Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Note On Ross Douthat And Elite Education

First Douthat: Douthat 

Then me:

It’s me or Douthat, but I often have trouble understanding his exact argument.

He says the centrist fix is, at least in his version:

....Blending the two critiques can get you the centrist prescription for reform: Elite schools should emphasize class-based rather than race-based affirmative action, the argument runs, while phasing out preferences for jocks and legacies that give privileged whites their own leg up — a combination that might yield a still-diverse, more authentically meritocratic upper class...

(Sidebar, I don’t know if that’s a centrist fix or any kind of fix. Why have any affirmative action if we’re deemphasizing sports and legacy admissions? Why not revert to pure merit  by either just taking those who score highest or if the desire is not inflexibly to follow mere marks where some differences are insignificant, then get a floor and in some blindfold way pick from among the cohort that can stand on it? The exception to that is lending a financial hand to those who qualify but can’t afford to go. That’s a kind of affirmative action I can get behind.) 

But Douthat’s point is to counter argue his version of a centrist fix.

He says, (and it sounds far fetched to me):

....Elite institutions, by their very nature, are not a mass-opportunity system. Even (especially?) in a democratic society they exist to shape a ruling class. And the tension between legacy admissions and affirmative action and merit-based admissions is really a tension between three ways that a ruling class can be legitimated –— through intergenerational continuity, through representation and through aptitude.

The “more meritocracy” argument against both legacies and racial quotas implicitly assumes that aptitude — some elixir of I.Q. and work ethic — is what our elite primarily lacks.

But is that really our upper class’s problem? What if our elite is already diligent and how-do-you-like-them-apples smaht — the average SAT score for the Harvard class of 2022 is a robust 1512 — and deficient primarily in memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism?....

So his argument seems to be let’s not privilege academic merit as such because elites are comprised by more than mere intelligence and it may be the case that by way of legacy admissions and elite class based admissions, US elites will be able to sustain themselves.

....In that case continuity and representation, as embodied by legacy admissions and racial quotas, might actually be better legitimizers for elite universities to cultivate than the spirit of talent-über-alles. 

It might be better if more Ivy League students thought of themselves as representatives of groups and heirs of family obligation than as Promethean Talents elevated by their own amazing native gifts...

And here especially what he says is so fanciful that he loses me

...It might be better if elite universities, in being open about seeking a specific ethnic mix and encouraging an intergenerational tradition, ceded a certain amount of talent to public universities, and even saw their average SAT score go down.

And who knows — the Ivies might even teach undergraduates a little more rigorously if they weren’t so determined to prove they admitted the smartest kids by never ever letting anyone flunk out...

In fact, he says, ...This is all admittedly fanciful... and he says,

....And it might be culturally impossible, given the sway of the meritocratic idea, for elite schools to lean into their aristocratic profile rather than insisting (in whatever defiance of reality) that they are offering opportunity to all....

I see the central flaw in his piece being the assumption that the purpose of elite institutions—referring in this context to universities— is to “shape a ruling class.” He’s putting the cart consequence before the academic horse. 

The purpose of elite schools is, I’d think, to be superior schools, offering the best education they can with the best personnel and most resources to the brightest kids. 

Feeding, shaping, regenerating elites are all the by product of what these schools do in and who attends them or ought to—essentially the smartest students. And sustaining a specific kind of aristocracy, one, say, that  is *not* ....deficient primarily in memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism? remote to the point of non existence in relation to these schools’ main purpose.

In my view, with a true emphasis on the brightest— leave out “best and,” because for the “best” who knows?—“ya picks yer best and ya takes your chances,” and elites will be whatever they turn out to be in the result. 

And I’m not so certain the way out lacks clarity. 


The mess is now such in considerable part because of a hopeless nostalgia for a culture that went out with the Bourbons -- ruling elites and their "noblesse oblige" baggage. I agree this time with Itzik, except that I would be a lot more dismissive of Douthat and his Ancien Regime conservatism. 

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