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The Chosen Elite
October 5, 2005 2:13 PM   Subscribe

"If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears." Malcolm Gladwell on the Ivy League business.
posted by semmi (48 comments total)

 
You can NEVER have too many zen masters.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 2:18 PM on October 5, 2005


Wait, you mean Harvard is an exclusionary institution, populated by society's elite? Who'da guessed?
posted by jonmc at 2:30 PM on October 5, 2005


Yeah, following jonmc's comment... I read this article this morning and though I found it interesting, it's pretty darn, well, obvious.
posted by billysumday at 2:32 PM on October 5, 2005


Metafilter: an exclusionary institution, populated by society's elite teh int0rnet's l33t.
posted by sfslim at 2:40 PM on October 5, 2005


Well...the point of the article was the difficulty in defining what "elite" really means, which isnt intuitively obvious. The people with the highest test scores? The people with the greatest "will to succeed"? What does that mean and how do you measure it?

Is diversity fundamentally a bad thing in that it discriminates against too many people of one type (e.g. too many asians) or a good thing in that its an inclusive policy, favoring that poor boy from the ghetto over yet another Exeter graduate? People have been debating that one for the past century. I dont see whats obvious about it.
posted by vacapinta at 2:41 PM on October 5, 2005


vacapinta: I suppose that what I found obvious was the discussion regarding the quality of diversity - what you even claim yourself has been an ongoing discussion "for the past century."
posted by billysumday at 2:57 PM on October 5, 2005


"If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears." Malcolm Gladwell on the Ivy League business.

Geez, take things out of context much? That's not what Gladwell has to say on the topic of Ivy League business, that's just a quote from an article that he wrote about Ivy League business. He was speaking on behalf of Harvard, not speaking his mind.

That said, the article raises some interesting questions that aren't touched on at all, namely "Is it possible to teach the qualities that will actually be beneficial to post-college success?" It hints that sports programs foster athletes' essential life skills in areas outside of sports: things like drive, energy, and competition. Can these things be taught to people who don't already possess them?
posted by 23skidoo at 2:58 PM on October 5, 2005


Two things struck me from this article: 1) it explains via "legacy" how Bush got in, (2) I had not realized that increasingly athletes are given such special consideration at schools that in fact are hardly outstanding for their teams in just about any sport.
posted by Postroad at 3:00 PM on October 5, 2005


Man. Nobody is gonna want to go there after this.
posted by spock at 3:02 PM on October 5, 2005


Well...the point of the article was the difficulty in defining what "elite" really means, which isnt intuitively obvious. The people with the highest test scores? The people with the greatest "will to succeed"? What does that mean and how do you measure it?
posted by vacapinta at 5:41 PM EST on October 5 [!]


That's what I got out of the piece, as well. About the only thing different from Harvard/Yale etc.'s standards from the standards of the European meritocracy process are vaguely subjective criteria with ill-defined effect.
posted by Rothko at 3:04 PM on October 5, 2005


When the Office of Civil Rights at the federal education department investigated Harvard in the nineteen-eighties, they found handwritten notes scribbled in the margins of various candidates’ files. “This young woman could be one of the brightest applicants in the pool but there are several references to shyness,” read one. Another comment reads, “Seems a tad frothy.” One application—and at this point you can almost hear it going to the bottom of the pile—was notated, “Short with big ears.”

Poor Rick Santorum just couldn't get a break.
posted by delmoi at 3:07 PM on October 5, 2005


I have Ivy league gradumacated friends who make far less than $120,000, even ten years out.

And I wish I made $90,000.

But it's still an interesting article. "Excellence" can be an amorphous concept.
posted by bardic at 3:08 PM on October 5, 2005


23skidoo: It hints that sports programs foster athletes' essential life skills in areas outside of sports: things like drive, energy, and competition. Can these things be taught to people who don't already possess them?

