The Perfect Student

Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

Related Post Roulette

121 Responses

  1. Kim says:

    If there’s any way to find ’em, MIT and Caltech will.

    The talented, the creative are people who can sometimes be genuinely hard to find. But that’s what Science Fairs/Science Olympiad are for. That’s what competitions in general are for.

    Be a published author before you graduate high school — tell me that shouldn’t count for more than your English class grades, if you’re applying for Creative Writing!

    Should we be trying to find the talent and nourish it? Of course. If we want America to outcompete other countries, having cool ways that someone can get ahead by being creative is pretty much the way to go.

    Proof’s in the pudding, mostly, and if we give kids a good chunk of time, the brilliant ones can impress us, regardless of grades.Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Kim says:

      Kim, I don’t think the issue for the authors I quoted (other than perhaps Adam Grant) have is that they are getting perfect grades but aren’t published authors. I think they are most annoyed by the students who *both* have perfect grades and are published authors. Their distaste is for those who do well in all dimensions.Report

      • Kim in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I doubt there are ten high school students currently being serialized in “real” magazines.
        I doubt there are more than 100 current high school students with a published novel from a reputable publishing company.

        I’m not talking “got published in something just for kids, evaluated on a “just for kids” basis”.

        (also, I’m rather unsure on the legality of high school students accepting work on commission or by the word. Anyone know?)Report

  2. Kim says:

    The problem is less perfectionism, and more pedagogical teachings that disadvantage the people we most want in the field. Physics spends tons of time on analytical solutions that aren’t worth a dime in the real world (where you mostly do numerical simulations). And people who aren’t good at the analytic solutions then start to think they aren’t good at physics — regardless of how well they’d do in the field.Report

    • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Kim says:

      That’s because the academy is training future professors, not the workforce.Report

      • Patrick in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        This depends on the program and the academy.

        Here at Caltech, there is definitely an underlying assumption that you will be leaving here to go to graduate school (probably somewhere where your classes will actually be easier than the ones you took as an undergrad). That’s particularly pronounced among the older faculty.

        The younger ones are more supportive of electives that teach real world issues. They have spent more of their career working at research institutions other than academic ones, or they have had an industry post-doc, and of course they’re also closer to the current crop of PhD students, and they know how few tenure-track jobs there are out there, even for people who got PhDs in physics from Caltech.Report

      • Kim in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:

        not even. Future Physics Professors are going to be doing quantitative solutions. Because that’s where the interesting problems are. Most analytical solutions have already been found. So you either model on the computer, or you do engineering (not to knock engineering, I love blue LEDs!)Report

      • Way back when I worked at Bell Labs, there was a joke that the Labs typically hired 25% of all new physics PhD… and occasionally one of them even got to do physics. To various other articles and comments that have appeared in the last week or so, Bell Labs’ actual written-down philosophy in those days was to hire smart people who could solve technical problems and teach them the business. Anyone who graduates with a PhD in physics has picked up one or more valuable generic skills along the way: math, hardware design, software, materials science etc. One of the best real-time programmers who ever worked for me had his PhD in plasma physics.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Mad Rocket Scientist says:


        Actually, no, there are plenty of analytical solutions to be found, and being able to do the analytical analysis is key.

        As a guy who lives & breathes numerical solutions, knowing how to find the analytical solutions is still critical, because those analytical methods form the foundations of the numerical methods. If you don’t understand the analytical formulation, you risk missing the errors in your numerical methods & solutions.

        Now if you only teach the analytical without addressing the numerical, you are handicapping your students, but it is a mistake to think that you can know the numerical without understanding the analytical and still be a scientist.Report

  3. Kim says:

    Another issue with the “Perfect Student” idea. It actually is an ideal, in a lot of fields. Many fields you really don’t need hotdogging creativity much — pattern analysis will do you much better in the long run than being “creative” as a doctor, for example.Report

  4. LeeEsq says:

    The American college application process including the SAT was developed as a way to keep out Jews in the early 20th century. Before that many colleges and universities had entrance exams like their European and Japanese counterparts. In a biography of Lincoln that I read, his eldest son apparently failed Harvard’s entrance exam on the first try.

    In the early 20th century, this meant that a lot of first generation Jewish-Americans got in and kind of ruined the atmosphere by taking academics seriously. Our elite colleges weren’t really intellectually elite until the mid-20th century for the most part. Hence, Fitzgerlad’s remark that Princeston was the best country club in the United States. Having a bunch of ardent students and strivers kind of ruined this so the colleges wanted to keep us out.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I’ve noticed that Vikram already said this in the essay. Oops.Report

      • Vikram Bath in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Frankly, it seems plausible to me (not commenting on the actual history since I don’t know it). Pre-SAT, the thought was probably that they were getting ahead by studying a lot more. The SAT being timed and standardized might have been seen as a way to level the playing field.

        The history of college admissions has been adding criterion upon criterion as administrators become unhappy with what their last batch of changes wrought.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I’ve certainly known people who have aced their SATs and done horribly in high school. Although I’m pretty sure high school grades provide a pretty good indicator (better than SATs if I recall) of college performance.Report

    • Alan Scott in reply to LeeEsq says:

      Now I’m curious though… How was the SAT meant to keep out Jews?Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The SAT was developed in the early 20th century by the people that wanted to keep the Jews out.

      • Alan Scott in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The ugly motive seems perfectly plausible, but I don’t really see why Jewish students were expected to do worse on the test. Was it a vocabulary thing?Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Q: Suppose you are buying a suit. The coat costs $400, the vest costs $100, and the pants cost $200. How much would you spend if you decided to purchase everything but the vest?

        1) $700
        2) $500
        3) $600
        4) My cousin Murray could get you that exact suit for $300. Seriously. That same exact suit.

        The answer is 3.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Alan Scott says:

        The SATs were intended to be more intuitive rather than something you could study and grind for. The prejudices at the time saw Jews as not being that intuitive even if we were good at studying.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Manoman, Lee. You really believe that?


        (No, like really?)Report

      • Chris in reply to Alan Scott says:

        Lee’s not entirely wrong. The admission processes in the first decades of the 20th century was largely designed as a way of keeping out the socially undesirable, which mostly meant anyone who wasn’t a New England WASP, and Jewish and Catholic people from New York who were mostly 2nd and 3rd generation members of continental European immigrant families were the primary targets. There were even quotas at a lot of East Coast schools, though they didn’t last long.

        The SAT was not specifically developed for that purpose, so he’s got that wrong, though it was used as a tool in that process by some schools.Report

      • I admit I didn’t read the entire wikipedia article, but it doesn’t seem to discuss keeping Jews out as a motivation.

        I think Chris is right, though.Report

  5. Burt Likko says:

    How are so many students able to so perfectly recite so much Alexander Pope so quickly? Because objective testing, crushing burdens of homework, and teachers harried to do more with less have incentivized them so.

    How many of those students who recited the poetry so accurately understand what Pope meant? How many of them can explain the poems in their own words? Likely only one or two of the thirty, if that. They weren’t asked to understand the poem. They weren’t asked to critique it, or to process its message.

