How Important is it to Satisfy Gatekeepers in Education?


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.

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58 Responses

  1. Avatar Creon Critic says:

    Why do kids learn the piano? The wrong answer is that their parents want them to be whole, well-rounded people. The right answer is that parents think downstream gatekeepers will reward playing the piano at a high level. If you thought playing the piano was enriching, you’d be playing rather than forcing your kids to do it.

    Possibly banal observation: motives aren’t all or nothing. They can be a mix of things.

    Being a plus factor in college admissions is an element, but playing an instrument has the potential to teach important lessons about practice and discipline. Even if you’re resolutely committed to getting X’ and skirting around the greater difficulty of attaining X, it is hard to see how the pursuit of mastery of X’ doesn’t develop some of the important skills that were important to X in the first place. There are important commonalities in the skills developed in pursuing mastery qua mastery, whether of X or X’.

    Now even supposing that ideally a student would be dedicated to learning for the love of learning and its intrinsic rewards, I’d say, pedagogically speaking, the instructor got quite far if a student, in pursuing something else, makes up their own exam, figures out the answers to the self-made exam, and then proceeds to compare the self-made exam to the instructor’s exam on test day. That process of self-examination, self-evaluation, and self-assessment on the student’s part actually required quite a bit of thought on the student who is pursuing X’ that is hard for me to distinguish from the thought required were a student only pursuing X. I certainly wouldn’t describe making my own final exam for every class as a shortcut.

    At some point in life, there needs to be a reward for actually learning X rather than mimicking competence.

    So oftentimes I hear from the people who actually know a whole lot about a given X, how much they themselves have to learn more about X. As far as I can tell, no one is ever finished learning X. To me, to a large extent, everyone is mimicking competence – the Great and Powerful Oz is just the guy behind the curtain.

    In academia, the writer who knows how to wrap up a study that pacifies editors and reviewers will always outperform those who actually want to understand the phenomenon they are studying.

    “Outperform” by what metric? I can’t claim any particular expertise on the subject of tenure review committees, but as far as I understand the judgments on a portfolio may include an assessment of quantity, but certainly there’s a focus on quality too. Those quality factors would seem, to me, to reach beyond merely pacifying editors and reviewers and reaching for the ‘original contribution to the discipline’ standard (and at some schools, the more searching ‘world class level’ standard). Again, I’m quite distant from this, but it seems like a difficult thing to skate through (especially absent some real underlying commonality between X and X’ I’d mentioned).

    Will any of them be able to switch from satisfying gatekeepers to finding out what is actually true?[…]

    And what follows about foreign language learning… So, here’s what probably prompts my reply, the total divergence from my experience on the campus of an Ivy League school as a student for four years (albeit 10 years ago now). The people learning Mandarin, they really wanted to learn it – there were required multiple hour drill sessions in addition to the main language class. As far as I could tell, there was no way to go through it as a shortcut or for show.

    Being fortunate enough to end up as a student at an Ivy League school means you will very likely encounter people who are more than avatars of success, a whole bunch of them are deeply passionate about what they’re, well, passionate about. Whether that be cello performance, or Shakespeare, or learning about reconciliation in post-conflict societies, or Ancient Greek… They tended to be goal-oriented and set quite high bars of success for themselves.

    And to me the evidence is in what these people pursued post undergrad, whether becoming classics professors or winning the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship (literally the paths of two people on my floor my first year of college). I hesitate to say direct this gaze elsewhere in higher education because I don’t have firsthand experience of what other types of institutions end up being like in this realm, but I can say that when directed at the Ivy League anyway, this line of concern, X versus X’, seems misplaced to me.Report

  2. Avatar zic says:

    Vikram, there’s a lot of evidence that learning to play music increases neuroplasticity. New research suggests that music is processed in the same part of the brain as communication, and can increase cross-hemispheric connectivity in the brain. Additionally, it’s one of those skills that help children understand that applied effort over time increases proficiency. So let’s not ding the piano playing as a gate-keeper accomplishment, okay?

    There’s a lot of activities that are gate-keeper approvals. They add an incredible stress load to high-achieving kids from high-achieving parents. I’ve spent enough time in a prep-school environment to see just how detrimental some of that stuff is; particularly to time just to be kids.

