Thursday, February 18, 2010

Cookie-cutter Elites

"There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow, but the strongest applicants take the most rigorous secondary school curricula available to them. An ideal four-year preparatory program includes four years of English, with extensive practice in writing; four years of math; four years of science: biology, chemistry, physics, and an advanced course in one of these subjects; three years of history, including American and European history; and four years of one foreign language."
(From Harvard College Admissions)

Next year my son will be applying to colleges, so we are currently collecting information about colleges he might apply to. One thing that strikes me is the degree to which the elite liberal arts colleges almost all want the same thing in their applicants—a standardized record of academic accomplishment whose production will have consumed most of the educational opportunities of four years of high school.

Consider the passage quoted above. Despite the initial disclaimer, the description of an "ideal four-year preparatory program" implies a pretty uniform picture of the ideal student. It is a picture that any reasonably intelligent and hard-working student should be able to fit—provided that he is more interested in getting into Harvard than in getting an education.

Reading? Four years of English will include lots of it, almost all selected and required by someone else—a pretty good way of persuading a student that reading is someone only to be done when someone makes you do it. Science? There are, perhaps, high school age kids who are interested in every science offered by their school, or at least able to fake it. But they are less likely to make a real world contribution than the enthusiast who reads up on relativity and quantum mechanics when he is supposed to be studying Dickens—and thinks biology is icky.

Studying a language is for some people an interesting intellectual activity; speaking a foreign language can be a useful skill. But the world is full of interesting things to do and skills to learn. This particular skill is well short of essential for someone living in the middle of some three hundred million English speakers. So why make it the key to Harvard—in preference to the ability to build furniture, or write sonnets, or survive in the woods?

It is a poorly hidden secret that the reason professors give multiple choice tests is that, whatever their limitations as a tool for measuring learning, at least they are easy to grade. The attitude seems to have trickled down to the admissions officers. Make sure there is a check mark in each box. If too many applicants manage it, they can always be ranked by SAT scores. Perhaps give an extra point to an applicant who seems to actually know something outside the curriculum or care about something other than checking boxes.

If all else fails, flip a coin.

Perhaps I am being unfair—I have not discussed my reaction with any admissions officers. But reading those web pages leaves a bad taste in my mouth.


Gray Woodland said...

No, not very attractive. But I can think of two non-checkboxy ways of looking at the same phenomenon.

The charitable one is to consider this a contemporary update of the old 'liberal education' idea - that everybody, especially those apt one day to wield power, ought to be enough of a generalist to appreciate, co-ordinate, and detect the flimming of the flam even outside their own speciality. With this good intention I sympathize, though not so much the roads it is presently paving.

The uncharitable one is that somebody forced to work on being quite so 'rounded' as this, is unlikely to accumulate enough specialist skills to challenge the assumptions in their courses very sharply. This will probably make teaching easier and more efficient - for both bean-counting and missionary values of 'teaching'.

I've spent most of my career working in education, one way or another. I don't like those values, either.

ehanneken said...

It doesn't stop at the admissions office, of course. Once a student gets in, he's required to take a raft of required courses to graduate. My suspicion is that the division between "things every well-rounded person must know" and "merely elective" is at least partly determined by political power struggles among departments and colleges, but you would know better than I.

Laura Dickerson said...

There was an article in the Boston Globe Magazine a couple of years back, pointing out that Harvard may not be the best place for an undergraduate education, but it is the best fit for kids who have spent their lives working toward getting into Harvard - whatever their geographical or ethnic differences, they all immediately have that in common, and feel at home. That isn't the point of your complaint, but it is related, and I found it interesting.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is not so much with the colleges as it is with the high schools feeding into them. The criteria being used by the college is based on the ideal high school student as defined by secondary education. Which is to say, the kid he is hyper smart in one area, and not so much smart (or interested) in another does not fit the mold of top grade high school student.

Let me give you a specific example: Many top kids come home with GPAs of 4.0 or above. It seems to me that if a kid is getting A's all the time that is not an indication of his smartness, but of the inadequacy of the grading scheme. Nobody is top rate all the time, and if you always get top marks, you are not being sufficiently challenged.

