Steven Pinker makes some very good observations about the silliness of the admissions policies at elite universities. At his own institution, Harvard, less than ten percent of students are chosen for academic merit, while the rest are chosen for irrelevant extracurricular activities and makework philanthropy (or racial and legacy set-asides). Once they arrive on campus, they skip classes to continue their sport or music or whatever it was that impressed the admissions personnel in the first place, and the first-class academic environment ends up being wasted on most of them. I agree with Pinker that standardized tests would probably do a better job of getting an intellectually engaging student body than nonacademic hobbies. Pinker also deserves credit for citing Ron Unz approvingly on anti-Asian discrimination (although he’s not bold enough to mention Unz’s main conclusion about anti-white gentile discrimination) and for criticizing the idea that one goes to college to “build a self” and “become a soul”, as if those who don’t attend college aren’t “selves” and don’t have “souls”. In fact, I think Pinker’s own vision of a college education remains too general–learning general thinking skills rather than a concrete discipline. I’ve argued already that universities are not designed well for soul engineering, for a liberal education. They are well designed for sciences (defined as some progressively accumulating body of knowledge to which university personnel contribute through research), decently designed for learning a profession (although I’m not sure this couldn’t equally well be done elsewhere), and poorly designed for humanities (where the “output” is supposed to be the refinement and wisdom of the graduates). I know this sounds bad to my humanistic readers, but I think one should only go to college if one has in mind a career that requires it, and the one with a high ranking in one’s field–usually a big, secular, research university–is usually best. It’s not that being a refined Christian gentleman with a deep connection to one’s civilization isn’t more important; I’m just not sold on the suitability of college for this endeavor.
For a few years, I’ve been deeply involved in the graduate student admissions process in the Physics and Astronomy department at my own university (not Harvard, but one of the best programs in my state). At the graduate level, there’s none of this nonsense. Consider the differences. Graduate admissions are controlled by the department, rather than the college or university. If you want to get admitted to our graduate physics program, you must convince a committee of physics professors that you are a promising physicist. We don’t care what sports you played or how much you care about homeless people. That’s because we’re planning to draw you into our own work, and our own careers are tied to bringing in people who actually succeed. Women and NAMs get only a slight preference in admissions (because funding agencies like NSF let us know that they have ways of punishing us if we get too un-diverse). They get a more significant preference in scholarships (because we’ve been given money targeted to them), but that isn’t a big deal given that the great majority of our students are supported by TAs or RAs. Decisions are primarily based on GRE scores, grades in physics and math classes, and letters of recommendation (the latter being our way to gauge research potential; most undergraduates have some research experience). What keeps the process rational is exactly what people always criticize us for: running the program with student edification being a means to the department’s scientific output as well as an end in itself. And yet it is being a means to an objective end that makes the students’ training more securely achieved. If our goal was just to teach students “how to think critically” rather than getting them to actually do their own publishable science, the temptation would be irresistible to define success down. (For example, we’d end up with “Just make fun of creationists. Congratulations, you’re a scientist.”)
So, how to make undergraduate admission more like graduate admission?
- More influence of what faculty from distinct departments want from their majors. (And if you don’t know what major you want to apply to, you shouldn’t be going to college.) Chances are, none of them care about “life experiences” or things like that.
- Find ways to make the functioning of the department depend on upper undergraduates becoming competent in something related to their field.
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