    But learning to play the piano is probably a good thing to do, and one of my great regrets as a mother was not forcing the practice when my children were small.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to zic says:

      Yeah, the only way to get a 16 year-old who has played piano for 10 years is to start with a 6 year-old.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to zic says:

      Learning music is a grand thing. But i’d like to see it restricted to those who want to do it, for it’s own sake.
      … not for picking up women. (that is why most people learn music, isn’t it?)

      In other words: there are many gatekeepers… not all of them in education.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to zic says:

      Zic, please consider the following two narratives:

      1. Music generally exists. One day, someone researches the effects of music on the brain, and parents then decide to enroll their kids in music programs.

      2. Universities have generally sought to admit people from the upper classes, since people are the ones who will end up controlling everything. Some decades ago, you could do this simply by having a fancy name and a recommendation letter from someone else with a fancy name coupled with the means to pay tuition before student loans were on the menu.
      For various political reasons, this became untenable, so universities moved to a system that could be sold to outsiders as meritocratic while still admitting the same students. Admitting based on academic prowess didn’t work, for reasons I discuss here.
      Music, however, provided a good identifying the right kind of students coming from the right kinds of families. There is high-art music, which is produced and consumed by the upper classes, and there is low-art music, which is produced and consumed by the lower classes. High-art music includes the violin and piano. Low-art music includes the electric guitar and banjo.
      Universities thus decided that playing the violin and piano indicated that you were probably from the right kind of background. Parents saw this and decided that they’d make their kids play violin and piano.
      Then, someone did some research and found that music is good for your brain.

      Obviously, I’m kind of biased here. I find #2 much more convincing. I’m not aware of any research that shows that playing the piano or violin is better for your brain than playing electric guitar. I don’t think it’s a coincidence, however, that playing electric guitar is something you learn on your own and that it often originates from an intrinsic desire to play it.

      From what I observe, I think there’s a definite bias on the part of parents to steer kids toward instruments and types of music that are associated with high social status. I’m not saying all parents do this or that no one has a sincere interest in learning the violin because they think it sounds cool. I just think it is grossly overrepresented, and for relatively transparent reasons.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        “often originates from an intrinsic desire to play it”
        even the guy I know who plays oodles of instruments says that he learned to play to attract girls.

        It’s relatively rare to find someone who “learns to play” just for the sake of learning to play, I think.

        Composition may be a different story though — you don’t get hot chicks for saying “I wrote that!”Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        Vikram, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Seriously. I learned to play two instruments as a child, I taught myself both of them; and gained some serious mastery on one. I’m married to a professional musician. I’ve spent the last 40 years of my life associating with musicians.

        And honestly, a college application has very little to do with it. But. The folks reading the application? They know that studying music seriously pays off in cognitive ability. I don’t think we know, yet, wether it’s that studying music develops those skills or that people with those skills will stick to playing music.

        And given the very few students who attend elite, highly-competitive gate-keeping universities vs. the numbers of students who simply attend college, who explore learning an instrument (and who set out to do so because they want to be rock stars vs. musicians,) it’s not a meaningful measure to me.

        I learned the guitar and the mandolin by the time I was 14; with some skill on the piano. I was composing and mastering jazz chords by the time I was 16. I did that because I loved it, not because I had my eye on a college. And the music students I’ve met are all pretty similar. They play because they’re driven to by an inner need.

        The only thing being forced to practice achieves is, for small children, helping them stick to it long enough to master enough skills to see if that inner drive kicks in or not.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        I grew up playing baseball. But my mom thought tennis was the “right” sport for me to play. She taught at an independent school. I went to a public school. For my 8th grade graduation, she bought me tennis lessons. I rejected them and played baseball anyway.

        And now I’m addicted to meth.Report

      • Zic, in categorically dismissing the piano, I was aiming for “humorously obnoxious”, but clearly that didn’t come through to anyone. So let me apologize for that.

        I do recognize that there are people who actually enjoy music and seek to involve their kids in it too. I’d concede that probably this would include a majority of regular players.

        Where we disagree is that I think there are at least some additional people whose choose instruments for their kids and encourage them to practice primarily for extrinsic reasons. I’d concede that even many of these kids might grow to like their instruments primarily for intrinsic reasons. Perhaps it’s my loss, but I don’t think you’ll succeed in convincing me that no one ever plays for extrinsic reasons.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Vikram Bath says:


        “And now I’m addicted to meth.”