    Colleges ought to be searching for the students who can demonstrate higher-level educational skills. They are, after all, institutions of learning. Ruminations of this nature leave me apprehensive that only the bracing effect of a lingering culture of diversity and activism is all that prevents colleges from turning into finishing vats for perfect-on-paper people whose principle skill set consists of regurgitation and conformity.

    Well, they’ll be great consumers and fine office drones, I guess.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Burt Likko says:

      For what it’s worth, there are poems that I was “forced” to read in my 20s that I am only now saying “THANK GOODNESS I READ THAT POEM!” and poems that I am now saying “wait, how did this poem go? Who was it by? I think it was originally Greek…” and I am whipping my past self for not paying attention to something that was going to be important in a couple of decades.

      It took 20 years for the lessons to sink in. Would I have encountered, say, Pope in my 40’s? The odds aren’t great. Now, is it likely that I will remember Pope now that I am in my 40’s?

      Hells Yes.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Jaybird says:

        I’d agree that it takes the accumulation of a certain quantity of life experience before a lot of art, including much poetry, starts to really resonate. High school kids just haven’t lived long enough to get (a lot of) it yet.Report

      • Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

        that’s no reason we have to make them hate it though. Spice it up with some stuff that kids will get.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

        Make them hate it. Make them laugh at it. Make them look at the hundreds of youtubes of five year olds reciting “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” and giggle at each one.

        And then, 20 years later, let them say “holy crap… there was a lot going on in that poem.”Report

    • How are so many students able to so perfectly recite so much Alexander Pope so quickly?

      In a number of areas, you can score well in high school by memorization. People show up in college thinking “I’m good at math.” What they discover is that they are good at memorizing a cookbook of rules they can use to solve particular problems. They’re not good at things like developing an original proof, a task where a cookbook approach doesn’t really work.

      I haven’t been through law school, but suspect that the same kind of split occurs. Some people are good at the minutia when following a cookbook. Others are good at the job of setting a goal, then figuring out how a pile of statute and precedents can be interpreted to support that goal.Report

      • ScarletNumbers in reply to Michael Cain says:

        What they discover is that they are good at memorizing a cookbook of rules they can use to solve particular problems.

        Well this is a skill, judging from the amount of people who don’t have it.

        Its funny how people think accountants are “good at math” when the actual math that is used in accounting is arithmetic.Report

    • Murali in reply to Burt Likko says:

      I’m impressed enough that the students read and recited the poem. I can’t even get my students to read a fucking paper and give me the gist of the argument in that paper.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:

        I didn’t realize you were teaching in the U.S., @murali. 😉

        Misery loves company, yes? So it’s nice to know that students in the rest of the world aren’t perfect, either. (Especially you Asians!)Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        Crossing the international date line magically transforms us Asians into extremely hardworking people. For example I hadn’t made any significant headway into writing my thesis until I entered Arizona upon which I finished the largest chapter (the one deriving the Original Position from scratch) in my thesis within a month.Report

      • Kim in reply to Murali says:

        I think it’s the jetlag. You should see the Japanese tourists at the Met, they’re virtually the only folks up when it opens.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Murali says:


        Well, that’s a relief. I wonder if it works the other way around? Can we send Euro-Americans to Asia and transform them the same way?

        Maybe what we need is just a straightforward student swap between East and West.Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:


        They call that an exchange program. The white exchange students I have are a mixed bag. Some liven up the class and participate extensively others don’t necessarily appear to be interested but all of them, to use a bad cliché, think outside the box.Report

    • @burt-likko

      How many of those students who recited the poetry so accurately understand what Pope meant? How many of them can explain the poems in their own words? Likely only one or two of the thirty, if that. They weren’t asked to understand the poem. They weren’t asked to critique it, or to process its message.


      Well, they’ll be great consumers and fine office drones, I guess.

      I have very mixed feelings about that. It’s been a while since I’ve read Deresiewicz’s article, but do we know that they weren’t asked about, or tested on, their understanding of the poem? The answer may very well be that we do know and they weren’t tested on it.

      But my deeper concern is what does “understanding” really mean and how can we test it? I suppose we can require a student scan the poem and note the allusions and other tropes the author uses. Perhaps we can require the student to state in their own words what Poe meant, and we, the instructors, can mark it wrong when the students get it wrong because we the instructors know what he *really* meant. Or we can hope the student falls into some common interpretations that we have identified as misinterpretations, such as the notion that the Road Less Traveled was about a choice between good and evil, or Houseman’s “Is my team a-plowing” reflects the author’s belief in immortality.

      All that said, I don’t think I disagree completely. Poetry is more than just memorization.* And it’s a shame when teaching it starts and stops at memorization. And maybe the ultimate effect is really to make us all brand-loyal consumers or office drones. But even when it comes to office drones and consumers, we should be chary of judging. Even mere office drones can have a robust intellectual life when they’re not droning.

      *I do think even then, it’s kind of a special case because poetry is also about sound, and memorizing and reciting is one way to get at the interplay of sound.Report

      • The Deresiewicz piece is inane for a number of reasons, but go ahead and close picture the scene he sets. A teacher asks students to memorize Pope, and they memorize Pope. In this scenario, if the students do not understand or cannot analyze Pope, whose fault is that? Is it really on the students for their failing to demonstrate their understanding when the instructor has assigned them to memorize lines? In the world of Deresiewicz, it’s the fault of the entitled little shits, and only the instructor is blameless.Report

      • Kim in reply to Gabriel Conroy says:

        “Understanding” means being able to come up with some coherent bullshit that makes sense and derives from the poem at least tangentially. Remember, most liberal arts is bullshit — it’s about convincing someone else you know what you’re talking about, structuring arguments properly, all that jazz.

        Hard skills, mind, but still bullshit.Report

      • to the extent we’re talking about interpreting art, I would think that any plausible interpretation would do. to be able to interpret the poem at all, and to relay that interpretation to a teacher, indicates the exercise of a number of skills at higher levels of cognitive ability. But if the interpretation was “Alexander Pope was talking about how his friend dissed him on Facebook,” then that’s probably going to earn a low grade.Report

  6. LeeEsq says:

    I think the real big problem isn’t that everybody going to an elite university follows a cookie-cutter path. Like I mentioned in early threads, the problem is that the number of institutions considered elite is about the same or has even decreased since 1945* while the number of students qualifying for elite institutions has increased significantly. One solution would be for elite students to go to less eltie schools but going to the right school can be really beneficially in the early part of your career. The best or even the second best entry level jobs seem reserved for people who went to the right schools.

    *It used to be that any Ivory and many smally liberal arts schools were deemed appropriately elite. There was always a special place for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton but those three schools seemed to have really increased their cachet power over the other Ivies of Cornell, Brown, Columbia, and Dartmouth and other elite private and public universities in the aughts.Report

    • Mo in reply to LeeEsq says:

      I would say there are more elite schools that there were before, but the most elite schools are considered more elite than before because 99.9th percentile is more elite than 99th percentile.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mo says:

        What are schools that are considered elite in 2014 that were not seen as elite in 1945? Can you name a college or university founded after 1945 that is considered an elite school?Report

      • Kim in reply to Mo says:

        on the tech side its a bit easier to see:
        Carnegie Mellon University
        Case Western Reserve University
        (are these “oh my god” elite? No, but they’re still up there).

