What is best for Harvard

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing


If you haven’t read Steve Pinker’s The Trouble With Harvard in The New Republic, I highly recommend it.

… Like many observers of American universities, I used to believe the following story. Once upon a time Harvard was a finishing school for the plutocracy, where preppies and Kennedy scions earned gentleman’s Cs while playing football, singing in choral groups, and male-bonding at final clubs, while the blackballed Jews at CCNY founded left-wing magazines and slogged away in labs that prepared them for their Nobel prizes in science. Then came Sputnik, the ’60s, and the decline of genteel racism and anti-Semitism, and Harvard had to retool itself as a meritocracy, whose best-and-brightest gifts to America would include recombinant DNA, Wall Street quants, The Simpsons, Facebook, and the masthead of The New Republic.

This story has a grain of truth in it: Hoxby has documented that the academic standards for admission to elite universities have risen over the decades. But entrenched cultures die hard, and the ghost of Oliver Barrett IV still haunts every segment of the Harvard pipeline.

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. At an orientation session for new faculty, we were told that Harvard “wants to train the future leaders of the world, not the future academics of the world,” and that “We want to read about our student in Newsweek 20 years hence” (prompting the woman next to me to mutter, “Like the Unabomer”). 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).

The lucky students who squeeze through this murky bottleneck find themselves in an institution that is single-mindedly and expensively dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. It has an astonishing library system that pays through the nose for rare manuscripts, obscure tomes, and extortionately priced journals; exotic laboratories at the frontiers of neuroscience, regenerative medicine, cosmology, and other thrilling pursuits; and a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars. The benefits of matching this intellectual empyrean with the world’s smartest students are obvious. So why should an ability to play the bassoon or chuck a lacrosse ball be given any weight in the selection process?

The answer, ironically enough, makes the admissocrats and Deresiewicz strange bedfellows: the fear of selecting a class of zombies, sheep, and grinds. But as with much in the Ivies’ admission policies, little thought has given to the consequences of acting on this assumption. Jerome Karabel has unearthed a damning paper trail showing that in the first half of the twentieth century, holistic admissions were explicitly engineered to cap the number of Jewish students. Ron Unz, in an exposé even more scathing than Deresiewicz’s, has assembled impressive circumstantial evidence that the same thing is happening today with Asians.

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. A comparison to a Harvard freshman class would be like a match between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals.

Pinker’s position is similar to that of some of his distinguished predecessors on the Harvard faculty (see below). The ideal school Pinker is describing is called “Caltech” :-)

Defining Merit:

[The Chosen, Jerome Karabel] … In a pair of letters that constituted something of a manifesto for the wing of the faculty favoring strict academic meritocracy, Wilson explicitly advocated admitting fewer private school students and commuters, eliminating all preferences for athletes, and (if funds permitted) selecting “the entering class regardless of financial need on the basis of pure merit.” The issue of athletes particularly vexed Wilson, who stated flatly: “I would certainly rule out athletic ability as a criterion for admission of any sort,” adding that “it bears a zero relationship to the performance later in life that we are trying to predict.” He also argued that “it may well be that objective test scores are our only safeguards against an excessive number of athletes only, rich playboys, smooth characters who make a good impression in interviews, etc.” As a parting shot, Wilson could not resist accusing Ford of anti-intellectualism; citing Ford’s desire to change Harvard’s image, Wilson asked bluntly: “What’s wrong with Harvard being regarded as an egghead college? Isn’t it right that a country the size of the United States should be able to afford one university in which intellectual achievement is the most important consideration?”

E. Bright Wilson was professor of chemistry and member of the National Academy of Sciences, later a recipient of the National Medal of Science. The last quote from Wilson could easily have come from anyone who went to Caltech! Indeed, both E. Bright Wilson and his son, Nobel Laureate Ken Wilson (theoretical physics), earned their doctorates at Caltech (the father under Linus Pauling, the son under Murray Gell-Mann). …

Some have quibbled with Pinker’s assertion that only 5 or 10% of the Harvard class is chosen with academic merit as the sole criterion. They note the overall high scores of Harvard students as evidence against this claim. But a simple calculation makes it obvious that the top 2000 or so high school seniors (including international students, who would eagerly attend Harvard if given the opportunity), ranked by brainpower alone, would be much stronger intellectually than the typical student admitted to Harvard today. (Vanderbilt researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow, mentioned above by Pinker, study a population that is roughly 1 in 10k in ability. About two hundred US high school seniors with this level of talent are available each year; adding in international students increases the total significantly.)

Defining Merit: … Bender also had a startlingly accurate sense of how many truly intellectually outstanding students were available in the national pool. He doubted whether more than 100-200 candidates of truly exceptional promise would be available for each year’s class. This number corresponds to (roughly) +4 SD in mental ability. Long after Bender resigned, Harvard still reserved only 10 percent of its places (roughly 150 spots) for “top brains”. (See category “S” listed at bottom.) …

Typology used for all applicants, at least as late as 1988:

1. S First-rate scholar in Harvard departmental terms.

In the end, however, I have to agree with old Wilbur Bender, the Harvard admissions dean who fought off idealistic faculty committees in the the 1950s. A Harvard that followed Pinker’s advice would, after a generation or two, be reduced in status, prestige, and endowment size, to a mere Caltech or Ecole Normale Superieure. (Both schools, by some estimates, produce Nobel Prize winning alumni at a rate several times higher than Harvard.)

What is good for our nation, and for civilization as a whole, is not what is best for Harvard.

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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