        I knew it!!!!!Report

      • Avatar zic in reply to Vikram Bath says:

        @vikram-bath I’ve seen the opposite, and often. Kids from high-achieving families who want to play, to study, and are discouraged from doing so; starving artist syndrome has kept many a talented student from pursuing music as a career.Report

  3. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    “Why do kids learn the piano? The wrong answer is that their parents want them to be whole, well-rounded people. The right answer is that parents think downstream gatekeepers will reward playing the piano at a high level.”

    I daresay this might be one of those East Coast/West Coast things, like the importance of being accepted into the right “club” if you want to be able to climb corporate ladders. The kids around here that I know who have taken music lessons at the insistence/urging of their parents are all kids of musicians, none of whom (I think?) have their sights on Ivy League gatekeepers.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      My parents thought that exposure to the arts was important. When I was young, they took us to Young People’s Concerts at Lincoln Centers and to museums. When music was introduced in 4th grade, I was told to pick an instrument and picked the Saxaphone. I don’t think they were thinking it would impress gatekeepers. I just think they wanted me to know how to play an instrument. There might be a well-rounded quality to it though.

      I also think you overestimate the importance of the right clubs on the East Coast. There is still some of it there but it is becoming increasingly vanished as the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant ceases to be the dominant player on the East Coast. I actually rejected applying to Bowdoin because they had their intro meeting at the Princeton Club and that was way too WASPy for me. I set my eyes on Vassar “Non-conform with me” College. Though I think you are right that there is probably more competition for a brand-name private college on the East Coast. I have a lot of friends on the West Coast who grew up as equally upper-middle class as me and they all seem to have gone to the UCs, Washington, or Oregon because that is what you do on the West Coast. Though all those are much better schools than any of the SUNYs.

      That being said, I remember some Southern women at Vassar talking about their debutante balls and I was shocked that they still happened. My ex (who grew up in SF) had a debutante ball because her Southern-Jewish grandmother insisted on one. Then again, her ancestors are German and they were already established for 2-3 generations when my ancestors came over from Eastern Europe.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        SUNY at StonyBrook is competent. Probably better than some of the UCsReport

      • Avatar j r in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        Though all those are much better schools than any of the SUNYs.

        Are they much better schools or are they simply much better known, mostly by virtue of having nationally ranked sports teams?

        I went to a SUNY, so I will admit my bias.Report

      • @j-r

        I know nothing about the SUNY’s or the UC’s, etc. But yeah, plus 1 to your comment.

        I went to a “[name of state] state university,” which as far as reputation goes, is one step below “Flagship University” (but perhaps on par with “Flagship University at Big City in the State”). And I think I got a pretty good education. And when I got my MA at “Flagship University,” I saw how poorly the undergrads were treated and taught* relative to “[name of state] state university. So no, I don’t regret it.

        *Of course, as a TA, I was one of the teachers.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Saul Degraw says:


        I would say that Berkeley and UCLA easily shine over any SUNY. Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara also give the SUNYs a run for their money. Irvine, Davis and Riverside might be program specific.

        SUNY-Purchase can probably beat any UC except UCLA for performing arts. University of Washington also has an excellent theatre program.

        Oregon might just be better known.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I can say without fear of contradiction that Berkeley’s reputation is not based on having nationally ranked sports teams.Report

      • Avatar aaron david in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        As a fairly native Californian, you are almost there. UCLA and Cal are both world class schools, followed with UC Davis and Cal Poly. After that are the rest of the UC’s except Santa Cruz, which, outside of rich liberal circles is considered a complete joke.
        I know nothing about SUNY…Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        I’m a Gaucho and proud of it. But UCSB is #4 in the UC pecking order and y’all have forgotten UC San Diego, which is a damn fine institution. (Although Santa Barbara does have more Nobel Laurelates…)Report

  4. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    “Just stay away from sales and engineering and show the correct indicators of success to upper management.”

    Though in sales knowing how to pacify the gatekeeper often times *is* the relevant skill. I know a lot of very well-off salespeople who are amazing at getting other people to think they know far more than they do about X.Report

    • Avatar Mad Rocket Scientist in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      very well-off salespeople who are amazing at getting other people to think they know far more than they do about X.

