Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Harvard Yard, September 1986

In the comments to that last post, and over at OTB, there has been wondering about the kernel of truth in the "Dim White Kids" op-ed I referenced in the last post.

Let's go back in time 21 years (man, am I old) to my arrival as a freshman at Harvard. I get to world famous Harvard Yard. I say good-bye to my parents. I start to meet my classmates, many of whom become lifelong friends. As I attend my first semester or so of classes, I come to the realization that I've long misunderstood what Harvard was supposed to be about. There were many people in these classes I was taking who did not seem to have the intellectual firepower to be at the nation's most selective institution. There were several high school classmates of mine who seemed to be more qualified to be there but who weren't. I had no particular desire to stay at Harvard for the intellectual experience. I finished up in three years and went off to get my Ph.D. at MIT. That group of economics students remains the smartest bunch of people I have ever had the pleasure of associating with.

So who were these kids who failed to impress me? The kernel of truth in the Boston Globe piece is that they were not disproportionately members of any identifiable group that might be given special preference in the admissions process, by race or geographic location. The part of the op-ed that is not entirely accurate is that you cannot explain the phenomenon by simply appealing to wealth and connections. (And it may not be particularly relevant at all.) There were plenty of these students whose parents did not attend Harvard. There were plenty of them who came from families like mine--not rich enough to be active in philanthropy, but not on financial aid. Plenty of them show no particular athletic or artistic ability. In the intervening two decades, I have not gained any better insights into this mystery.


Anonymous said...

You seem to think that somehow the admissions office was using some unknown criteria to admit students who they knew lacked "intellectual firepower." But perhaps the achievements of 17 year olds -especially those can be summarized in an admissions folder - just aren't very good predictors of academic success. The ability to get straight A's in a typical high school, do well on the SATs, and write an essay will some help from teachers and parents just isn't sufficient.

Andrew Samwick said...

I think there is truth in what you are saying. It may be that it is very difficult to distinguish bright students who have peaked in 11th grade from bright students who have not. However, I remain skeptical that this particular challenge explains all of what is being described in the Globe op-ed and my post about my own experiences as a college student. Without sensitive admissions data and a systematic study, there is no way to tell.

Rebecca said...

I think that college admission criteria is biased towards those students who are motivated by their desire to please authority. To a large extent you have to be invested in playing the game of racking up your "selling points". That is often inconsistent with being motivated by intellectual curiosity or a desire for learning. That was my impression of a lot of my high school classmates who went to Ivies (at Andover). The evaluation criteria for determining whether someone has the goods in sciences are much less susceptible to that sort of bias - I found nearly all my classmates at Caltech highly intelligent.

son2 said...

I wonder if maybe those "dim white kids" came from elite boarding schools. I remember being surprised to find how many Dartmouth freshman came from schools like Phillips Exeter or Dalton. The entire state of North Carolina (where I'm from) sends about 12 students to Dartmouth a year, and Stuyvesant sends about 100 from each graduating class.

Which is not to say that the vast majority of students who come from elite highschools aren't really talented. Actually, don't Dalton and Stuyvesant have pretty competitive entrance exams?

What I am saying though is that admissions offices take into consideration the overall caliber of the secondary school when evaluating grades and SAT scores. So I wouldn't be that surprised if a lot of the hangers-on are mediocre students from boarding schools that are perceived as elite.

Also it would be a lot easier to support that hypothesis than to prove that all these kids were greasing someone's palm or just "knew somebody who knew somebody."

Kaleberg said...

What you probably noticed at Harvard was not dimness but the lack of a desire to have a life of the mind. Some of these kids were plenty smart, but Harvard, at the undergraduate level, is not an intellectual place. I know this sounds weird given that Harvard actually provides a good and challenging education, and most of these apparently dim kids rise to the challenge. It's just that at Harvard, and so many other schools I have visited, education is education and life is life and the two don't really overlap. If you want that life of the mind, go to a science and engineering school like MIT.

The downside of public intellectual activity used to be getting called a nerd, or tool, or wonk, or troll. I gather that the stigma has lessened somewhat.


son2 - Dalton is a private day school with a high tuition and tight qualifications. Daltong students get written up in the New York Times because they have good PR.

Stuyvesant is a public school with no tuition, tight qualifications and an SAT like entrance examination. Neither has boarding facilities. Stuyvesant students are noted for their active, mutant minds.

There are boarding schools, Exeter, Andover, Choate, that comprise the traditional Harvard pipeline, but they really don't account for all that many students.

Anonymous said...

The problem is not the kids are dumb and white, or that they did not impress.

The problem is with faculty such as yourself. These kids are the paper on which *you* write. It is your job -- and, with tenure, it is your obligation -- to inspire them, to fill them with the same passion that drives you.

If you engage in the game of 'blame the student'; if you simply wait passively for the rare, already-self-inspired, and already self-motivated student, to first prove to you their desire and skill (despite your attempt to drive them off, through disdain or worse), before you deign to allow them to kneel at your feet -- then you have missed the point of why you are at a privileged Ivy League college at all.

I'm not talking about inflating grades, or watering down content. I'm not talking about coddling. I'm not talking about breeding dependence. I'm talking about setting the highest goals and standards, but with compassion and inspiration; about bearing witness to why you got into your field, and why someone else should.

An admission office at a highly selective school does not weed out all but the self-motivated, all but those who already know their purpose in life. If that's how you were at Harvard and MIT, well, you were the rare exception. For the most part, students at highly selective schools are interested in the liberal arts, and prepared in the liberal arts. They are (to use a bio analogy) undifferentiated stem cells. It's up to you (and to the students themselves: a symbiotic relationship) to instill that essence which will differentiate them.