Th freshman reading general relativity will be getting As in physics, but so will the bookish kid who works hard and squeaks by. The test does not measure the difference. If we gave IQ tests that had a special function that any IQ above 110, was graded as 110, we would have the same thing.

So the colleges are merely testing by the only realistic academic proxy they have short of test scores only, and that is not really a good measure, since a large portion of your SAT score is a measure of your test taking ability rather than your academic ability.

Unknown said...

Well, building furniture and surviving in the woods are not taught in high schools as widely as foreign languages are. (On this point, it matters whether machine translation will get good in five, ten or twenty years (or, i suppose, more).) However, asking students to take courses A, B,...,F is tantamount to asking them not to take G, H,... .

It seems no one in my high school met Harvard's science requirements. Being interested in a subject is often a combination of courage and personal taste; if a student takes biology it may not suit his tastes, but he has shown the courage. Harvard clearly wants the sort of people who didn't drop math as soon as they could.

It's hard to critique college entrance requirements without a rant on what's bad about high school education.

One thing that makes admissions easy is math contest results. An impressive score on a high level math contest is an impossible-to-fake demonstration of superb thinking skills, not to mention the hard work of preparation.

Anonymous said...

Prediction matters. Difficulty of course load and SAT scores correlate strongly with conscientiousness and intelligence, which both predict college and career success reasonably well.

Also the fact that you're willing and able to do things you don't like (such as do well in "useless" courses) predicts that you'll be able to do so as part of your job.

In short, education is mostly about signaling.

Michael F. Martin said...

"Cookie-cutter elites" is a good three-word summary of the argument of Louis Menand's latest book, The Marketplace of Ideas.

Highly recommended. I only wish he would have offered more constructive suggestions.

Gray Woodland said...

Aargh. I apologize for the missing comma in comment #1, which makes my argument appear to recommend a liberal education which equips its student to appreciate and co-ordinate flim-flam right across the board!

I am indeed pretty cynical about a lot of things, but I hope not quite so cynical as all that.

Jonathan said...

It fits with my own experience of university, which was that it was really just a continuation of school. The educational system in general tells you what to study and what you should think about it, regardless of your own preferences and ideas, and regardless of the real world outside the educational system.

It's a tragedy that employers persist in valuing university degrees, which gives universities a golden opportunity to say, "Aha, you jump when we say Frog, or no degree!"

Employers seem to regard a university degree as a cheap way of sorting out the clever ones from the stupid ones. In fact it's an incredibly expensive and flawed way of doing so, but the employers don't see it because they don't pay the cost.

I'd like to pass a law forbidding the publication of any exam results from schools and universities. Then employers would be forced to test candidates themselves, and I hope their tests would (a) be more relevant and (b) waste less of the candidate's time. Furthermore, a good candidate would be able to get a job without even attending a university.

It's a perversion of the whole idea of education that schools and universities have become crammers for passing exams.

C E said...

I've read, and my experience seems to match this well enough, that learning a second language changes how you view all language, and that could be an important skill to Harvard.

That said, it may be that this is a weaker correlation than I've been led to believe and that it could be measured by a test instead of requiring years of language.

RKN said...

The first thing I wondered after reading this is why you would encourage him to apply to college at this time (assuming you are). As an alternative why not encourage him to go off on his own path for awhile, something other than traditional college, and see where it takes him. You seem to have a great deal of confidence that independent, non-traditional modes of learning lead to good outcomes. And it's not like he can't go to college later on in life; plus chances are he may get more out of it when/if he does.

jimbino said...

I have to agree with Harvard's standards. Though they've twice accepted me and I've twice declined their offer, I would not esteem a Harvard with lower standards than those you enumerate.

Those standards should be the bare minimum; I graduated high school in a class with 14 National Merit Scholars, all of whom not only surely satisfied those standards but also excelled at activities like music, sports and cabinetmaking.