        …cheating like a banshee, yes, I am!Report

      • Mo in reply to Mo says:

        Let’s call the current USNWR top 20 “elite schools”. In it, Wash U was founded after 1950 and Notre Dame has seen its academic reputation increase significantly in the last 30 years.Report

      • Alan Scott in reply to Mo says:

        Brandeis was founded in 1948. Berkeley was founded early, but most of the UC campuses were founded or otherwise converted to UC campuses in the 40s, 50s, adn 60s.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Mo says:

        These are only a hand few of colleges though.Report

      • Mo in reply to Mo says:

        @leeesq There’s only a handful of elite colleges to begin with.Report

  7. j r says:

    Good article.

    This is somewhat of a frustrating topic, because it is unclear that there is a right or satisfying answer. It is almost axiomatic that most people would prefer to live in a world where people get ahead based on merit and hard work than on family connections. At the same time, however, a modern-day meritocracy will, in the long run, likely become more socially calcified than any oligarchy could ever be precisely because it will become dominated by the cognitive elite and because genes and work habits are passed down in a way that family name and influence are not.

    One of the things that I find so frustrating about the contemporary conversation over income inequality is that it completely ignores the role of the meritocracy, of assortative mating and of the increase in credentialing and instead tries to portray the issue almost entirely as one of political and economic ideology.Report

    • Kim in reply to j r says:

      If it was people who were smart getting ahead, I’d be a lot less pissed off (besides, it would be a lot less dangerous). That’s part of the problem.

      We did have a meritocracy in the Middle Ages — you can tell by looking at the psych profiles of the people in charge. They rose to the top, and they kept power. They were psychopaths and sadists, with a good dose of paranoia thrown in. They weren’t particularly smart, but they were reasonably effective military leaders, for the time.
      These folks are still around, and a lot of them still have a good deal of power (no, not the Illuminati).

      Nowadays, alphas are being bred out of society. Of course, if we ever did get rid of abortion… 80% of abortions in some areas occur in the developmentally disabled…

      If we do calcify a meritocracy, which I find a very, very doubtful proposition based on the number of very rich people who would act to prevent that, so what? Your engineers, your “creative class” have never had much of a problem giving a decent share to the rest of y’all. Because they ain’t batshit crazy, and they can’t simply all relocate to Patagonia.Report

    • LeeEsq in reply to j r says:

      There really isn’t an answer to the assortive mating issue unless you want to force a certain number of people into potentially unhappy marriages that aren’t too people of their choices to prevent it. People always tended to marry within class and other socio-economic lines. To a large extent, there is actually less assortive mating these days because there is more interracial, interreligious, and international marriages than there were in the past. Thats probably the best we can do in curbing assortive mating.

      As to credentializing, I’d argue that is an economic policy issue because requiring a degree or some form of license to do a job does effect the job market, which is ultimately economic in nature. Its also a political issue because it revolves around educational policy. If eductional policy dictates that getting as many people as possible to the highest educational level as possible is a great good than the job market is going to be highly credentialized as a result. I’m not even sure if its possible to go back to a system where relatively few people went that far in their formal schooling and did most of their training as an apprentice or went straight to work in some unskilled profession. That has the same class problems that our current meritocracy has because the average children of the college educated or more likely to go to college than the bright children of the non-college educated.Report

      • j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I am certainly not the kind of person who wants to force anyone any which way when it comes to their personal choices.

        And you are right. These issues will require a policy response. They already do. What I am lamenting is that our present policy conversation, being completely dominated by partisan-style team politics, is woefully unprepared to deal with the reality of structural economic change.

        There is nothing necessarily wrong with the cognitive elite rising to the best-paying and most prestigious jobs. I just think that being part of the elite ought not give you such decisive power over the lives of everyone else (either through control of a technocratic government bureaucracy or through government capture by powerful commercial interests).Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        what the fuck do you expect us to do when our elites think that we’ll be fucking better off deaf and blind? They’re going to turn the internet off, just a matter of time. Well, unless we tear them down first.

        They don’t care about fixing global warming, because they’re in small enough numbers that they can just run and hide (Yes, that’s their plan. Who’s been buying land in Cleveland?).

        Multinational CEOs don’t blink about killing people, or worse. Some of them seem to enjoy it, honestly (“crush you like a bug!” hasn’t exactly gone away from the time when “shooters” would simply kill beasts released directly in front of them)Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I agree that the elite shouldn’t have such devisive lives over everybody else. I also don’t think that reducing the power of government is going to change this much because powerful commercial, cultural, and financial elites are going to have more power over people’s lives without a check on their power. A competive free market with low barriers to entry and no rent-seeking is not a sufficient check in my opinion.

        The best way to protect people from direct or indirect elite control is to either provide a base minimal lifestyle that would allow people to ignore the elites or to limit the size and influence of the elite through varioous policy solutions or both.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        People always tended to marry within class and other socio-economic lines.

        I don’t know about that… you’d regularly have doctors marrying nurses and bosses marrying secretaries in the bad old days.

        Today, however, you have doctors marrying doctors and bosses marrying bosses. The vector is pointing toward more intra-class marriage, not less.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        What the hell. A nurse was one of the few occupations a woman could get and make any significant money in. And she was afforded a wide level of autonomy while getting her work done.

        Besides, it’s pretty bourgeoisie to have the woman earning money at all, isn’t it?Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to LeeEsq says:


        Re: Junior Executives marrying secretaries.

        I’ve debated this before with Will. I’d like statistics and not stories. My view is that there has always been assortative mating but we’ve noticed it less because women had much fewer employment options and even among the upper-classes, it was considered ruining for a woman to attend college until fairly recently. Anna Roosevelt was not allowed to go to college because he grandmother (FDR’s mom) thought that college ruined a young woman’s marriage chances and this is when many women from her class attended Vassar, Smith, Radcliffe, etc.

        I think those secretaries very well could have been Smith grads without any better options. They were not Rosie from Brooklyn and a certificate from night school. So saying junior executives used to marry their secretaries might be true enough but it is not completely true. Lots of lawyers marry their paralegals but those paralegals probably have undergrad degrees now.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        Jaybird, I’m going to agree with Kim. Nurses and secretaries were one of the few jobs available to women until the 1960s. Doctor marry a nurse isn’t necessarily a sign of intraclass marriage because we don’t know the nurses socio-economic background. The same with a secretary. Both could have well off fathers.

