greater than the number of blacks…

Most people think of black football and basketball stars when they hear about “sports scholarships”. But there are also sports scholarships for rich white students who play preppie sports such as fencing, squash, sailing, riding, golf and, of course, lacrosse. The University of Virginia even has scholarships for polo-players, relatively few of whom come from the inner cities…

What is one to make of [Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist, who opposes affirmative action for minorities while practising it for his own son?

Two groups of people overwhelmingly bear the burden of these policies — Asian-Americans and poor whites. Asian-Americans are the “new Jews”, held to higher standards (they need to score at least 50 points higher than non-Asians even to be in the game) and frequently stigmatised for their “characters” (Harvard evaluators persistently rated Asian-Americans below whites on “personal qualities”). When the University of California, Berkeley briefly considered introducing means-based affirmative action, it rejected the idea on the ground that “using poverty yields a lot of poor white kids and poor Asian kids”.

The article ends with the hope that “America’s money-addicted and legacy-loving universities can be shamed into returning to what ought to have been their guiding principle all along: admitting people to university on the basis of their intellectual ability.”

I harped about this issue in one of my very first posts, almost a year ago. I don’t know what else to say. If idealism won’t goad us Americans (yes, I’m still an American) into overhauling our crooked, anti-intellectual admissions system, then maybe it will help to see just how absurd that system looks to the rest of the world.

### 38 Responses to “Admissions unhooked”

1. Aaron Bergman Says:

There are a number of problems with this article. On the issue of athletic admissions, in the Ivy League at least, there are reasonably stringent quotas (last I checked at least) based on the ‘academic index’ of the recruited athletes.

The rest of the article seems to be a weird melange of the issues of legacy admissions and affirmative action. The quote from the Berkeley official is clearly against a shift to a means-based affirmative action. Its use strikes me as dishonest in context because the issue being addressed is the number of minority admissions that would result from a particular policy. The article does not address the (rather long and involved) debate about these affirmative action policies and instead tries to tie the elimination of affirmative action to the rather separate issue of legacy admissions (which is its own sort of affirmative action, but isn’t what the term is generally accepted to mean.) I’m not impressed.

2. Robin Hanson Says:

If people had a strong commitment to the idea of admitting based on academic criteria, then yes they might be shamed into correcting their deviations from this standard. Alas, I think most people’s commitment to this idea is pretty weak. So admissions will probably continue to reflect an awkward and shifting mix of the other stronger commitments that people have about which social groups should be rewarded.

3. Kurt Says:

On a somewhat related theme, Harry Lewis has a new book out, Excellence Without a Soul: How a Great University Forgot Education, about how Harvard has lost its focus on what a liberal arts education should mean. I haven’t read this yet, but I saw Lewis’ recent talk on BookTV, and it sounds interesting.

4. Scott Says:

Robin: I fear you’re right.

5. William Says:

Here is a related piece I read a while back:
GETTING IN: The social logic of Ivy League admissions
It talks about how the admissions system originally designed to keep Jews out is now being used to keep Asians out.

But more interestingly I think, it suggests that the Ivy League schools have successful graduates not because they provide a better education, but because they are good at selecting people who will be successful regardless of where they go to school. Maybe the Ivy League is just reflecting the fact that “real world” success is a biased process too, dependent on factors other than acedemic excellence such as race.

6. Douglas Knight Says:

Why should schools admit based on academic merit? I certainly see educational efficiencies in grouping people by ability, but I don’t think that’s why people are talking about academic merit.

Schools gain their value because employers care about them, so it seems pretty reasonable for schools to cater to the employers. If employers wanted to know SAT scores, they’d ask (it’s probably illegal, but they do it anyway). Athletes make more money than people with similar academic qualifications, so it seems that they are what employers want. Also, I think I read that they donate to their school more than people with similar incomes, so that’s another incentive.

I don’t understand how we got here–I barely know where here is–but discussing minor changes as if we were somewhere completely different isn’t going to do any good.

