steven pinker, do you want a meritocracy? YOU CAN’T HANDLE A MERITOCRACY!!!!

In case you’re wondering, I’m obviously Tom Cruise and Steven Pinker is Jack Nicholson.

Recently, Steven Pinker wrote a response to William Deresiewicz’ recent article/book, which claims that the Ivy League is a horrible soulless place. Overall, I concur with Pinker’s retort. Deresiewicz doesn’t offer evidence to show that careerism has gotten any worse, he makes a broad over generalization about non-elite college students, and he overstates the cases that non-elite colleges are under appreciated refuges of learning (although a few are). The bottom line for Pinker is that the Ivy League is where talented kids should go and we should spend our efforts making it more academic by emphasizing standardized tests in admissions and de-emphasizing things likes sports and music.

I could quibble here and there, but instead, I’d like to focus on what I think is a profound problem with Pinker’s retort. I share Pinker’s desire to create a more academic environment in higher education, but nowhere in the essay does Pinker come to grips with why the system of elite college admissions is the way it is. Why, exactly, does Harvard, and most other competitive schools, use a mix of academics, extra-curriculars, race, legacy, and geography? Here’s the simple answer:

Race. And money. But really, race.

Here’s a more subtle answer:

College admissions policies are the result of multiple political and financial pressures. Management scholars call it “resource dependence.” Your organization must be set up in a way to keep the resources flowing. Elite colleges need political legitimacy, scientific & scholarly legitimacy, prestige, a positive self-image, and loads of cash. A purely academic admission policy does not accomplish this complex goal. The current admission policy does.

Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen is the most comprehensive study ever conducted on elite college admissions and it explains in detail why the admissions system at Harvard looks the way it does. He focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, but versions of the policies are now standard at other leading research universities.

Roughly, it goes something like this. First, the “docket system” (sorting people into geographical regions) was intended to limit Jews from the Northeast, mainly from New York and New Jersey, and favor specific private schools. Second, the emphasis on being “well-rounded” was designed to limit Asians who had trouble with English and didn’t do “artsy” things. Third, affirmative action was introduced to bolster African American and Latino enrollments in the post-Civil Right era. Fourth, legacy is simply a fancy word for “pay to play.” Fifth, the types of people who give the most back in donations are not the artists or painters that Pinker rightfully praises. They are those who do “Wall Street,” and related careers like “Big Law,” and they can be identified by extra-curricular activities in high school. College admissions has evolved beyond these basic policies but the overall structure remains. Academic performance is one very important factor, but there are others.

If Pinker were to have his way and shift to a strictly academic admissions system, the following would happen:

  • A huge increase in Asian enrollments
  • A modest decrease in White enrollments, but with strong Jewish  enrollments
  • A substantial reduction of African American and Latino enrollments
  • An increase in people who don’t give back
  • A very angry group of industry leaders, senators, governors, and other powerful people who are really angry that their kid didn’t get in.

Harvard as we see it today would cease to exist. You’d instead see it turned into something like Berkeley or Cal Tech, which are White minority institutions. How would he deal with the inevitable blow back?

I applaud Steven Pinker for decrying the dilution of academic culture. I’ve spent my entire career in places like Berkeley, Chicago, Ann Arbor, and Bloomington and I don’t regret it. But still, unless he can explain how he’ll solve this complex political problem that admissions policies are designed to solve, his preening is more of a show and not serious attempt at academic reform.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz/From Black Power 

Written by fabiorojas

September 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

Posted in education, ethics, fabio

11 Responses

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  1. +1

    Liked by 1 person

    Andrew Gelman

    September 8, 2014 at 1:11 am

  2. I thought the conventional wisdom was that you can still prioritize academic achievement and still get a diverse student body if you devalue test scores and weigh grades more heavily (how heavily, I don’t know). Plus you also get the benefit of the fact that grades predict college graduation as well as–and probably even better than–standardized test scores.



    September 8, 2014 at 1:28 am

  3. @joshth76: GPA *is* academic achievement while tests are aptitude measurement (i.e., SAT tests you on general cognitive skills not course material). On the second point, let’s see… this study shows roughly equal coefficients of high school percentile and ability on college GPA – page 571 of

    This AERJ article shows that h.g. GPA and standardized scores vary in their predictive ability:

    Reading (quickly) through these studies support that GPA in high school and test scores both work fairly well, but not uniformly across groups. There isn’t much evidence suggesting that school GPA is better.

    But Pinker’s argument isn’t about the relative measure of achievement vs. aptitude. It’s about academic vs. non-academic factors in admission.

    Liked by 1 person


    September 8, 2014 at 1:54 am

  4. I’m glad you wrote about this article — I read it and it really bugged me.

    My complaints are somewhat different, though: first, that Pinker is way too complacent about standardized tests as a “magic measuring stick” of “the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system.” Yeah, cause when I think SATs, that’s exactly what I see.

    Moreover, while I agree with him that many elite privates effectively discriminate against Asians, the evidence Pinker marshalls in support of his pro-SAT case is not so great. I’m happy to see Jerry Karabel cited, but Ron Unz’s arguments have been pretty effectively challenged (e.g.