        Another issue is how many doctors married their nurses or businessmen their secretaries. A study might reveal that it was more common for a young doctor to marry the daughter of an older doctor than a nurse.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        assortative mating by class has always been there.
        But you are seeing much less of the “smart lady marries dumbo the alpha male” in the last couple generations.
        For one thing: makeup — your rather low intelligence alphas are easily fooled by it.
        For another: those guys just aren’t getting the better jobs anymore, so the smart girls want to find someone better.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to LeeEsq says:

        “I don’t know about that… you’d regularly have doctors marrying nurses and bosses marrying secretaries in the bad old days.”

        To paraphrase Sylvia Noble, the nurses and secretaries weren’t for marrying, they were for practice.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to LeeEsq says:

        There are two questions about assortive mating:

        1) Is it happening more than it used to?

        2) Even if we hold frequency constant, are the effects of assortive mating more significant.

        On #1, I think Saul is more right than wrong. The secretaries and nurses were, likely, of the same social class. the best metric to look at is to compare father education level for both the husband and wife. To my knowledge, that hasn’t been done.

        On #2, even if it’s been a constant, it’s hard to argue that the income-inequality effects of assortive mating haven’t become more pronounced with the two-income household (and increasing stratification in general). It’s compounded the differences in incomes.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

        So, wait, what’s the question? Whether there is less intra-class marriage today than there was in the 50’s?

        Surely this is measurable.

        What is the argument that there is more today than then?

        I suppose I could point to the numbers from “The Big Sort” to demonstrate why I think that there’s less commingling today than there was then.Report

      • j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        You guys are only focusing on one aspect of assortative mating and, in my opinion, not the important aspect: cognitive ability.

        The wealthy have always married the wealthy and the Irish have always married the Irish and the Ashkenazi have always… You get the point.

        And you’ve always had the wealthiest kids in town socializing and marrying each other and even going off to the Ivies to socialize and marry the wealthiest kids in the country. Those kinds of social striations, however, are fairly easy to maneuver over a long enough time frame. Sometimes that happens in as few as one or two generations. A smart kid born to a poor family may not have made it to Harvard, but he could make it to Big State. And his kid has more hurdles in making it to Harvard, but if the cognitive ability and work ethic are there, she will make it.

        Something different is happening now. Now you have the smartest kids from all over the country coming to the top tier of schools and workplaces and socializing and marrying and having smart kids. And they raise those smart kids in a way that ensures that they speak another language and have been taking test prep classes since junior high and they fund volun-tourist trips to dig wells in Peru and instill in them a work ethic that lets them sit for multiple hours a night doing homework and studying for AP tests and writing high school honors theses.

        These kids have a set of advantages that the children of the old elites simply did not have in that the new elites are objectively equipped to out-compete kids who don’t have those backgrounds.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to LeeEsq says:

        @jr, I am not sure how one can get people with radically different levels of cognitive ability to mate. In the past men often married less educated women because women did not go that far in schooling because of sexism, see Saul’s comment on FDR’s daughter, but that doesn’t mean they lacked the cognitive ability of their husbands. Coming from similar class backgrounds probably guaranteed at least some equality in cognitive ability.Report

      • j r in reply to LeeEsq says:

        I am not sure how one can get people with radically different levels of cognitive ability to mate.

        I didn’t say anything about getting anybody to do anything.

        Understanding a set of social phenomenon is an entirely different exercise from trying to figure out what, if anything, to do about it.Report

      • Kim in reply to LeeEsq says:

        ” Coming from similar class backgrounds probably guaranteed at least some equality in cognitive ability.”
        … because we ALL know that being a former slave had something to do with your COGNITIVE ability.

        Remember, most wealth inheritance in this country was DRAMATICALLY skewed against black peopleReport

    • KatherineMW in reply to j r says:

      I find it hard to square the idea of a meritocracy with a world whose financial elites plunged the global economy into a massive recession, and where Donald Trump is rich and famous.

      Our present socioeconomic system defines “merit” extremely poorly. I’d be fine with a meritocracy that defined merit as “actions which are of service to other people”. Producing things people need (rather than merely want) is meritorious, doctors saving lives is meritorious, caring for people in need is meritorious, teaching people in a way that expands their minds is meritorious. Just being able to get rich or entertain people has very little merit compared with those things. But that’s not what our world says.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Distinguishing between people’s needs and wants isn’t that easy and it favors a particularly anti-materialistic lifestyle that most people abandon as soon as they get the chance. People really don’t need art, music, sport, or other leisure and recreational activities. Clothing doesn’t need to be particularly attractive but merely functional. Beauty is nice but not a necessity A lack of athletics or song isn’t going to kill people. For most of human history, many people have gone through life knowing no joy or happiness from either material objects or experiences but they lived even though they were miserable.

        There have been several societies that had no or little concept of leisure and consumption out of necessity because they exist on the substinance level or deliberate choice because such things are viewed as wasteful or sinful. These societies have been miserable places to live. To really enjoy life, a certain amount of luxury does seem to be necessary to provide some relief and joy from the daily grind. People do not live by bread alone. Most peopel want clothing that looks good rather than merely being practical and that is fine.Report

      • Murali in reply to KatherineMW says:

        you know what system best rewards people according to their marginal contribution to other people’s happiness? The free market system. In a free market, your income, that is, the price that is set on your labour is determined by the marginal demand for your labour (i.e. extent to which a given amount of your labour satisfies someone else’s preferences) and the marginal supply (i.e. the extent to which your own failure to do something to contribute to others’ happiness will be missed)Report

      • Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Works fine when you’re talking about folks with money. But the cure for Ebola just isnt’ economically profitable, even if it should rationally be.Report

      • Mo in reply to KatherineMW says:

        @kim Really? Because I think curing the flu would be a lot more valuable and do a lot more for humanity than curing ebola. But curing seasonal flus doesn’t have the same sex appeal.Report

      • Kim in reply to KatherineMW says:

        Right, right now, Ebola is not hazardous for everyone on the planet. But it’s about four steps away from being so:
        1) Take one infected person, put him on an airplane with 100 or so others. He’s not feeling good, maybe vomiting. Maybe just sweating and stumbling around the cabin, touching other people.
        2) Now, you’ve got say 30 people carrying this highly infectious disease. But it’s a sleeper disease, and they wont’ know it for a week, during which time they can spread to a fairly wide area.
        3) Let some of the health systems fail to identify the issue (ooh! he’s black, poor and no health insurance! have some asprin and call me in the morning! Doh!).
        4) Now you’ve got 20 loci of a highly infectious disease, without people knowing that they’re infected until they get sick enough to hit the hospital — and when they do so, you can assume that they infect at least a third of the health workers, because nobody thought to take precautions.

        Some people have been calling this “the new AIDS” — they’re totally wrong on that. Aids is far more of a sleeper issue than Ebola — which may very well burn itself out of the human population. The only question is how many of us will it take with it.Report

  8. Saul Degraw says:

    I am going to sign on to Burt’s statement about the difference between being able to recite Pope by heart and being able to understand and appreciate Pope (or any other poet). I would have have a society with more understanding of poetry.