7. Scott Says:

Douglas: No one denies that universities have some incentive to maintain their current admissions policies — if they didn’t, they wouldn’t maintain them! The question is whether their incentives are good ones — or whether, as institutions that receive public funds, they ought to be held to account for what many of us see as betraying the public interest.

In particular, I don’t buy the argument that, if employers want to hire (say) Harvard grads, that demonstrates that Harvard must be using the right admissions criteria. Maybe employers want to hire Harvard grads because Harvard’s prestige burnishes their own prestige, and Harvard wants to admit legacies and athletes because they mean more money for Harvard, which Harvard can then use to maintain its prestige, thereby ensuring that employers will continue to want to hire its grads. In that case, we have a Nash equilibrium that’s arguably very, very far from the socially optimal equilibrium.

8. Robin Blume-Kohout Says:

Reading “The Chosen” (the book on Ivy admissions, not the Chaim Potok book), and the New Yorker piece on it that William cited, changed my view on college admissions. Previously, I would have automatically agreed with Scott’s assertion/assumption that admissions should be based on academic and intellectual excellence. Now, I’m much less sure.

For instance: the book points out that the Ivies aggressively recruit athletes, in part, because they are consistently more “successful” (this may be biased toward financial success) in later life. Many go into investment banking, which (while rather despised by academics) is notorious as a lucrative career where your success is dependent on working 12-18 hours a day. If you have a natural energy level high enough to finish Harvard while playing a varsity sport, then it’s a fair indicator of future success.

One might argue that it’s more important to cram a good education into really energetic, go-getter kids than into brilliant wonks. My jury is still out.

9. aram harrow Says:

Scott says we have a Nash equilibrium.

Legacy preference didn’t help me in the admissions process—but it’s been a boon for me ever since.

I spent this past summer in Ecuador—on the dime of a Class of 1936 alum whose two sons also attended Harvard. A Class of 1946 alum and his Class of ’52 brother endowed a fund that defrayed my tuition costs sophomore year; they donated to Harvard after several of their children graduated from the College.

Would these altruistic alums have given to Harvard—and, indirectly, to me—if their progeny had been rejected by the admissions office? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet my tuition bill on it.

10. Douglas Knight Says:

Scott,
Maybe we aren’t so far off in how we view really existing schools, but I think it’s important to write out all the details to make sure of that. I don’t think most people have a coherent model what schools should be, let alone one that’s an equilibrium. Your last paragraph of your main post doesn’t sound like it takes an equilibrium point of view.

In your last comment, you seem to paint elite schools as a tool for the rich to pass advantage on to their children, camoflaged as meritocracy. That may well be correct, but it seems to me that the schools are just a symptom of a problem with employers. It would be a lot less wasteful if the elites could do nepotism without shame. But I think that’s too simple a story and I really don’t know what’s going on.

And schools don’t enroll athletes just because it means more money to them, but also because the athletes will be more financially successful. If the job of school admissions is to identify good people for employers to hire, they’re doing the right thing. Is this so different than measuring the students intellectually?

Saying that schools should measure applicants intellectually sure makes it sound like the purpose of schools is identify good people, not to educate.

Robin Blume-Kohout: maybe “it’s more important to cram a good education into really energetic, go-getter kids than into brilliant wonks.” Yeah, maybe the current equilibrium is socially better than the direction Scott’s pushing, but your phrasing reveals how globally bizarre and I suspect socially poor the current situation is: there isn’t a shortage of education; we can educate both the go-getters and the wonks; there’s a shortage of prestige. And of course, you can’t alleviate that shortage.

11. Michael Mitzenmacher Says:

Scott —

I do think that you’re starting from a strong, unstated assumption, that (in my opinion) is completely wrong: that entry into universities should be based exclusively, or perhaps just primarily, on “academic merit”, whatever that means. We ought to look at or question that to begin with, as others have already said. Academic merit might be a great criterion if the goal was to produce more people like you and me, who are going to hang out at universities for the rest of our lives, provign theorems and writing papers. But it’s not clear that that outcome is so great for society.