University burned all the drive energy and competitiveness that ever had right out of me. I actually think that is a good thing, but I don't think it effects very many people that way...
posted by Chuckles at 3:14 PM on October 5, 2005


Hey, if affirmative action promotes blacks because they are 'underrepresented' in some schools, it should also promote whites where they are underrepresented.
posted by Citizen Premier at 3:17 PM on October 5, 2005


Hey, if affirmative action promotes blacks because they are 'underrepresented' in some schools, it should also promote whites where they are underrepresented.

Actually, when affirmative action was banned in California, the number of whites admitted to UC Berkley dropped, in favor of Asians.
posted by delmoi at 3:28 PM on October 5, 2005


Citizen_P, did you even read the article? It's about 23 steps ahead of you.
posted by bardic at 3:32 PM on October 5, 2005


Isn't it clear that athletic types tend to do well in the finance and business arenas because they are bastards?
posted by snoktruix at 3:39 PM on October 5, 2005


The interesting thing here to me is the implication that you can work your ass off, be highly motivated and still not get into Harvard because your ears are too big or you speak with a lisp. I also like the comment about the "happy bottom," which is a great phrase.
posted by Joey Michaels at 3:45 PM on October 5, 2005


do you like apples? i said, do you like apples?
posted by keswick at 3:48 PM on October 5, 2005


It's weird how people will construct social hierachies any way they can, even if there is really not a reasonable basis for doing so. Cars, colleges, clothes, income. You name it, we rank it and act snobbishly about it.

It's fascinating how it really doesn't make much of difference to get into Harvard. If you can get into Harvard you will do well.

The really smart thing to do is to get as cheap an education as possible so that the loans don't grab you. Go to Harvard if it has a graduate program that is right for you.

Australia has a dirty little secret in that private high school education is highly valued by many people. Where I live, in Melbourne, a question you sometimes get in job interviews is "what high school did you go to", which means 'what religion are you and how much money did you parents make'. Again, private schools are a waste of money, but parents will work themselves crazy to send their kids to 'exclusive' high schools. The admissions policy of these places is to cut a small percentage of the bottom of the class. The UK has the same thing.
posted by sien at 3:51 PM on October 5, 2005


Private schools aren't a waste of money. I went to both types, and the private ones were better. I mean, dislike them all you want, but there is a difference.
posted by dame at 3:54 PM on October 5, 2005


I read this yesterday and thought it was kind of shallow. The main point, as 23skidoo says, is about whether or not post-college success can be taught--that's the most interesting part.

Otherwise, though, Gladwell just assumes that the point of college, and the point of trying to go to a good one, is to make more money afterwards. I don't think that's true. College is, for lots of people, the only four years of their lives during which they won't spend all day, every day trying to make ends meet. Lots of the things you learn in college aren't about making money--in fact, quite the opposite is true. Lots of the things you learn in college are perfectly useless in terms of income.

I think a far more interesting article would be: in terms of what is actually taught, how are Harvard et. al. different from other schools? Obviously you get to hang out in fancy Gothic buildings--but are the classes, the subjects, the academic experiences different, and if so how? All of these endless articles about admissions make it seem as though college is a black box, and as though it's all about getting in and about the alumni network afterwards.

To put it differently, the article ends up making you feel that good colleges are basically useless, since people who go to them don't make any more money than people who don't. And that's just a silly, narrow way to think about education.
posted by josh at 3:55 PM on October 5, 2005


Just read this at my parents' house, interesting read, and re-affirms what I already believed.
posted by Edible Energy at 3:56 PM on October 5, 2005


I went to college to drink beer and sleep with coeds. And I didn't need no fancy pants Ivy League school to give me that opportunity!
posted by maxsparber at 4:01 PM on October 5, 2005


Lots of the things you learn in college are perfectly useless in terms of income.

This is interesting to me. I agree that there's plenty of stuff I learned during my abortive college career that was more or lessuseless from a pragmatic standpoint, and I remember feeling interested and vaguely irked at the same time, since I was raised with the idea of college being a place to acquire skills that would lead to economic security (as a former co-worker of mine once put it "college ain't nothin' but a get over"). Others, I've met were encouraged to see it as an introduction to the life of the mind.

