The folly of well-rounded students

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?

  1. 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.
  2. Find ways to make the functioning of the department depend on upper undergraduates becoming competent in something related to their field.

5 Responses

  1. I recall a Freudian slip by one of the Select Preachers at Oxford.

    “Let us pray for all places of useful and godly learning (pause) Let us pray ALSO for the University of Oxford…”

  2. You have hit upon the internet nerd conception of science very well with the critical thinking point. This confusion is a part of the zeitgeist.

  3. My impression is that you are correct about the success of graduate training in the sciences, but I think graduate training in science is successful because it deviates from the norms of university education. Graduate training in the sciences is modeled on apprenticeship, not scholarship. The aspiring scientist is brought into what a great many scientists actually call a “shop” and set to work on some simple subsidiary function in a large and organized enterprise. I don’t state this as a criticism because the system appears to work very well. One reason it works well in the natural sciences is that there’s lots of things for a relatively inexperienced proto-scientists to do in laboratory or fieldwork site, and the overall task is easily broken into parts. As you say, a competent undergraduate can take measurements and record data, and they can learn a lot by just observing and talking to the professor and older students.

    Now I understand that science is more than washing out test tubes, and the real work is done in the heads of the scientists, but these scientists are normally surrounded by a small army of proto-scientists who are getting on-the-job training. As you move toward the humanistic end of things the work of scholarship moves increasingly inside the head of the scholar. It is very difficult to show a proto-humanist what one is actually doing when one appears to be daydreaming over a book, and the possibilities for a division of labor are much more limited. That’s why so many graduate assistants in the humanities spend their time humping books back to the library and grading undergraduate exercises. That’s one of the reasons so many graduate students in the humanities are so much less happy than graduate students in the scientists.

    So I agree with what you have written, but I don’t think the very successful technique of graduate education in the sciences can be transferred to other areas of study, or to most undergraduates. The rest of us must forego the cheery laboratory and do the best we can in our dreary seminar rooms.

    The biggest problem is to fix undergraduate education in all areas, so that we don’t have so many students going to graduate school for a remedialeducation.

  4. There’s also the matter of eliminating colleges and majors. Why do schools offer degrees that offer both no practical skills AND no enriching theoretical knowledge?

    Also, it used to be that if you went to college, you were probably already rich. Thus, you already had a guaranteed job in Daddy’s business, under his on-the-job tutelage, and eventually would take Daddy’s place.

    So you were free to study the Classics and Latin and Philosophy and so forth. These made you into a gentleman, and universities were, at the time, set up well to do that.

    The problem is these vestigial areas of study remain, but no longer with any pretense of making gentlemen out of the people who study them.

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