Current Reading

This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

I'm currently reading Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society by Mario Vargas Llosa.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

Reaction to chapter 1 of Guinier's book

So far I am disappointed with the book.  I am familiar with all of the usual critiques of elite education and standardized testing, and I was hoping to hear some sort of solution to the competitive pressures that have pushed things to this point.  I’m not getting that yet.  Maybe she’s just moving gently, setting things up for an audience that isn’t as familiar with the usual critiques, but so far everything is reading as run-of-the-mill rather than novel.  To wit:

  1. On page 10, she (apparently approvingly) quotes another writer’s lament that college admissions used to be fairly straightforward affairs for the children of the middle and upper classes.  She also quotes (on page 6) Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on how simple college admissions were for him in Canada (in the early 1980’s), where the university system is (was?) not as stratified by prestige tiers as it is in the US.  These laments ignore the fact that a larger fraction of the population now seeks admission to institutions of higher education, making greater competitiveness a consequence of some effort at the democratization that she seeks for higher ed.  At the same time, the economy has become more stratified, with the median person finding it harder to advance without more education.  Greater competition is a consequence of more people responding to these pressures, and I don’t know that a simpler application form will fix any of that.

  1. She laments on page 10 the extremes of resume-building and extracurriculars that some students are resorting to.  However, in the introduction she calls for higher education institutions to focus more on service and character-building.  More extreme extracurricular resumes, and more baroque lists of volunteer and service activities, are likely to be the consequences of the focus that she is calling for, as long as the competitive pressures remain.  I remain unconvinced that the real problem is admissions processes rather than a larger economy that has more people desperately trying to credential themselves to fight for fewer crumbs.

  1. Throughout the chapter she repeatedly laments that colleges are focusing on getting students who are already equipped to succeed rather than students whom they can improve and help.  I understand her lament, and to a large extent I agree.  However, there are some facts that she doesn’t have to consider from her lofty perch as an Ivy League law professor, teaching elite students who have already been through considerable vetting.  It’s one thing to give a break to a kid who has a few weaknesses but at least has most of the fundamentals.  It’s quite another to take students who are barely competent in high school math and who struggle to produce coherent sentences (let alone well-structured paragraphs and organized essays) and get them to a college degree in the strict confines of a four-year, 120-credit program.

One could say that we should nonetheless take those students where there are at and at least do what we can to build them up for four years.  That’s fair enough, but programs structured for that goal will not go as far as programs structured for well-prepared students. Employers will know this, the value of those diplomas will not be as high, and the competitive pressures that Guinier laments will not go away, barring some sort of unanimous agreement that all colleges and universities will forego competition and cater to the same average.

Also, there are many who not only lament inequities in undergraduate education, but also (probably rightly) lament inequities in graduate education.  There is an understandable (if misguided) call for schools that serve the less elite students to send more of them to graduate study.  However, sending people to graduate study means preparing them to some level higher than “Whatever we could manage to do in four years, working with a cohort that included many who started off barely competent in math and writing.”  There is a conflict between “Solve problems of inequality by taking them wherever they are at and doing what you can for them” and “Solve problems of inequality by sending more of them to graduate school.”

On the last point, perhaps it is unreasonable to expect Guinier to view these issues the way that I do from ground-level, in a non-elite institution.  Well, fair enough, but that just means that she’s merely one more Harvard Professor with a bully pulpit.  So far she’s doing an excellent job of making the case that Ivy League elites lack the necessary perspective to solve the problems that our society faces.

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