Even with Harvard's standards, we end up with a Supreme Court replete with lawyers who have never mastered math, science or a foreign language. (Breyer seems to be the exception.)

The last president fluent in a foreign language was Teddy Roosevelt and, of 535 congressmen, fewer than a dozen are competent in math and science. I'd love to know how many speak a foreign language.

America deserves better for all the billions it spends on "education."

Unknown said...

Much as I'm in tune with your general sentiment, I must disagree on learning a second language. I believe that being practically fluent in another language is extremely important as a matter of general education.
This isn't about that second language - it doesn't much matter which one you pick. It is about learning that your mother tongue is full of assumptions - some arbitrary, some founded on culture - that are implied by language but are not universal. In learning a second language, we learn some fundamental lessons about the way we think and argue.

One might argue that "English Language" courses should already do this. Indeed they can, but not in the context of school curricula. In order to discuss the structure of any system, one needs to have an outside platform. While language theory has built such a (notionally scientific) platform, it's too specialized to be taught to general students. (It's also been largely hijacked by politics.)

One might also argue that various sub-languages of English can serve to question each other's precepts. That's an interesting point - listening to a socialist and a randian discuss economics soon convinces you that they're not speaking the same language. The problem is that they're fighting for control over the same vocabulary, and much acrimony ensues from this social competition. The student tends to either take sides (putting on blindfolds of a different color), or ends up hovering uncertainly in intellectual mid-air. (So do many teachers.)

So I argue that the best practical way to teach students about the implied preconceptions of their mother tongue, is to teach them another language. That one could live a happy life without ever needing to speak to a non-English speaker does not really bear on this.

-- perry

David Friedman said...

Jimbino doesn't want Harvard to lower its standards, and Perry is in favor of the language requirement. It seems to me that both are missing my central point, perhaps because it was unclear.

I'm not proposing lower standards but changing them. The current ones pressure students to all learn the same things--a list of things large enough to consume pretty nearly all of four years of high school.

That strikes me as both a worse education and worse evidence of ability than a set of standards which assumes that different people have different interests and that taking everything on Harvard's list is evidence not of intellectual ability but of desire to get into Harvard--even at the cost of getting less well educated.

I agree with Perry that learning another language is a useful intellectual experience--but I can offer several alternative experiences, not on Harvard's list, that are similarly useful.

Learning relativity and/or quantum mechanics, for instance, provides an even more profound philosophical lesson--that the real world not only doesn't have to fit our perceptions and intuitions of it, it doesn't fit them. Learning economics gives one a whole new way of understanding the part of the world around you made up of human beings. Studying history, well beyond what a high school is likely to teach--in particular, reading a variety of primary sources--again gives an enlightening view of the world.

But the student who has learned all of those things but didn't take a language, or didn't take biology, is apparently not what Harvard wants, or at least not what they say they want.

Andrew said...

I find their standards to be reasonable, and I can tell you that most of the top end university admissions office greatly value unique experiences over cookie-cutter academics, since nearly all applicants have similar basic academic qualifications.

High school in the US is very basic stuff; at a well-run school all of these requirements are usually valuable regardless of what field you go into. English teaches you how to understand and communicate with language (and maybe today, write and comment on the web?). bio, chem, physics teaches you the fundamentals of how the world works. Math starts with every-day useful skills, and advanced math gives you the fundamentals to learn more science. History teaches you the big picture. Foreign language teaches you more about English and more about a different culture so you won't be a xenophobe.

This is simply basic knowledge that any college-bound person should have. These classes generally match up with the most challenging curriculum that high schools have. Harvard provides this information so they don't get 50,000 questions of "What high school classes should I be taking?".

As an educated guess I'd say that 70% of Harvard applicants have nearly identical "ideal" academic and SATs, the reason being that for most smart kids high school and SATs are pretty easy.

However, only about 10% get in. So the real differentiator is not academics, but what you do beyond them.

If a kid isn't taking the most challenging classes in high school, they would need to supply some good reasons why they aren't (i.e. I didn't take AP Calc II because I was busy writing Apache and touring the country figure skating). If a kid is home schooled they're probably learning way faster than their high school contemporaries; they just need a way to demonstrate it.

