Phi Beta Cons

Excusing discrimination against intellectuals

Today’s Wall Street Journal contains a letter from someone who is annoyed with the top-flight student of Chinese origin who was annoyed at Princeton for being turned down in favor of students with lesser academic ability. Here it is:


While test scores and grades demonstrate one aspect of a candidate’s abilities, they certainly are not, and should not be, a litmus test for admissions. It is tempting to use scores as the metric for comparison of students because of the difficulty in comparing other attributes, but in reality scores are used for more of a prerequisite than a deciding factor.

Student Jian Li begrudges Princeton for accepting his high-school classmate with lower test scores, but the article doesn’t note any other differences between the two students. Teacher recommendations, extra-curricular activities, oral and written communication skills and other factors remain extremely important in attracting a diverse and well-rounded student body. If elite schools were to use grades and test scores as the sole means for determining admissions, they would end up with an extremely homogeneous student body, if not in race or gender, then certainly in socioeconomic status and student mindset.
Aaron D. Sawchuk Charlestown, Mass.


Sorry, Mr. Sawchuk, but this is nonsense.  No school really knows much about the inner qualities of students, for all the attention paid to making applications look vibrant and exciting.  Moreover, it shouldn’t matter. The business of a university is to teach students, not to try identifying society’s future leaders.  And if he thinks that a student body comprised of students who all have about the same academic profiles would mean only having students of the same socio-economic status and student mindset, he just don’t know much about American kids.  Go to a high school debate tournament — an assembly of overwhelmingly top-end students — and you’ll see a very un-homogeneous group.
Thomas Sowell nailed this idea that admissions officers are doing something extremely vital when they search for “diverse” students in his book Inside American Education:
“What will look ‘rich and interesting’ to superficial people can of course differ greatly from what scholars who are masters of their respective intellectual disciplines will find to be students able to plumb the depths of what they have to offer. Dull-looking nerds can revolutionize the intellectual landscape and produce marvels of science, even if their life stories would never make a good movie or television mini-series.” (p.125) 

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.


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