      This is most of our sales team. They all have science backgrounds, but are long out of practice. What they are very good at it is knowing who to talk to in the company to find out what they need to know prior to talking to a customer.Report

    • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      in sales knowing how to pacify the gatekeeper often times *is* the relevant skill.

      Gah. That was an idiotic miss on my part. Thanks for catching it.Report

  5. Avatar Saul Degraw says:

    I always a very smart but misfity student. I would spend a lot of time and learning about things that were interesting to me. This was not necessarily my homework or what was being studied in school at the time.

    In undergrad, I studied theatre because I wanted to study theatre and then I taught English in Japan for a year because I wanted to live abroad, etc.

    Eventually I figured out that you had to make a living and I went to law school from 28-31. This happened to largely coincide with the great recession. I’ve been doing okay as mentioned a million times previously.

    I know a lot of people who seemed like they knew from day one to “satisfy gatekeepers”. They always did their homework, always got good grades, went to medical school, law school, business school, or into some consulting or other practical job instead of kicking around during their 20s and trying for The Artistic Life. All of these people are seemingly doing well now. They seem to have survived the Great Recession without too much damage, have families, and are in the upper-middle class or moving close to being in the upper-middle class. They can afford mortgages and down payments.

    I don’t regret my 20s about 98 percent of the time. I like that I have an MFA, I liked that I tried to be a theatre director and lived in Japan. There are times when I do think that learning to please gatekeepers would have made life much easier though.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Saul Degraw says:

      “There are times when I do think that learning to please gatekeepers would have made life much easier though.”

      I think there is a difference between knowing how to do it and choosing to do it. I doubt you’d have gotten through law school without the ability to please gatekeepers. Rather, I think you chose other paths for yourself… (perhaps because you found pleasing gatekeepers difficult for one reason or another) but since you seem happy with those paths a good 98% of the time, I’d say you shouldn’t spend too much time regretting.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

        Fair enough. I was good enough at pleasing gatekeepers to get into and graduate from college, grad school, and law school as will as passing two bars. So I knew how to. I don’t think 22 year old me knew how to please gatekeepers to get a good entry-level corporate job though.Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        Heh… I look back at how I handled job interviews early in my career and wonder, “How did I ever get hired?”Report

      • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

        “He said he’d work for the pay.”Report

      • Avatar Kazzy in reply to Kazzy says:

        “We needed a guy. Let’s just hope he doesn’t act like one.”Report

      • Avatar Vikram Bath in reply to Kazzy says:

        I don’t admit it explicitly in the post, but I think there is a spectrum of possible behaviors available. Saul, clearly did enough to at least get into and graduate from multiple graduate programs. Similarly, I think I did plenty of appeasement too. I think there were a lot of students out there though for whom that was the only thing that ever mattered. If it wasn’t going to be on the exam, it wasn’t that they didn’t feel they didn’t have enough time to learn it. It was as if they thought things that weren’t on the exam didn’t exist.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:


        When I was in grad school, the Dean called me a “model student but a problematic director” so I clearly learned how to be good but apparently actors did things like not show up to their finals sometimes. By law school I knew how to hit the stacks but I still refused to do things like not sleep during finals or completely destroy my life. For example, if there was a 24 hour take home exam, some students would not sleep for those 24 hours or sleep very little. I was not one of those students.Report

  6. Avatar Kazzy says:

    I had a 7th grader sign up for a course I offered and on the intro sheet where I asked why she chose to be in it, she concluded her response with, “Plus it will look good on applications. Just being honest.” There is a certain irony there because in choosing to please one set of gatekeepers (those who hold the keys to high school) she upset another gatekeeper (me).Report

    • Avatar Jaybird in reply to Kazzy says:

      Campbell’s Law: “The more any quantitative social indicator (or even some qualitative indicator) is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      I don’t know what to make of a 7th-grader who is self-aware enough to make a statement like that but it seems very sad. I was way too oblivious to think like that in 7th grade. Though I was also in public school and I knew what high school I was going to.Report

  7. Avatar Damon says:

    Wouldn’t the importance be related to whether or not your objective required gatekeeper satisfaction?Report

  8. Avatar Kolohe says:

    1) Paul Lockhart” (PDF link) is sympathetic to your plight.