Steven E. Landsburg said...

I quite agree with you regarding the kid who is studying relativity when he's been assigned to read Dickens---or for that matter the kid who's doing the opposite. But when it comes to the kid who knows how to survive in the woods, well---Harvard teaches some skills and not others; the skills that Harvard teaches are probably a lot more complementary with knowing relativity or Dickens than they are with knowing how to survive in the woods. It certainly makes sense for Harvard to prefer kids whose skills are complementary with what Harvard teaches, no?

Jonathan said...

I suppose, ultimately, if you don't agree with Harvard's list of requirements, then you don't go to Harvard. But, if all good universities have the same requirements, that's bad. There should be diversity and real competition.

Devin Finbarr said...

Andrew is correct.

As freshman at Yale, we used to talk about the "hook" that got us in. Getting good grades and high SAT scores is just table stakes and is quite easily achieved. Admissions officers look for unique traits that make an applicant stand out. Stuff like: being on a junior national hockey team, being a star clarinetist, interning in the Senate, etc.

I also highly recommend this discussion by a former Princeton admissions officer in which he talks about the process.

My real critique of the university is that it admits so much human talent, but then squanders it. Very little is asked of students once they are attending school. Perhaps they will find a unique personal pursuit, such as starting a company. But most elite students are way too focused on grades and school work.

The worst are perhaps the private high schools. A place like Phillips Exeter accumulates a great number of students with unique talents - programming, doing architecture, etc. But then when they attend the school the academics are so intense that all the students end up slaving away doing the exact same school work. What a waste.

Alex Perrone said...

"There is no single academic path we expect all students to follow,..."
In my high school I believe we had at most 1 elective per quarter, so our academic paths, formally speaking, were almost completely chosen for us. The amount of academic freedom is already so limited in high schools that this statement is basically a joke.

Harvard's standards might be OK if what they recommended was taught well, but it is not. Two examples: (1) In English we were always asked to write way too much on books that didn't always interest us. Through this practice we acquired one of the worst academic habits I can imagine: getting comfortable with writing BS. With the pressure to turn something in, get a good grade, and get into an elite college, there is really no alternative. I can't believe how much this was beaten into me, but as it is subsided in me in college, for others it hadn't. On more than one occasion I have edited someone's essay and they said, "Oh yeah don't worry about this page, it's just BS." Come again? Elite college students are thus experts in BS, whether for admissions essays, academics, resumes, etc. Sadly, I think this fundamentally affects how these students evaluate claims. They never discover what it is really like to think for themselves outside of producing an academic product for some reward.

(2) Science in high schools is basically training for lab assistants, not scientists. You learn theories as if they are settled and the "labs" consist of a set of steps you follow to confirm the theory you already learned as fact. I would recommend that students design at least one of their own experiments. Let them try to find out on their own how to test an equation, how to collect their own data, and how to criticize their conclusions. Let them learn on their own.

Scott said...

The author and readers of this blog might find this short essay on the ideal university by anarchist philosopher Robert Paul Wolff intriguing:

Of particular interest to this discussion are Wolff's views on the ideal curriculum:

"Considering the history of experimental undergraduate education in America, it
might be natural to suppose that I have in mind some special set of required courses as
the core of the curriculum of my ideal college... Not a bit of it! Those programs are perfect for your typical bright, well-prepared,
directionless undergraduate, for whom college is a way station on the road to a career in
one of the professions, and who is content to sample bits and snatches of Greek tragedy
and philosophy, Russian literature in translation, history, sociology, anthropology, and
perhaps even the laboratory method in the life sciences. But the students at my ideal
college will be recruited not for the equanimity of their idle curiosity but for the intensity
and passion of their thirst for knowledge, and I hope and assume that many of them will
be possessed by very specific epistemic obsessions. I have in mind someone like the
young E. O. Wilson, who was fixated on ants at a time when the social behavior of
animals was utterly déclassé in Biology."