In a recent article for The New Republic (no doubt inspired by that publication’s nascent affections for controversial and unsubstantiated indictments of elite education), Harvard professor Steven Pinker rightly lambasts the Ivies for perpetuating admissions standards that fall short of pure meritocratic ideals. Students who brave the “murky bottleneck” of selective admissions teams have access to both “an astonishing library system” and “a professoriate with erudition in an astonishing range of topics, including many celebrity teachers and academic rock stars.” I agree wholeheartedly with Pinker that to fill the halls of Ivy League schools with anyone less than the best is an unconscionable waste of tremendous resources.
But I cannot abide by Pinker’s appallingly backwards recommendation that we cultivate meritocracy by relying on the narrow-minded, soulless caprice of standardized testing. His disregard for “holistic” admissions demonstrates more than jaded cynicism; it is an endorsement of the exact kind of incoherent, unpragmatic and unmeritocratic pedagogical philosophy that Yale and its peer institutions would do well to shy away from.
Calling standardized testing a “magic measuring stick,” Pinker attempts to downplay the well-documented correlation between socioeconomic status (SES) and SAT scores. With maddening obfuscation, he summons the most conservative estimates he can find, which puts SES-SAT correlation at only 0.25 on a –1 to 1 scale. That of course neglects an infinitely more transparent statistic, published earlier this year in The Washington Post: “families earning more than $200,000 a year average a combined score of 1,714, while students from families earning under $20,000 a year average a combined score of 1,326.” Pinker then attempts to explain away such discrepancies by suggesting that “smarter parents have smarter kids who get higher SAT scores.”
Think about that for a moment. Pinker wants to make SATs the number one criterion for admissions on the view that merit is reducible to eugenics. Let’s make the dubious assumption that talent is an entirely hereditary trait. And the far less controversial assumption that recipients of an Ivy League degree have an extraordinary advantage in the job market, and that acceptance to Ivy League schools is to be based exclusively on SATs. Under these conditions, Ivy League schools would be complicit in perpetuating a system of socioeconomic inequality essentially predicated on hereditary caste. Far from being a meritocracy, this is positively dystopian.
So by Pinker’s own logic, the claim that SATs are a valid way “to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system” is self-defeating. Despite his inveighing against Gladwell-esque theories of socioeconomic determinism, he ends up with a repugnantly Darwinian vision of college admissions at odds with our most basic sense of compassion. Were this vision to become a reality, we would be faced with a moral imperative to dismantle Pinker’s so-called meritocracy. Fortunately, it will never come to that.
For one thing, Pinker and myself probably agree that talent is not necessarily hereditary (and this is one reason SAT scores should play some role in assessing applicant candidacy). But more fundamentally, I think Pinker misunderstands how close we already are to a kind of just meritocracy already.
There are metrics of intellectual and leadership capabilities that are nonnumerical and unambiguous. These include starting a company in high school, conducting original scientific research, coordinating a political campaign or writing and publishing a textbook. Someone who scores 50 points lower on the SAT because they were composing masterful symphonies should not be penalized for their supposed “lack” of measurable talent. And the reality is these achievements matter far more to society than a 2400 SAT. Maybe this is why Yalies don’t brag about their test scores — they just aren’t significant in light of their peers’ prodigious accomplishments, which actually have the potential to do good in the world.
Achievement cannot be codified so easily by an objective, depersonalized formula, even one that purports to account for grades, essays and other non-standardized metrics. In any case, the ability to maintain respectable grades and scores while spending eight hours a day practicing music — or working a job to support one’s family — suggests far greater intellect and discipline than what perfect test scores can indicate. Before Pinker lambasts Ivy League students, perhaps he should actually talk to a few of them: about science, about law, about Nietzsche. I think he’d worry less if he did.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshmanin Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.