    I’ve brought this up a million times before but I think this is because we can’t decide on what the nature and purpose of an education is in the United States. Do we want an educational policy that is geared towards turning people into competent workers with the skills that will get them middle class and above jobs? Do we want education to produce intellectuals with the ability to critically read, write, and think, but also have a deep love and curiosity for learning and the world? Both? Neither?

    You are right about how bad the bad old days were. That being said, I think all the columnists you mention have points and don’t have points. They are talking are really talking about a relatively small number of brass ring jobs: Top-Tech Companies, Wall Street (on Wall Street and not a regional Morgan Stanley office helping people plan retirements), Top Consulting Firms, and BigLaw firms for something more advanced. These jobs occupy a small bit of the American economy. Most lawyers do not and never will work in Big Law. Yet they have an outsized place in the American economy because they pay lots of money from the start (usually low-6 figures) and seemingly represent the only sure foothold to being upper-middle class or higher in the United States.

    The jobs above generally (but with some exceptions) generally higher from very predictable places and those are usually the big four of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. There are some exceptions depending on Industry. Tech will take from Cal Tech and MIT. Wharton grads (UPENN) are also good. But there was an article that came out a few years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education that said “Cornell and Brown are second tier.” Cornell and Brown are very good schools and very hard to get into but they are generally seen as subpar in this rarified world.

    There are also lots of really tough to get into schools that are generally discarded by the big guys above. There are seemingly too many tough to get into colleges and universities in the U.S. Off the top of my head I can mention Chicago, Northwestern, Reed, Vassar, Oberlin, Kenyon, Williams, Stanford, The Claremont Colleges, BYU, Wesleyan, Swathmore, Haverford, Amherst, Colby, Bowdoin, Bates, Smith, Mount Holyoke, Emory, and many more. The U.S. is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to elite colleges and universities. These schools have known “brand” names and people are generally impressed if you went to them but they might still not get you into McKinsely or Morgan Stanley.

    Now plenty of people will have very financially and otherwise rewarding lives without the top jobs or going to the top schools and I don’t think anyone is going to be destroyed and destitute because of a Colby or Vassar or Smith degree. But I think all of the writers you mentioned have a point about focusing too much on the top of the top. The .1 percent as it is and there is value in maybe doing some hiring from people off the beaten path. Of course some people might be too off the beaten path. It is questionable about whether Bard or Hampshire grads want to work on Wall Street.

    Where each falters or shows their biases is in their recommendations from where the top companies should turn to. David Brooks wrote a column that suggested something like a woman who went to a school like Wesleyan for a year but transferred to a smaller and presumably very strict Evangelical school to explore her faith. I think in picking this example, he is showing his commitment to his own brand identity as the Coastal Elite conservative. I am not sure about McArdle.

    William Deresiewicz had the more interesting argument because he was telling students that they should not go to Harvard and Yale but he was strong in supporting small liberal arts colleges because he felt like Vassar, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, etc. students were sincere in their studies. As someone who went to a small liberal arts college, I have a bias to this argument.Report

  9. Saul Degraw says:

    Here is the article on the unacceptability of Brown and Cornell

    Now the general expression about Cornell is that it is the easiest Ivy to get into (and it still isn’t easy) but it is the hardest to stay in. Yet it lacks the prestige of Harvard and Yale. Same with Brown which is a damn good school. At my second-tier law school, we had a not insignificant number of students from Cornell, Brown, Penn, Barnard, Stanford, the SLACs, and some other elite schools but I think we would have all been surprised if someone with a Harvard or Yale undergrad degree ended up at our law school.

    American culture tends to focus too much on getting the really good job right out the gate like the Law School grad who ends up in Big Law or the Harvard undergrad that lands a position at Bloomberg or Goldman. We seemingly don’t focus on most people who might start off low and then slowly but surely (and probably with some backwards steps) make their way up to the top or somewhere high up in middle age or late middle age.Report

    • j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      American culture tends to focus too much on getting the really good job right out the gate…

      Sounds like a pretty good reason to mostly ignore “American culture.”Report

      • dhex in reply to j r says:

        this also focuses on maybe 30 institutions out of many thousands. it’s a very myopic view of who gets served (and disserved) by higher education, because it’s being driven by material churned out by the elite for those who would strive to be so. and those strivers, not being part of that world, want a formula, a guarantee.

        “my kids goes to this school, does ‘all the right things’, and gets the life i want them to have”

        which, of course, is nonsense. and depressing. and uncreative. but such is life.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “American culture tends to focus too much on getting the really good job right out the gate like the Law School grad who ends up in Big Law or the Harvard undergrad that lands a position at Bloomberg or Goldman. We seemingly don’t focus on most people who might start off low and then slowly but surely (and probably with some backwards steps) make their way up to the top or somewhere high up in middle age or late middle age.”

      I largely agree with what @saul-degraw says here, with the small tweak — in that I think it really only matters to a certain sub-section of American culture.

      For most people, getting into Harvard (to take one example) is like being the guy who caught the game winning pass at the homecoming game their senior year. Everyone recognizes it as an actual accomplishment when it happens, agrees that it’s pretty cool that he did that, and some look at all the congrats he’s getting and wish that *they* had been the one that caught that pass, even if they weren’t even on the team to begin with.

      Ten years later, most people don’t care that the guy made that touchdown pass. In fact, if he brings it up a lot people will begin disliking him.

      It’s possible that if it comes up in a job interview for a position right out of college, a potential boss might say, “well, that is something, so I guess we don’t have to worry about whether or not he’s competitive enough to work here — let’s give him the edge for this entry-level job.” But after that, the boss doesn’t really give two s**ts about that touchdown pass.

      In fact, the guy trying to live out his adult life wanting validation for what he does at 25, 25 or 45 based on that touchdown pass won’t do very well career-wise, at least comparatively. The guy that was on the soccer team’s bench, never scored a goal, but takes a “what have you done for me lately” approach to his job will make more money over time. Sure, there are people who made game winning touchdowns in high school that succeed career-wise, but it’s because they’re working their asses off like that benched soccer player, not because they made that touchdown X number of years ago.

      And yes, there are certain kinds of ex-jock bars one can hang out at where everyone always goes on about that one football play they made in high school, and a lot of those bars are fun places. But they’re still kind of the minority, and they don’t rule the world the way they think they do. Even if they think people who aren’t regulars at that bar envy them, the truth is no one thinks about them very much.

      And now that I’ve strangled that metaphor to death, I’ll say this…

      I have a spouse that did undergraduate and post-graduate PhD work at Harvard Harvard Business School. She tells me that both professionally and personally, the way Harvard shows up on other people’s radar is generally like this:

      90% don’t care at all.

      5 % are really impressed and make good assumptions about her, based on no relevant data at all – just because she matriculated where she did.

      5% feel the need to take her down a notch, based on no relevant data at all – just because she matriculated where she did.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:


        You are probably right that it is only a small subset of American culture that cares about such things but that subset is the one that probably reads The NY Times, Bloomberg, and the New Republic. They also are the ones courted by both major parties and marketers. All the so-called prestige shows have relatively small audiences. I think Girls is watched by somewhere around 900K-1.1 million people. But everyone assumes that those people are or are going to be the future leaders and tastemakers and have the most money.

