Wednesday, August 21, 2002
Stanley Kurtz, whom I always admire, has a strong rejoinder to the latest Weekly Standard cover story on the SAT. I have to say, I think they are both wrong, and I take that view because I have a more radical view of the whole college business than either of them. To whit: I think too many people go to college, too much of college is devoted to nonsense, and too much emphasis is placed on the importance of a college education specifically to success later in life.
People forget that the debate over testing is really about who gets into Yale versus who gets into UConn. It's not about measuring "worth" in some abstract sense. And any debate about this question cannot be divorced from the far more fundamental question: what is college education for anyhow?
There are, it seems to me, three major answers to this question, all true but with very different implications for what should be our admissions criteria.
(1) College is a fundamentally intellectual and cultural experience. It's where you go to pursue the fundamental truths, and learn how you as an individual approach them.
(2) College is a fundamentally social and political experience. It's where you go to meet people who, like you, have been pre-selected to be the managers and leaders of society.
(3) College is a fundamentally economic and professional experience. It's where you go to acquire advanced skills and credentials that enable you to enter into a profession or a career more lucrative and productive than would be available to you absent the college experience.
As I said: all three are true. How do all three inform how we should (or if we should) sort people for admission to college?
Let's start with (2). If college is a fundamentally social and political experience, the place where the future elite of the nation will meet each other and form a class identity, then the question of who gets into what college is really a question of who we want our elite to be. There is a strong argument to be made that we do not want our elite to be composed of people who are good at taking intelligence tests - which is what the old SAT was. I used to work at a firm who selected its employees almost entirely on the basis of their SAT scores and the schools they went to. We had a lot of very smart people, and we made some extraordinarily dumb mistakes, because intelligence isn't wisdom, isn't experience, isn't leadership, isn't strength of character, isn't all sorts of things we were relatively short of. Switching to an achievement test, or eliminating explicit entry criteria at all and selecting students according to the impressions, positive or negative, of the admissions staff, is a reversion to the old system of choosing an elite. Before the advent of the SAT, the nation's elite colleges were chosen from our nation's elite prep schools. The assumption was that these people were best-suited by cultural background to run the country and its major institutions. Even after the advent of the SAT, many colleges engaged in affirmative action on behalf of athletes and students from under-represented states; in each case, the goal was to select for qualities presumed to correlate with appropriateness for leadership (athletes are often considered natural leaders, and a diverse nation needs leaders from Missouri as well as from New York and Boston), not aptitude for academic achievement. Not incidentally, there was a strong desire to reduce the over-representation of Jews in the academy. Nowadays, exactly the same forces are in play, but on behalf of different groups - not white students from Missouri but black students from Los Angeles, and not with a desire to reduce the over-representation of Jews but to reduce the over-representation of Asians. If the purpose of an elite college is indeed to train the nation's elite, however, it is not obvious that these considerations are inappropriate. Indeed, it is easier to argue that a university that "looks like America" is appropriate if one is training the elite of the country than to argue that a university of students with high SAT scores is appropriate. The one will at least arguably make a contribution to social peace; the other, arguably, does no good at all, since it is manifestly unclear that good test-taking skills correlate with an aptitude for leadership.
Now let's go to answer (1). If college is fundamentally about cultivation of one's higher self - if it has no instrumental value, but is valuable for the thing itself - then admissions criteria should be radically different than for (2). But it is still not obvious that scoring well on an intelligence test is the right ticket in. More fundamentally, we must ask the question: how many students can be expected to benefit from such an education? A rigorous education along classical lines is likely to be beyond all but a tiny elite of students, and this elite is unlikely to have anything to do with the elite we would want running the country and its major institutions. If this is the student body we want for our elite colleges, then we should be testing not just academic achievement but talent. We probably need an admissions process something between the admissions process for schools of theology and that for schools of music; we'd be looking for both spiritual readiness and native talent. Neither is perfectly correlated to intelligence. If, on the other hand, we take a more democratic view of the importance of "higher learning" - if we take more of a 1950s attitude and less of a 1920s attitude - then it is unclear why colleges should be selective at all. Let's make an analogy: in the 1950s, when there was considerable passion for cultivating the entire citizenry, the public schools and the mass media were primary means of such cultivation. And, excluding the special cases of racial segregation and the handful of elite prep schools, what distinguished the high schools of that era was their uniformity one to the other. They were all pretty much teaching the same things in the same way to a diverse student body. If we aspire to such an ideal of cultural literacy, and if we are determined to use colleges rather than primary and secondary schools to achieve this, then I don't see a strong basis for having colleges be selective in admissions. Rather, the ideal would seem to be the open admissions system: come one, come all, and if you can do the work you pass, and if not you fail out.