Looking at your Harvard argument, you seem to suggest that Harvard following its own self-perceived best strategy for producing the best outcome for itself (and, in Harvard’s view, society) might be leading us to a Nash equilibrium far from the social optimum. Perhaps, but I’m skeptical — greedy self-interest generally works pretty well in practice, and the exceptions in my limited experience are pretty rare. Why do you think this is one of them? Being a small-c conservative, I’m even more highly skeptical of putting some other approach in its place based on potential outcomes with no real underlying basis, other than the idea that surely it’s better to give high-IQs all the supposed privileges of any Ivy-League degree (which, again, I think is just wrong).

If pure academics is the route to success, then it may take a while, but some other school will follow the route of taking solely the best test scores they can, and outperform their peers, and possibly Harvard. And then Harvard will notice and move that way, since Harvard wants to be the biggest success it can be. Or if society should make a concerted push to reward pure academic excellence, Harvard will follow society’s leads. These sorts of changes are slower than you (and I) would often like, but I think they are the saner path to the right place, whereever that is.

Michael Mitzenmacher

12. Anonymous Says:

Scott, I was under the impression that Berkeley was a public University of the state of California. Is this not true? And if it is true then why as a public institution is it rewarding the privileged?

I can see why Harvard would do it since it is a private University.

13. Scott Says:

Thanks, Michael! A few responses (which hopefully can also serve as responses to other people):

I do think that you’re starting from a strong, unstated assumption, that (in my opinion) is completely wrong: that entry into universities should be based exclusively, or perhaps just primarily, on “academic merit”, whatever that means.

Yes, I am starting from that assumption (though I thought the last Economist quote made it more of a strong, stated assumption).

I fear that our differences might boil down to a fundamental disagreement over what a university is supposed to be: is it supposed to be a profitable entity like any other (albeit one that depends to an unusual degree on donations and government largesse), or is it supposed to be an oasis, a refuge, the one place in all of society where the pursuit of knowledge is valued for its own sake?

(I’m asking what it’s supposed to be, not what it is! )

Those who take the first view will never agree with me on the admissions question, nor should they. I won’t try to defend the second view here, since it would really take an essay or a book, if it can be done at all.

greedy self-interest generally works pretty well in practice, and the exceptions in my limited experience are pretty rare.

On the contrary, I think the exceptions are a defining aspect of the human condition. If not for the exceptions, we would be living in a messianic age.

If pure academics is the route to success, then it may take a while, but some other school will follow the route of taking solely the best test scores they can, and outperform their peers, and possibly Harvard.

Let me repeat that it’s only in the US that the policy of “taking solely the best test scores” is considered novel and bizarre. Admission to the IIT’s is based on test scores, as is admission to the best universities in Japan and most of the other countries that I know anything about. (Firsthand reports, anyone?) Those who left comments on my last post, to the effect that the US is about to be eclipsed economically, should probably take note.

I think U. of Chicago also used to have such an admissions policy, back in its glory days when it produced Carl Sagan et al.

But even if no university on Earth had ever tried such a policy, I don’t accept the general argument that “X must not be a good idea, since otherwise people would already be doing it.” Taken to its conclusion, this is an argument against ever doing anything new.

Or if society should make a concerted push to reward pure academic excellence, Harvard will follow society’s leads.

I do think society should make a concerted push to reward academic excellence, and I think universities are the obvious place to start pushing. For if universities can’t be convinced to reward academic excellence, then who can?

14. Scott Says:

Scott, I was under the impression that Berkeley was a public University of the state of California. Is this not true?

It is true.

And if it is true then why as a public institution is it rewarding the privileged?

Because even public universities like donations from rich alums!

Maybe someone would be kind enough to fill us in on the exact differences between public and private universities when it comes to admissions? As I understand it, the main one is that public universities have to admit a certain number of students in whatever state they’re based in, often at reduced tuition.