        I am not quite sure I fully agree with your metaphor but then again, I am also against the false modesty that people put on when they say things like “I went to school near Boston” or “I went to school in New Haven.” Don’t bring up Harvard or Yale anytime but don’t hide it either. We also generally think of the football player as having his high point in high school, I am not sure we feel the same way about Hermione Harvard.

        Your break down is probably right. Vassar is a bit weird. Most people have heard of it but to the same degree as Harvard or Yale. Way too many people still think it is a women’s college or a “girls with pearls” school. Most people say something like “Oh that’s a good school.”

        What I would say about the SLACs is that you generally don’t attend a school like Vassar, Williams, Amherst, Oberlin, without really wanting to go there. I can see attending Yale or Harvard without being too keen on the school itself because they are Yale and Harvard. The SLACs and also the Ivies tend to breed fierce loyalty among their grads.Report

      • j r in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I think Girls is watched by somewhere around 900K-1.1 million people. But everyone assumes that those people are or are going to be the future leaders and tastemakers and have the most money.

        I guarantee you that I make no such assumptions about Lena Dunham or the present cohort of bloggers and typists that have appointed themselves to the cultural vanguard.

        Adam Driver seems to have a promising career ahead of him, so that’s nice.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “American culture tends to focus too much on getting the really good job right out the gate ”

      Since when? Since the Graduate, where getting a really good job right out of the gate (“plastics”) was both easy and easily avoided? Since Reality Bites, where getting a really good job right out of the gate was (again) for soulless sellouts? Since Girls, where, to be fair, getting a really good job right out the gate is hard (unless your family helps), but nonetheless, the perpetual adolescence of boho hipsterdom is the thing most celebrated?Report

  10. NobAkimoto says:

    What’s perhaps funniest is that the same pundits making these arguments are generally also the ones who talk disparagingly about affirmative action “quotas”.Report

    • NobAkimoto in reply to NobAkimoto says:

      Basically, it seems to me, that most of these people are just disapproving that the Wrong Type of People are now getting meritorious treatment (which used to be reserved for the Normal American) and is now disadvantaging the Right Real Americans.Report

      • Kim in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        Yeah. color me skeptical.
        1) All this shit is way exaggerated. I know someone who hasn’t graduated from college, but who has worked for Goldmann Sachs and all the other big finance firms. He’s that good.
        2) MIT knows how to find the best. They go out of their way to, even if that person isn’t getting stellar grades.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to NobAkimoto says:


        Maybe but I think that the fair-right of the Midwest and West have always had a chip on their shoulder about their East Coast counterparts. Rick Perlstein covers this a bit in Before the Storm: The Unmaking of the American Consensus. I’ve also seen it mentioned in other articles and bookreviews. There was one about Buckley’s co-publisher at the National Review. The guy was a stirving (probably Babbitish) Midwesterner who attended Princeton as an undergrad and apparently did not get along so well with his very establishment peers (who were probably Republican and not liberal-Democratic). There is a section of the far-right that is misfity and never fit into the world of the Gentlemen’s C and the idea of effortless ease.

        This is probably where a large part of the culture war comes from. When I read about some of the far right and mainly of the John Birch and Palin variety, they always seem to have a large bit of Babbit in them and don’t know how to act in a world or among people to whom it is a bit unacceptable and vulgar to talk about business and money all the time.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        I think that the fair-right of the Midwest and West have always had a chip on their shoulder about their East Coast counterparts.

        James Buchanan was a Nobel Prize winning economist who grew up in Tennessee and did his undergrad work at the decidedly non-Eastern Middle Tennessee State University. Here’s a snippet from his autobiography, Better than Plowing, talking about his entry into the military in World War II.

        There were several hundred officer candidates enrolled in New York’s midshipmen’s school…

        …some organization was required early on, and well before there could be any testing, midshipmen officers were appointed, as the group was divided into companies, platoons, and sections.

        The initial appointment of officers ‘radicalized’ me to such an extent that emotional scars remain, even a half-century later. I can now, of course, understand the rational basis for statistical discrimination, and probabilistically, graduates from Ivy League universities were predictably superior to those of us from the academies west of the Hudson. But the disproportionate favoritism for the establishment types was extreme and extended even to the importation of Bill Rockefeller to head up our platoon of As and B’s, because there were too few A’s and B’s (last name orderings) with an Ivy League background whereas there was an apparent surplus down among the R’s and S’s. This hands-on experience with blatant discrimination, no matter how rational, against southerners, midwesterners, and westerners served to reinforce in concrete my populist preconceptions.


      • Saul Degraw in reply to NobAkimoto says:


        Yeah pretty much that. Now I am a Northeasterner through and through and proud of it in many ways and always will be and generally agree with the idea of it being a bit vulgar to talk about money and business all the time. At the very least it bores me. This also happens in SF where I am starting to do an automatic glaze whenever I hear someone talking about their startup, app, and dreaming of IPOs. Can’t anyone talk about other things anymore?

        But there is also a bit of Fuck You I Got Mine in the East Coast attitude that is obviously problematic.

        There is an inexhaustable amount of research that can go into the psychology, sociology, anthropology, and other research that can go into attitudes on money.

        What is interesting is that there are plenty of people on the left who are equally appalled or would have been by the East Coast Old Money elite but they did not join the Babbitish strivers on the right. Is the left rejecting the club while the right-wing populist banging for admission to the club? The left populists also probably have a more cynical view of Babbit striving and one that I share. Did you ever see Bob Roberts, the Tim Robbins documentary? There is a scene where the journalists is asking two young guys (probably 18-19) about who they voted for Bob Roberts and one said “because he cares about the same things we do, making money.” Now we are not supposed to see these young guys as being admirable and I certainly did not when watching the movie but I am also not from their corner or background of the U.S.

        Erik Loomis at LGM comes from a blue-collar background but he became a radicalized member of the socialist-democratic left instead of a Babbit striver but still contains the same rage at Eastern elites probably. I wonder what separates a Loomis from a Palin or a Bunchanan?Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        Richard Nixon famously resented how the East Coast Republicans treated him even though he did a lot of work in rebuilding the party into an effective fighting force in politics in the years following World War II.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        Whoah, let’s back up to the cultural mores that made ‘Babbit’-ness a negative thing. Old school aristocracy uses ‘talking about money is gauche’ as a way of cartelizing their power (and money) to avoid a excessively competitive race to the bottom among their own kind. Doing so also separates new money from old money, and also looks askance at middle class striving as those people obviously then don’t know their place. (to say nothing of the working class and below).