But now we come to answer (3). This is overwhelmingly the focus of our discussion of higher education today. We don't believe in higher truth and we are uncomfortable talking about training an elite (even though we continue to do just that). Education, in the view of most of our pundits, is a purely economic good. You go to college so that you are qualified to go to law or medical school, or so that you can get a better job than you would likely get if you did not go to college. You want to teach the basics in college - writing, mathematics - because likely as not the student body hasn't learned these things in secondary school, and they are essential to the modern workplace. And you want to teach explicitly or implicitly pre-professional courses rather than courses in Shakespeare or, for that matter, the semiotics of hip-hop. If the purpose of college is to prepare one for future careers, then sorting students for college is no different than sorting through employees for hiring. You want to train people for what they'll be good at. You want to identify who will be good lawyers, and train them for the law; who will be good accountants and train them for accountancy; etc. You can have them all mingled together on one campus for social reasons, but the real sorting that needs to be done is for tracking to different professions. This tracking can be distorted in order to try to re-distribute economic goods among ethnic groups. But any such re-distribution is going to have significant economic costs. At some point, the piper must be paid, and either we will have a mal-distribution of people in the economy (lousier doctors and lawyers and accountants than we might have) or employers will have to spend more time and money sifting through the noise caused by affirmative action in order to identify real aptitude. Again, though, there's no reason to think that sorting the population by its performance on an intelligence test is a good way to slot people for pre-professional purposes. Indeed, if we're concerned about economic efficiency, then probably the best solution to the sorting problem is to have a diversity of solutions. The College Board monopoly is arguably itself the problem, not the SAT or the SAT II or any other particular test. Rather than having one system of sorting, we should have 3 or 4 systems of sorting people, such that colleges will compete to identify the students who will bring the most value to the school as alumni, and adjust their admissions criteria according to the results of different experiments.
Our current debates about the distribution of education are confused because we don't know what higher education is for. The resentment about affirmative action stems from the conviction - valid, after all, to some extent - that what college you get into is a strong predictor of your future earnings, and that therefore this good should be distributed accoring to merit. But even if this is true, what is merit? What are we trying to measure with the SAT, or achievement tests, or any test at all? Merit is not an abstract quality: it can only be discussed in relation to some objective. Productive people deserve to earn more; good leaders deserve positions of power; people of taste and discernment should set the cultural tone of the country. But what are "meritorious" people in the abstract?
Ironically, the class who benefits most from a system of selection through tests - and I should say at the outset, as an excellent test-taker I'm a traitor to that class - is, the very same class who benefits most from the distortion of that system through affirmative action and so forth. (This is a point that comes out very strongly in Nicholas Lehmann's excellent if obviously politically slanted book about the development of the SAT,
The Big Test.) This is the rising class of meritocrats, who believe that merit is academic achievement. They know that their claim to rule depends on a plausible case being made for their social solidarity with the larger citizenry; for that reason, they have an enormous stake in "looking like America." But there are other paths to wealth and power than by passing tests, and academic tests are a poor proxy for these. We should continue to debate how admissions are handled, but if we care about economic efficiency I would rather see more competition among tests than more debate about tests, and if we care about how our political or cultural elite is chosen then we should debate that topic explicitly, something we are currently very reluctant to do, and I doubt that intelligence tests will be brought much to bear on that discussion.