15. Jud Says:

Wonder how many folks would be making these arguments about athletic prowess as a greater indicator of future success than grades and test scores, and questioning the very idea of elite schools as *academically* elite schools, if we were talking about affirmative action for African Americans? (Aaron Bergman, in a feat of legerdemain, takes the very point of the article – that advantages for the rich and privileged are not what we commonly understand by the term “affirmative action” – and uses it as a criticism.)

And to think that this favoritism is exercised on behalf of those who haven’t managed to come out on top of yet another step in the process that is geared to give them a helping hand, “aptitude” tests. Two good books on this topic: “The Mismeasure of Man,” by Stephen Jay Gould; and “None of the Above,” by David Owen, formerly of Atlantic Monthly. “None of the Above” has a lovely example of an actual SAT reading comprehension subsection consisting of 4 questions. It wasn’t at all difficult for me to get them all correct, and my guess is that most people reading this would get comparable results. Just one problem: The reading selection, which one is supposed to comprehend in order to answer the questions, isn’t reproduced in Owen’s book. It’s a wonderful demonstration that the ability to get tonal cues from the questions likely has at least as much to do with getting the “right” answers as the abilities the test is supposed to measure. And does the ability to receive those tonal cues have something to do with sharing aspects of upbringing, environment and culture with the question-makers? My guess is that it does.

16. Aaron Bergman Says:

(Aaron Bergman, in a feat of legerdemain, takes the very point of the article – that advantages for the rich and privileged are not what we commonly understand by the term “affirmative action” – and uses it as a criticism.)

No, Aaron Bergman was criticisizing the slight of hand wherein the article went from attacking legacy and academic admissions to attacking affirmative action in general.

As for Scott,

is it supposed to be an oasis, a refuge, the one place in all of society where the pursuit of knowledge is valued for its own sake?

I doubt anyone involved in higher education thinks that that is what a university should be.

Let me repeat that it’s only in the US that the policy of “taking solely the best test scores” is considered novel and bizarre

And yet, the US university system is widely considered to be the best in the world.

For if universities can’t be convinced to reward academic excellence, then who can?

Universities do reward academic excellence. It’s just not the only thing they reward.

17. John Sidles Says:

CalTech Vice Provost David Goodstein’s semi-famous essay on this topic entitled The Big Crunch is worth reading.

Goodstein quotes follow:

——

“An unfortunate space traveler, falling into a black hole, is utterly and irretrievably doomed, but that is only obvious to the space traveler. In the perception of an observer hovering above the event horizon, the space traveler’s time slows down, so that it seems as if catastrophe can forever be put off into the future. Something like that has happened in our research universities. The good times ended forever around 1970, but by importing students, and employing Ph.D’s as temporary postdocs, we have stretched time out, pretending that nothing has changed, waiting for the good times to return. We have about as much chance as the space traveler.”

“Recently, however, a vastly different picture of science education has been put forth and has come to be widely accepted. It is the metaphor of the pipeline. The idea is that our young people start out as a torrent of eager, curious minds anxious to learn about the world, but as they pass through the various grades of schooling, that eagerness and curiosity is somehow squandered, fewer and fewer of them showing any interest in science, until at the end of the line, nothing is left but a mere trickle of Ph.D’s. Thus, our entire system of education is seen to be a leaky pipeline, badly in need of repairs. The leakage problem is seen as particularly severe with regard to women and minorities, but the pipeline metaphor applies to all. ”

“I believe it is a serious mistake to think of our system of education as a pipeline leading to Ph.D’s in science or in anything else. For one thing, if it were a leaky pipeline, and it could be repaired, then as we’ve already seen, we would soon have a flood of Ph.D’s that we wouldn’t know what to do with. For another thing, producing Ph.Ds is simply not the purpose of our system of education. Its purpose instead is to produce citizens capable of operating a Jeffersonian democracy, and also if possible, of contributing to their own and to the collective economic well being. To regard anyone who has achieved those purposes as having leaked out of the pipeline is silly.”