    Many a graduate student has come to grief when they discover, after a decade of being told they were “good at math,” that in fact they have no real mathematical talent and are just very good at following directions.

    2) Sales is the ultimate ‘fake it until you make it’ profession.

    3) You think anyone that gets into the Oval Office has a deep understanding of, well, anything, prior to sitting behind the resolute desk? If anything, it’s middle management that has a reservoir of ‘real’ knowledge. Getting to the executive suite doesn’t require real knowledge, it requires knowing who those people in the organization with real knowledge are. (and how to get them to work for you)Report

  9. Avatar veronica d says:

    I’ll say this, there is a certain skill in being able to look at a multiple choice question where all the answers are wrong but to guess which the person who made the test thought was correct.

    Fortunately for me, I have this skill.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to veronica d says:

      As i recall, this was a key insight for the SAT. Not so much for math, which had exact answers, but for verbal. If you reasoned it out very carefully, often the right answer was “none of the above”, so you had to learn which sort of sloppy thinking the test writer would favor.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to veronica d says:


      The multiple choice section of the Bar was pretty much about choosing the “least wrong” answer much of the time.Report

  10. As an undergrad and as a high school student, I liked to learn (most) subjects for themselves and not for the grade.* But I really did have to demonstrate a knowledge of X’. In high school, I didn’t have much of an idea of even how to get hold of a college application, let alone choose a college. As an undergrad, I had to keep a certain GPA (3.0 in my freshman year, 3.5 thereafter) in order to keep my scholarship. I wasn’t destitute and my parents would have probably lent/given me money if I did lose it, and I had a job, too. But knowing how to demonstrate X’ was really something I had to do.

    I guess that, in part because that system served me so well despite its flaws, I have kind of a bias in favor of it. I recognize its faults, and @vikram-bath does a great job exploring what some of those are. And some of those faults are truly regrettable. But at the same time, I find it hard to envision a way of assessing a large number of students on anything like a cost-effective way that doesn’t involve for testing for X’. (I do realize there’s the mythical SMALL LIBERAL ARTS COLLEGES that pay for everything that a student can’t afford and some of which that don’t assign grades. And good for the students who can get into them. But there aren’t necessarily enough slots for that on a larger scale, especially if one really does believe that college is for everybody.)

    *At least, that’s the story I like to tell. There were at least a few classes I eked through just because they were requirements, and I eked through them mostly because I knew how to take the tests. And for whatever reason, I’ve rarely had test anxiety like some people do.Report

  11. Avatar Brandon Berg says:

    If you thought playing the piano was enriching, you’d be playing rather than forcing your kids to do it.

    To be fair, my father is much better at playing the piano than I am.

    Also, there’s a widespread belief, which I suspect is true but don’t care enough to research, that learning to play a musical instrument is much easier if you start young. Some parents could think that it’s too late for them, but that their children would benefit from it.

    Honestly, in retrospect, I kind of wish my parents had made me stick with the lessons. But I only want to be good at playing the piano enough to wish that I had practiced more in the past, and not enough to practice now, so take that for what it’s worth.Report

  12. Avatar James K says:

    A problem comes about however, when someone can master X’ without knowing much about X. A sufficiently clever student can figure out how to show X’ cheaply with minimal effort without actually going through the trouble of developing X. Even if it isn’t obvious to you how this can be accomplished, don’t underestimate the resourcefulness of those looking for clever shortcuts.

    This is an application of Goodheart’s Law: A social science law will break down when used as a policy instrument. The most famous example of this is the Phillips Curve.

    The only real way to deal with the problem is to work out how to measure X directly and test on it. That aligns the student’s incentives properly.Report

    • Avatar Kazzy in reply to James K says:

      Yea, I do think this post begs the question that we can’t test for X. We often can. It’s just often harder to. And our education system doesn’t do “harder” well.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Kazzy says:

        Yeah. “Can you recognize botulism in your drink” is something easy to test for. (Yes, it’s on the test — guess which class).

        Cellphones have been a real boon to anyone who wants to track IQ worldwide. Simple, straightforward IQ tests.Report