        Lewis had kinda of point with the trend towards homogenization of modern industrial society (as the architecture of the central business district of any city anywhere in the world demonstrates), as well as the risk of eschewing a rich cultural inner life for just jumping on any trend that seems popular, but you know, good old fashioned middle class blandness is what won the wars against both the Nazis and the Commies.Report

      • Kim in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        If you wind up talking about money and business, consider yourself lucky. You could be discussing the optimal allocation of portapotties.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        @james-hanley @kolohe

        I’m still a democratic socialist so I am not sure our complete aversion to communism was a good thing. I still believe in universal healthcare and am willing to go against middle-class blandness for defeating it! 😉

        That being said, I agree with you on old money keeping out new money and stake a sort of Middle Ground here probably because I am a Eastcoaster and not as arrvisite.]

        But the far-right Midwesterners who funded the New Republican Party are hardly totally new money. Many like Kohler were second-generation factory owners. Walter Kohler Junior went to Philips Exeter and Yale and he was not the first Kohler to do so. Yet he was vital in the far-right that remade the Republican Party and disliked the moderate Northeast Republicans. So there are a lot of people who see themselves as being upstarts but are not necessarily so.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        Hoarders, wreckers, and Kulaks use less of what belongs to the community after they have had life activity status reassignments.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to NobAkimoto says:

        I wonder what separates a Loomis from a Palin or a Bunchanan?

        A helluva lot smarter than Palin, studied history instead of economics like Buchanan?Report

  11. James Hanley says:

    I agree fully with your argument Vikram.

    Now, that that’s clear, let me rant. I have a fundamental disagreement with the authors that these folks are achievement robots. They may be achievement slaves, desperately trying to check off all the right boxes on their bucket list before they turn 18 (my daughter right now is stressed at all the categories of accomplishments listed on one of her prospective college’s what-ever-kind-of-document-it-is). But calling them robots strips them of individuality (the intentional purpose of using the term, I suspect, rather than an accident), and implies they all have the same earnest seriousness about everything in life.

    My experience is that the kids who do a lot are often quite interesting and inquisitive. Having done all those things, and being bright, they can’t help but keep thinking about those things. They’re not just boxes they check, but experiences that have shaped their lives and how they view the world.

    And how they have been shaped and how they view the world is not particularly uniform. Some are quite religious, others are quite agnostic. Some are very serious, others are very chipper. Some have grave doubts about humanity’s future, others think human potential is unlimited. Some will want to ask you about Sartre, others will ask if you saw Captain America.

    But they all have interesting stories to tell, because they actually went out and did some shit. The students you don’t want to talk to, and the graduates you don’t want to hire, are the ones who’ve never gone anywhere or done anything. I’ve occasionally had students who’ve never been out of state. I’ve not infrequently had students who’ve never been beyond a neighboring state. They’re engaged in no more than 1 activity (maybe baseball, maybe College Republicans–they do tend to be Republican, except for the ones who are just plain poor and never had money to go anywhere). And they have nothing interesting to say because they’ve never been outside their comfort zone. They tend to be non-adaptable, rigid and inflexible.

    Those kids that rack up trips to Africa, or building Habitat houses, or rafting in West Virgina, or going to Boys State, etc., etc., etc. They’re adaptable, by god. You can throw them into a new challenge and have good reason to assume they can hack it.

    Maybe some of that adaptability is innate, but I’m pretty sure to a large extent it’s just a matter of experience. It can be created. And while the downside of these new demands is that they’re really overwhelming for people who are, after all, still just kids, to the extent they encourage more parents to make sure more kids do at least some more stuff, we’re making more adaptable people.


    • NobAkimoto in reply to James Hanley says:

      I think this needs to be a comment rescue.

      It’s a fantastic comment, and is a very effective antidote to the views expressed by the authors quoted in the OP.Report

    • Kolohe in reply to James Hanley says:

      Aye, but there’s the rub, isn’t it? Where does ‘adaptable’ end and ‘malleable’ begin? Do we want our young adults to be good organization people, or do we want them to be, like Courtney Woods, a disruptive influence?Report

      • Mo in reply to Kolohe says:

        I feel that it’s easier to disrupt a system if you understand it (and get its weaknesses) then by being a complete outsider.Report

      • Michael Cain in reply to Kolohe says:

        Why does it have to be an either/or? There are times when you have to take the initiative so that something gets done; there are times when you have to follow orders.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        But ‘taking the initiative that something gets done’ is actually the most effective trait of an organization person. VB’s point is that these kids (of the kind and socioeconomic class under discussion) are very good at identifying opportunities to take initiative on whatever projects the current consensus indicates are worthwhile (and commensurately CV enhancing)

        But it all begs the question if that something which is getting done is actually worthwhile.Report

      • James Hanley in reply to Kolohe says:

        Where does ‘adaptable’ end and ‘malleable’ begin?

        Honestly, from my experience this question doesn’t make sense to me. It rings to me as though you’re asking where chicken ends and tofu begins.Report

      • Mo in reply to Kolohe says:

        “But ‘taking the initiative that something gets done’ is actually the most effective trait of an organization person.”

        @kolohe It’s an effective trait for pretty much everyone. Snowden took initiative to get stuff done. Identifying how to work the system is valuable for system people, but also for people looking to take the system down because you understand the weaknesses.Report

      • Murali in reply to Kolohe says:

        It rings to me as though you’re asking where chicken ends and tofu begins.

        Mock chicken


      • Kim in reply to Kolohe says:

        yeah, that’s pretty much how trolls work — figure out how to disrupt a system by understanding it.

        How do you make a corporation go out of business? Continually give them good ideas, while never giving them enough time to get the last one completed. They can’t fire you because you’ll just take your latest awesome creation to the next corporation. (and this is why it’s a good idea to not piss off your architect. or bitch too much about his newest idea).Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Kolohe says:

        @mo we’ve talked about Snowden at great lengths in another forum, you know my opinion on him; suffice it to say just for now that he really didn’t know how the system worked and was essentially just a bomb thrower. The system has not changed, and does not show signs of changing. (The Clinton White House and Republican congress certainly isn’t going to change it).

        A guy inside the system that knew how it works and could re-arrange successfully it to his own ends (even if, at the end of the day, it was mostly about a personal grudge over a professional slight)? That’s Mark Felt.

        @james-hanley someone can be so adaptable that they effectively become a social chameleon to whatever social circumstances in which they find themselves enmeshed. They can still have plenty initiative applied towards organizational goals, but have been so molded by the system that they will not really question those goals. In some ways, this is positive i.e. the good soldier. In some ways negative i.e. the yes man.Report

    • That’s a really nice rant. The only thing I might add is a bit more awareness that it’s what the kids do with the opportunities available to them. Sometimes doors close too early. By the time I finished high school, I had been to both East and West coasts. Not because my parents could afford it, or because I was willing to hit the road as a minor, but because for a medium-sized school in Nebraska we had a hell of a marching band, earned our way into festival parades and competitions, then busted our butts on fund-raising. The early decision that had to happen to be in that position, though, was that I started band in fifth grade. You pretty much couldn’t decide as a sophomore “I think I’ll be in the marching band.”Report

    • Jaybird in reply to James Hanley says:

      So long as we keep the Dalits out, I don’t care what criteria we use.Report

    • Is anyone (here) really saying that experiences like Peace Corps or similar substantial experiences abroad, Girls State, Eagle Scouting, etc. etc. ought to count against these kids? No, of course not. It is worth knowing what it is that recruiters are looking for — and like Vikram says in the OP, when we announce that we’re looking for “X”, we shouldn’t be surprised when applicants give “X” to us and do things that enable them to give us “X”. If “X” is adaptability, then students will do things to make us understand that they are adaptable and that prove their adaptability. And they’ll crow about it on their applications.