“I would like to propose a different and more illuminating metaphor for American science education. It is more like a mining and sorting operation, designed to cast aside most of the mass of common human debris, but at the same time to discover and rescue diamonds in the rough, that are capable of being cleaned and cut and polished into glittering gems, just like us, the existing scientists.”

“The present social structure of science, by which I mean institutions, education, funding, publications and so on all evolved during the period of exponential expansion, before The Big Crunch. They are not suited to the unknown future we face. Today’s scientific leaders, in the universities, government, industry and the scientific societies are mostly people who came of age during the golden era, 1950 – 1970. I am myself part of that generation. We think those were normal times and expect them to return. But we are wrong. Nothing like it will ever happen again. It is by no means certain that science will even survive, much less flourish, in the difficult times we face. Before it can survive, those of us who have gained so much from the era of scientific elites and scientific illiterates must learn to face reality, and admit that those days are gone forever. ”

“I think we have our work cut out for us.”

18. Anonymous Says:

I fear that our differences might boil down to a fundamental disagreement over what a university is supposed to be: is it supposed to be a profitable entity like any other (albeit one that depends to an unusual degree on donations and government largesse), or is it supposed to be an oasis, a refuge, the one place in all of society where the pursuit of knowledge is valued for its own sake?

(I’m asking what it’s supposed to be, not what it is! )

If we talk what it’s supposed to be, there is a third possibility – university as an entity that serves the society by producing the knowledge necessary for the society and dissiminating it by training the students in it. (Note the emphasis on serving the society, as opposed to knowledge for its own sake.)

I can’t justify alumni admissions from this perspective but sports participiation and some other non-academic criteria could qualify, as possible indicators of socially useful skills.

Andris

19. Scott Says:

Thanks, John! I hadn’t seen that Goodstein speech before, but it’s a masterpiece (even the parts I disagree with).

20. Thane Says:

Lani Guinier proposed (somewhere, I’m sure it’s easily Googled) that admission to Stanford be determined, at least for some % of each freshman class, by lottery amongst candidates meeting some simple tests (B+ average or better in high school, or something like that).

Seems like a good idea to me, although I’ve never met anyone in person in Palo Alto who likes it

21. Michael Dinitz Says:

One small note: at one point the excerpt you quoted talks about sports scholarships for “preppie” sports like fencing, squash, lacrosse, etc at elite schools. As a former member of the Princeton fencing team, I feel the need to correct this — the ivies do not give out sports scholarships for any sports, preppie or not. The schools that come to mind for giving out fencing scholarships are Ohio State, Penn State, and Notre Dame. One could argue that Notre Dame is an elite school, but the same can hardly be said for Ohio State and Penn State, which are standard Big 10 land grant institutions.

Personally, I’m glad that academic ability isn’t the only thing that Princeton selected for when I was there. I feel like I met more interesting people and had a better undergraduate experience because things other than pure academics were considered, so most of the people there were also exceptional in other ways. The school where I’m getting my PhD is a great school, but the undergrads seem a bit more boring than I’m used to. But to be fair, this may just be grad student bias, so take it with a grain of salt.

22. Michael Mitzenmacher Says:

Scott,

This is an argument (oops, I meant “discussion”) perhaps better done face to face, but just a response to some points.

I fear that our differences might boil down to a fundamental disagreement over what a university is supposed to be: is it supposed to be a profitable entity like any other (albeit one that depends to an unusual degree on donations and government largesse), or is it supposed to be an oasis, a refuge, the one place in all of society where the pursuit of knowledge is valued for its own sake?

I do think it’s clear we disagree on what a university is supposed to be, but I’m not sure why you decided that I think a university’s purpose is profit. I can’t recall bringing that up. It must be a Harvard thing.

My view would be much closer to David Goodstein’s words as related by John Sidles:
“…producing Ph.Ds is simply not the purpose of our system of education. Its purpose instead is to produce citizens capable of operating a Jeffersonian democracy, and also if possible, of contributing to their own and to the collective economic well being.”