    Pinker also cites Benbow and Lubinski on the creative excellence of people who were very high scorers as kids. But I thought the Benbow and Lubinski article I read, at least (this one:, way oversold those kids’ later achievements, to the point of being borderline dishonest. I don’t know — maybe I just know too many people with tenure at research universities to buy that that’s a good indicator that you’re one of the “outstanding creators of modern culture, constituting a precious human-capital resource.”

    So I didn’t like the article, or at least the last third. And I do agree with Fabio that elite admissions are a complex political process and simply declaring they should be totally different is not very realistic.

    But at the same time, acknowledging that there are complex reasons elite admissions are the way they are doesn’t mean they can’t be changed. After all, the Jews eventually got in. And even without radical overhaul, there are clearly tweaks that could make them fairer. For example, Harvard and Princeton got rid of early action for a while, a move that benefited those with less cultural capital. But they eventually backtracked and reinstated it, a step in the wrong direction. Ongoing pressure to limit the advantage given to legacies, to improve economic diversity — these kinds of things have real effects. The fact that there would be blowback to any change doesn’t mean that change isn’t worth pushing for.



    September 8, 2014 at 12:14 pm

  5. @fabio, I was really thinking of Sigal Alon and Marta Tienda’s work, which IIRC show that elite universities need affirmative action so much because they rely on test scores which are more racially stratified than are grades. I also think they show grades are a better predictor of college graduation than are test scores, but I was hedging because you are right, there are other studies that show they have a similar predictive ability.



    September 8, 2014 at 4:27 pm

  6. This question is a bit odd. Imagine it’s 1950 and someone proposes that college X start accepting women, and your critique was “How would you deal with the inevitable blow back?” Berkeley and Cal Tech also seem to be doing well despite any blowback that may have occurred in the past.

    That’s not to say that there won’t be blowback, but rather that it would be unlikely for the blowback to actually cause Harvard to collapse.

    For the question of standardized scores, I think Greg Walton’s article “Affirmative Meritocracy” does a good job of capturing what to add or subtract from SAT scores from members of each ethnic group to make them equivalent predictors. Here’s an excerpt:

    “… a woman who receives a 600 on the SAT-Math test on average has the math ability of a man with a score of 620–630, and an ethnic minority student who receives a combined score of 1800 on the SAT has, on average, the intellectual ability and potential of a nonminority student with a score of 1850–1890.”

    While this article suggests that maybe we shouldn’t all be like Cal Tech, it also means that the SAT bonus given to ethnic minorities in some institutions is excessive, and unfair to Whites and Asians.

    Also, discrimination against Asians in admissions is normative, and isn’t considered racism by conventional standards, so colleges don’t have to deal with much criticism. The one state where they would have to deal with such criticism is California (because of the high percentage of Asians) but they have different policies there. My prediction is that no one is going to do anything about it, but a few decades down the road people will conveniently regret this discrimination post hoc.


    Chris M

    September 9, 2014 at 1:40 pm

  7. My understanding was that standardized test scores actually overpredict college GPA for african americans while underpredicting them for asians. I started reading the Walton paper, but while it sometimes used the language of underestimation it didn’t actually claim that the academic performance we see is poorly predicted by such scores. Instead it was about stereotype threat. But if stereotype threat always applies except for certain experimental treatments, then standardized scores would still be accurate predictors of performance.



    September 9, 2014 at 4:04 pm

  8. Now I got it. Of course, when Asians scored low on SAT, SAT did have strong predictive power; when Asians start to score high on SAT, it becomes, well, first of all, not totally useless since my group, on average, scores higher, hmm…, than other groups….But we gotta consider other factors so that my group will always rank high on the list.

    It is true that standardized tests do not perfectly (or even far from that) measure one’s academic aptitude or predict future success, but can anyone think of a fairer (or better) measure, a measure that does not involve potentially any black-box operation with ever-changing standards? Bottom line, this is just a game about resource (re-)distribution along group lines (i.e., in this case race), and those who have more political and financial leverage in the game have the final say, not one’s pathetic grades or useless academic aptitude, right?



    September 11, 2014 at 1:50 am

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  10. Good identification of the overall “problem” for Ivy League admissions. But, it reminds one of a fact that is being overlooked. Why do so many people want to be part of a system that denies the majority admission? The process reminds me of the Groucho Marx quote: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

    The Ivies, including Stanford and Chicago, have essentially had their legitimacy flattened by greater access to knowledge via technology (MOOCs); a resurgence of liberal arts colleges (Williams, Reed, etc); including Great Books colleges, (St Johns, St Thomas Aquinas); public Ivies, (the irony) University of California, Virginia, University of Texas; and even foreign universities are tapping into the pool of university training, er, “education.”

    Here in California, one can be goof-off throughout high school, get a GED and subsequently enroll 2-years at Santa Monica City College and get direct admission to UCLA; same goes for De Anza College and Berkeley. One can graduate in the same 4-years with less cost.

    I’ve watched some of the classes offered by Yale and Stanford via Coursera, iTunes, Udacity, and they the same things I learned at SDSU. In some case the same or similar materials and textbooks. (Oh, and I do quite well without an Ivy League degree . . .)

    The true battle for access to prestigious careers and influence and power (in the case of people wanting to work as government technocrats) and money, if you’re a Wall Street type, is admission to graduate programs: Law (top 14) Business (top 25 MBA programs) and Medicine (top 20 programs). This is where people have greater access to a more meritocratic and just admission process with greater access to resources.



    September 16, 2014 at 12:32 am

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