It would be great if Prof Pinker had decided to reach out to Psychological Comments in order to join our occasional series on university standards, but he has done the next best thing: he has written a heartfelt account of teaching at Harvard, which serves our purpose very well. My thanks to an alert reader for this:
In brief, Pinker is arguing against those who would have university entry be based largely on holistic criteria: general enthusiasm, good works, helping the unfortunate (excluding unfortunate academics), playing sports, and being diverse in some required manner. The latter loophole allows you to encourage or prevent racial and religious groups, and to make special provision for those whose parents have donated large sums.
Pinker makes an admission I find quite shocking: A few weeks into every semester, I face a lecture hall that is half-empty, despite the fact that I am repeatedly voted a Harvard Yearbook Favorite Professor, that the lectures are not video-recorded, and that they are the only source of certain material that will be on the exam. I don’t take it personally; it’s common knowledge that Harvard students stay away from lectures in droves, burning a fifty-dollar bill from their parents’ wallets every time they do.
Well, I thought I was the only one. I was highly ranked as a teacher in my medical school, but I assumed that the more-than-slightly-better-known Prof Pinker would command a full lecture hall. Other psychology teachers happily go to talks by Steven Pinker, and read his many books. Why not these brats?
Pinker argues that they are not at lectures because they are following the holistic pursuits that gained them entry: music, drama, sports, dance, comedy. What is to be done with these all-too-well-rounded but thoroughly anti-intellectual, uncultivated , and wilfully untutored minds?
If only we had some way to divine the suitability of a student for an elite education, without ethnic bias, undeserved advantages to the wealthy, or pointless gaming of the system. If only we had some way to match jobs with candidates that was not distorted by the halo of prestige. A sample of behavior that could be gathered quickly and cheaply, assessed objectively, and double-checked for its ability to predict the qualities we value….
We do have this magic measuring stick, of course: it’s called standardized testing. test-based selection used to be the enlightened policy among liberals and progressives, since it can level a hereditary caste system by favoring the poor and smart over the rich and stupid.
So why aren’t creative alternatives like this even on the table? A major reason is that popular writers like Stephen Jay Gould and Malcolm Gladwell, pushing a leftist or heart-above-head egalitarianism, have poisoned their readers against aptitude testing. They have insisted that the tests don’t predict anything, or that they do but only up to a limited point on the scale, or that they do but only because affluent parents can goose their children’s scores by buying them test-prep courses.
Pinker goes on to show that these claims are wrong: ability and scholastic tests are our best predictors overall, and are little influenced by tuition. Standardized testing would be fairer than Harvard’s messy current system. Students selected on that basis might even have intellectual interests.
How strange that we even have to argue that entry to an academic establishment should be on academic aptitude, when that should be obvious. Stranger too that the inept entry system confers advantages to graduates because employers assume that if they went to Harvard they must have done so on merit, and be bright and well educated.
Finally, if you wondered why people read Steven Pinker, look at these two paragraphs, given early in his essay in reply to the suggestion that, instead of the usual objectives, education should be focussed on the holistic goal of building a self, a unique being, a soul. Pinker reports he doesn’t know how to do that, but suggests:
It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.
On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.
A virtuous prospectus, uncluttered by priests, and within the bounds of the possible. As Burke observed in A Vindication of Natural Society, all happiness is connected with the practice of virtue, which necessarily depends upon the knowledge of truth.