I would add that the premiere institutions must have the additional mission of producing citizens that will lead democracy — not necessarily just as political leaders, but as leaders in society widely construed, and in their chosen disciplines — and bring society to a better place. And as for profit, well, there’s nothing wrong with establishing a suitable bankroll to finance that mission. That is, after all, where financial aid comes from.

Let me repeat that it’s only in the US that the policy of “taking solely the best test scores” is considered novel and bizarre.

I hope not. It seems fundamentally bizarre to me, unless the goal is to produce a nation of the best test-takers.

I want Harvard to produce leaders. Some of those will be the leading academics. But I certainly hope Harvard aims to do more than produce the leaders of academe. (Not surprisingly, parents of Harvard students seem to share this hope.)

I also have to wonder, based on my personal experiences, if in general filling the room with the “brightest” people is really such a good idea. I don’t think it generally produces the best ideas, and often it’s an unhealthy, negative experience for the actual people. (Every year at Harvard it seems than many freshman suffer the psychological trauma of discovering they are not the smartest person in the room any more. Things often go better for the students who already knew, and have developed other talents besides “smartness”, whatever that is again.)

But even if no university on Earth had ever tried such a policy, I don’t accept the general argument that “X must not be a good idea, since otherwise people would already be doing it.” Taken to its conclusion, this is an argument against ever doing anything new.

Again, you’re completely mischaracterizing my argument. I in fact said the idea of a completely merit-based school should be tried — somewhere else, by some university, who thought it would make their university a better place — and if the idea worked, others would notice. If it really does work, and is better, then universities will follow along. In some sense, my read on what has happened over the last century is this case has largely been made, and that is why academic merit is so strongly (and correctly) considered in applications by most major universities today. It’s just not the sole criterion, or even close to it, which you seem to be suggesting would be better (although I don’t think you’ve explained why, other than it fits your personal ideal of what a university should be).

What I don’t think should happen is that an opinion from on high — say, from the government, or from optimistic academics — should dictate a massive change in policy that says that academic merit based on some standardized test is the decision criterion all schools, or even most schools, should be basing their decision on.

For if universities can’t be convinced to reward academic excellence, then who can?

I can only repeat the well-worded sentiment of a previous poster:

“Universities do reward academic excellence. It’s just not the only thing they reward.”

23. Scott Says:

Michael,

This is an argument (oops, I meant “discussion”) perhaps better done face to face

This blog has certainly had its share of arguments, but to me, this thread feels more like an airing of honest differences. I’m sorry if I said something that made it feel otherwise to you. In particular, I hope you didn’t get the impression that I was picking on Harvard. Harvard, in my opinion, is a fine university. 😉 Indeed, if it weren’t so, then the whole question of its admissions policies wouldn’t matter so much.

I completely agree with you that a huge part of a university’s role is to educate leaders who will make the world a better place. The question, for me, is how we should go about that: by producing well-rounded leaders who value staying fit, knowing the right people, and making the right connections; or by producing intellectual, wonkish leaders who value solving actual problems?

I’ll freely confess where I’m coming from: I think our entire culture has an enormous anti-intellectual bias, and I think universities are pretty much the only lever around for trying to counteract that bias. So it dismays me when so many of my colleagues seem to think that, instead of using the one lever we have to push as hard as possible on the rest of society, our real task is to make universities look more like everyplace else.

Of course I’m happy to coexist, in peace, friendship, and mutual respect, with people who completely disagree with me about the core purpose of the institution we belong to. Such people (including you, Michael) might be advancing my dream of nerdifying the world without even realizing it. My real hope is that those who do agree with me won’t be ashamed to say so.

24. Johan Richter Says:

Legacy admissions are probaly good for almost everyone in the long run. The rich people get the education they want, the university gets more money for scholarships, research etc and other students get a chance to make connections with possible future employers.