      We may question how self-motivated they are with respect to cultivating “X” within themselves, as opposed to going through the motions, but that’s what the applications process is about — screening out the genuine from the plastic; separating reality from similitude. And it’s inherently going to be an imperfect process, because human beings are involved at every phase of the activity.

      I guess what I take away from @james-hanley ‘s rant is that if we say we want “adaptability,” then students will cultivate adaptability in themselves, and perhaps a significant number of them will again adaptability along the way simply by virtue of trying to meet that standard of achievement — much in the same way that if we announce we want to admit students who have mastery of first-level calculus concepts, students will then study (and presumably learn) calculus and proceed to tell us all about how much calculus they know.Report

      • NobAkimoto in reply to Burt Likko says:

        Right. In general the “perfectionist” standards require experiencing a wide range of stimulae that you ordinarily wouldn’t in less accomplishment oriented settings. And let’s be real, motivating children is an imperfect art at best. Anything that gets them to widen their horizons is a good thing. It’s not the intent or reason that matters here as the fact that they experience it.Report

      • Kim in reply to Burt Likko says:

        a few things: we could make school significantly more dangerous or unpleasant. That would discourage Everyone Under The Sun from putting their Special Snowflake through it.

        Or we could winnow the field down a lot — actively put all the geniuses together. We have decent tests for genius level associativity and creativity. [Downside of this, as stated above, is they’ll probably make pretty half-assed doctors.]

        If one is no longer looking for achievements, but is instead looking for potential… is that better?Report

  12. Mo says:

    Am I the only one that picked up the undercurrent of “The way things are today would have left me out, therefore the way things are today is bad”? McArdle basically smacks you over the head with it. I can’t imagine someone almost failing out of high school getting into UPenn and someone almost failing out of UPenn getting into Chicago unless there was a building with their surname on it.Report

    • Kim in reply to Mo says:

      I know someone who did almost fail high school, and got a free ride to a pretty damn good school (granted UPenn is better, but I’m talking a free ride).Report

    • Vikram Bath in reply to Mo says:

      I think you are absolutely right. I don’t think McArdle made an attempt to hide it at all, because I’m not sure she thinks it’s worth hiding. I think a lot of these authors are uncomfortable looking at a system that wouldn’t have treated them favorably.Report

      • Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Here is a good point: Favorably vs. Fairly

        I’m less concerned about a system that fails to treat person A favorably, as long as they treated them fairly.

        E.g. I was a bad HS student. Smart, but unchallenged at my podunk rural HS, and unfocused. I aced the tests, but never bothered with homework, hence mediocre HS GPA. No decent college would touch me.

        Did some time in the Navy, found some focus & discipline, and tried to go back to school. University said no, but if you go to ‘Local Tech College’ & do well in their Gen Ed classes, you can earn transferable credits & show us you’ve got what it takes to succeed as a transfer student.

        That is not favorable treatment, but it is entirely fair.Report

  13. Kim says:

    To everyone who wants to know about nurses marrying doctors:
    Wonder if you could talk these guys out of it?
    At the very least you ought to be able to get marital status, which would give you something of a proxy, I’d hope.Report

  14. James K says:

    It seems to me there are two issues here: The uniformity of capabilities in elite college students and the content of those capabilities.

    The first of those seems almost inevitable. Given the number of people who want to get into elite colleges vs. the number who are admitted, the end result will inevitably be a group of people that have passed through intense selective pressure. Selection is a homogenising process.

    The second issue is the crux of matter – are the capabilities elite students have the capabilities it is socially optimal for them to have? I don’t know the answer to that question, but if a change is called for, they key is to persuade elite colleges to change their admission standards, and everything will flow from there.Report

  15. Michael Drew says:

    I don’t really understand the point of the post. I know it’s, “If you tell them you want X, they’ll give you X.” …And? Is there an And? Is it just, “If you tell them you want X, they’ll give you X. AND so, when they give you X, don’t complain.” Okay… Is the thrust here really just Quitcer whinin’?

    Cuz I’m not picking up the vibe that the concern really is whining. These are powerful people. They’re not going to whine; what they’re going to do is not let the people you want to be let in, in. Because that’s the power they wield.

    So the issue isn’t Don’t Complain, is it? The question is, if they the criteria are X, and applicants then predictably give selectors X, how do we feel when it turns out the real effective criteria are X’ or just outright other-than-X? Is that unfair? Or might there be some value in having the criteria include an ability to not provide X when X is asked for, but to provide other-than-X that the criteria X may or may suggest to a subtle thinker that the criteria-giver might like even little bette than X, but only once t’s been presented to her? That is, the ability to not just adapt to challenging situations, but to anticipate, attack, and even create them.Report

  16. zic says:

    In some ways, the whole conversation about elite schools and the young people who attend them baffles me. It is a very, very small part of the actual experience of children who grow up and the education they receive.

    In another, it makes total sense. Because one of the things the US has been exceptional at is education, for some people. Says the woman who lived in Boston for 20+ years, who’s husband worked at with an oncology research group affiliated with Harvard and who now works at Berklee (not a misspelling, Berklee College of Music). That elite university system does amazing things; and the endowments they own, too. Most of the northern forest in the Northeast, for instance, are now owned by them through LLCs they’re invested in. That forest absorbs more carbon than the eastern seaboard produces every day. That’s good stuff.

    But when it comes to education, I think the good student a product of a good environment; one focused on helping that student figure out how to bring out their best; helping them find their potential.

    I don’t have a college degree; I was too poor and too mucked up to go to college; and I don’t remember much about high school due to the combination of head injury and self-medication with marijuana.

    I also do not feel that I am uneducated. So a part of the discussion of the good student is the fostering the habit life-long learning; self-directed learning.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to zic says:

      @zic On a base level, I tend to agree. I look at the obsession some people have with the super-elite schools with exasperation.

      On the other hand, these are the institutions that produce our leaders. So whether Lain goes to one of them or not (and it’s extremely unlikely that she will), it’s pretty important stuff.

      Which actually ties in to my conversation above with Saul. While some people may resent Harvard’s elite status, and criticize it, we live in the world we live in and it remains important. Too important to be dismissed. Would-be populist may not like what it is, but it is what it is whether we like it or not.Report

  17. Wardsmith says:

    Another stellar OP Dr Bath

    I wondered if you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “David and Goliath”? I walked away from a full ride scholarship to Yale opting to go to a much smaller but technically vastly superior school for what I wanted to learn. I’m glad I did. The prestige of the school is only important for getting that first job as Tod alludes to above. No one ever asks me where I went to school but they often ask me how I know so much.Report