Admissions for athletes are bisarre, I agree. There is no reason for universities to have school teams or things like that. Academics and athletics are widely different activities and there appears to be no reason at all for them to be connected like it is in USA:

25. Anonymous Says:

Lani Guinier proposed (somewhere, I’m sure it’s easily Googled) that admission to Stanford be determined, at least for some % of each freshman class, by lottery amongst candidates meeting some simple tests (B+ average or better in high school, or something like that).

That would be a great idea. That way we can crush their poor little souls when they are expected to perform as preter-naturally gifted students but they do not… Oh wait, aren’t legacies pretty much that “random B+” pool?

Every year at Harvard it seems than many freshman suffer the psychological trauma of discovering they are not the smartest person in the room any more.

So we should protect them from the truth, lest they get hurt?

26. John Sidles Says:

Michael Mitzenmacher said: “I also have to wonder, based on my personal experiences, if in general filling the room with the “brightest” people is really such a good idea.”

History records that the collapse of western civilization was triggered when every episode of The Simpsons became available on-line; no further useful work was accomplished by that civilization.

“They saved Lisa’s Brain” is one of the episodes available, in which Mensa members take over the town of Springfield . Bonus: this particular episode includes a guest appearance by Stephen Hawking!

For me, the significance of David Goodstein’s essay was its pioneering construction of a nonstandard yet compelling agnotological analyses of the scientific enterprise. Surely, the last word on this subject has yet to be written.

For a similarly nonstandard yet compelling agnotological analyses of the philosophical enterprise, recommended reading is IAS Professor Jonathon Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750.

For the dedicated agnotologist, there is no higher pleasure than simultaneously watching the Simpsons, reading Jonathon Israel, and eating chocolate-chip cookies.

Which I happen to be doing right now! Is this a great civilization, or what?

—-

PS: In writing this email, I note with intense excitement that Prof. Israel has a new book this year: Enlightenment: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752.

27. John Sidles Says:

My apologies. Upon trying to order Prof. Israel’s new book, I discovered that Prof. Israel has listed his new book’s title incorrectly on his own web page (Doh! even IAS full professors can screw up).

The Oxford University Press page gives the title correctly (together with a prepublication review) as Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man 1670-1752.

Enlightenment Contested will not appear in print until October 13 … this will be harder than waiting for Terminator IV: Attack of the iPods.

28. Debbie Leung Says:

Scott, just to add (bitter) bits to your discussion. You can see where I stand.

(1) My roommate at Caltech (arguably the best asylum of your type) came back from visiting her brother at $tan_or_ and told me bitterly that life was unfair, since at school$, there were plenty of $tudents admitted via $$or ports, and they’ll get the C’s (BTW no F/D at tan_or_). (2) U was founded by some ich people, so, perhaps the intellectuals are occassionally admitted by mistakes (or as cheap foreign graders). (3) After verifying that first handedly, I bitterly complained to my friends (including other Techers) how poor a school U is, yet how much more famous it is, say, compared to Caltech. (Poor = underpaid grad students, nonfunctional facilities, abusive professors, etc.) They ALL told me that’s why I had to be there to be EDUCATED … (4) My fellow Techer Carlos Mochon also told me the “Institute” in the name of Caltech or MIT etc signifies something like mental institute, and such places are built to confine the crazy thereby protecting the rest of the society. (Carlos, don’t kill me if you don’t get a job in those schools because of this quote. Surely you have a twin brother with the same name going to the same school, and I forgot who told me that.) (5) I certainly agree that “intellectuals” as endangered species should be preserved. Yet we are neither financially self-sufficient, nor have enough skill/motivation to flirt taxpayers to run such expensive zoos, and back to Aram’s comment, we are relying on$$$ from the rich.

29. HN Says:

For those who “agree” with admission based on family names or potentiality of being leaders, etc, consider this situation: it used to be the case in Vietnam (and many other communist countries) that a student will not be admitted to a university if their fathers, grandfathers were considered bourgeoisie, or if they were working for the former South Vietnam regime.

Descendants of communists have the greatest potential of being leaders. Should universities in Vietnam continue to admit students based on his/her own (or family’s) political affiliation?

30. John Sidles Says:

hn said: Should universities in Vietnam continue to admit students based on his/her own (or family’s) political affiliation?

Hmmm … punishing citizens for the politics of their parents is expressly forbidden by the US Constitution.

The prohibition is phrased in the following archaic language:

—–

Article III, Section III: “No Attainder of Treason shall work Corruption of Blood, or Forfeiture except during the Life of the Person attainted.”

—–

This was quite a radical notion for its time!

Obviously, these issues survive today in the notion of “security clearance,” about which a whole separate thread could be launched.

And yet, isn’t this whole thread really about the fundamental social/political/ethical question, “Who will be trusted with access to information and the training to make use of it?”

To put it provocatively: information is dangerous, and therefore, if what you are studying is not informatically dangerous, isn’t it likely that you studying the wrong subject?

31. Scott Says:

debbie and hn: Thanks!! I’m glad I’m not the only one here who realizes how easily vague admissions criteria based on “personal qualities” can be used to perpetuate injustice.

As for the question of how universities can get their money, if not by groveling before the super-rich and debasing themselves to admit its children: I dunno! How does Caltech do it?

32. Perseph0ne Says:

Scott:

Caltech is very nearly one of a kind. How many Caltech’s could there be before the formula starts to fail? Could Caltech increase it’s student body to say, a class of 600, without seriously undermining the average undergraduate quality?

33. John Sidles Says:

Just so folks know, CalTech’s endowment+tuition revenue covers less than 30% of its operating expenses (or so my CalTech colleagues tell me).

34. Barak Pearlmutter Says:

Yeah it is a real mystery why the great universities in the USA (which has 8 of the 10 top-ranked universities worldwide) can possibly not follow such sage advice as that given here, like test-scores-only admissions policies. How dare they defy the consensus of good test takers throughout low-paid academia that test taking skills are of primary—nay sole—importance?

Summary: if you don’t like the way Harvard runs things (modulo legally proscribed policies) start your own damn university! In fact the University of Chicago and Brandeis were explicitly formed in just such a reaction to nasty antisemitism in Harvard/Yale admissions.

35. Anonymous Says:

Ah, another one of those endearing love-it-or-leave-it types. They cannot articulate why the like the things they like so they argue by public pout instead.

36. Douglas Knight Says:

For if universities can’t be convinced to reward academic excellence, then who can?

I think this has things exactly backwards. We started with finishing schools and tried to turn them into academies.

Schools begun in other ways have more academic focus in their admissions. I’m thinking particularly of engineering schools, such as one that’s been praised on this thread.

37. Claire Kenyon Says:

“And yet, the US university system is widely considered to be the best in the world.”

That’s strange: I have heard this several times in the past year, but had never heard this before moving to the US… At the graduate level, I don’t question it, but at the undergraduate level??

Concretely, is there any reason to send one’s children to one of the Ivy League schools for example, rather than have them go to, say, Oxford or Cambridge (England) for just one tenth of the cost?

38. Douglas Knight Says:

Claire Kenyon:
I couldn’t figure out Cambridge fees. You might be right about the fee for EU nationals, but if you ask the hypothetical, the fees are potentially much higher, though surely still below US fees.

As for the more interesting question, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the explicit claim that the elite US schools are the best in the world. The context might lead you to read that into Aaron Bergman’s comment, but he also said “system.” Many people praise the US system as a whole for less specialization and for the ability to enter school late in life.

I think I’ve heard people measure the quality of the US system by revealed preference of foreign students. Probably that just reveals the value of the US visa.

I’ve also been inspired by rdv’s comment about Japan on the Democritus 3 thread. His comment not withstanding, Japan and France have more intellectual admissions criteria than the US. But my impression is that a prestigious degree is more valuable in those countries. That sort of corruption seems more worrisome to me than corruption of admissions standards. You might have guessed that from my earlier comments, but I also seemed to say that the corruption of the admissions standards is caused by the value of the degree, which this example seems to contradict. So I conclude that there is room for local progress in US admissions.