All the POV's are legitamite AFIAC, but I find the differences intersting.
posted by jonmc at 4:09 PM on October 5, 2005


Actually, when affirmative action was banned in California, the number of whites admitted to UC Berkley dropped, in favor of Asians.

delmoi, are you are just making stuff up?

White students are 34.2 percent of the total pool of students admitted for fall 1998, an increase of 3.2 percent from fall 1997. Last year, 2,725 whites were admitted to UC Berkeley. This year, there are 2,674 whites admitted.
posted by rajbot at 4:12 PM on October 5, 2005


I cherish the four years I spent on "life of the mind" stuff, and it opened lots of doors to low-paying jobs like teaching, which I don't regret. But to respond to jonmc, I'm not sure the "college experience" at a top 25 institution is mutually exclusive from the profitability of an econ or finance degree from a 2nd or 3rd tier place. There's a socializing factor to every institution, and even if you're just there to get the high GPA and good letters for business school, there's also the golfing factor, especially among frat-boys, along the lines of having mutual friends, girl/boyfriends, cheering for the same teams, bitching about the same professors, etc.

On a simpler note, just check out a football game this fall at a place like University of Virginia (where I went to grad school). Underneath all the drinking and carousing, there's a ton of networking going on, whether they realize it or not. And I guess I don't blame them.

In other words, the people that work the system best benefit from a high social acuity--being able to work hard on the Socrates paper the day after a bender. I'd like to see American colleges and universities take their educational missions more seriously, but the presidents of these places know what side their bread is buttered on--it ain't the MFA poets, god bless'em.
posted by bardic at 4:25 PM on October 5, 2005



White students are 34.2 percent of the total pool of students admitted for fall 1998, an increase of 3.2 percent from fall 1997. Last year, 2,725 whites were admitted to UC Berkeley. This year, there are 2,674 whites admitted.

Well, that's what I remember hearing at the time... The absolute number did decrease.
posted by delmoi at 4:31 PM on October 5, 2005


dame: I don't dislike private schools. But I do stand by them being a waste of money.

If you can show me a double blind test with decent size that shows they have better outcomes, in terms of a few reasonably selected outcome metrics than government run schools then you will have shown that they are not a waste of money.

Otherwise, saying they are 'better' is purely subjective.
posted by sien at 4:53 PM on October 5, 2005


Geez, he makes Ontario sound like some sort of hippy utopia when it comes to university enrollment. I seem to recall the process as being pretty stressful. The program I got into still has an average entrance average of around 95% - which is not for me to brag, since I'm no one special, but getting in sure as heck wasn't guaranteed.
posted by GuyZero at 5:31 PM on October 5, 2005


Geez, he makes Ontario sound like some sort of hippy utopia when it comes to university enrollment. I seem to recall the process as being pretty stressful.

I remember it exactly how he describes it (except tuition was $3K by the time I came around). Also, I remember that the "supllemental information" form was optional, and mostly meant to be used by people with some sort of unusual circumstances ("my grades dropped cause my parents died.").

The thing where students feel like their school somehow defines them kind of still creeps me out a little.
posted by duck at 5:41 PM on October 5, 2005


I thought the real point was here: "Karabel calls the practice 'unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst,' but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do. Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus."
posted by semmi at 5:42 PM on October 5, 2005


sien: Why don't you find me a study that says they aren't since anecdotal evidence is in my favor.
posted by dame at 6:34 PM on October 5, 2005


dame: My anecdotal evidence is to the opposite. We can have them fight.

But hey, it's like diamond rings, living on the upper West Side or whatever. The 'better' calls are subjective.
posted by sien at 6:43 PM on October 5, 2005


If you can show me a double blind test with decent size that shows they have better outcomes, in terms of a few reasonably selected outcome metrics than government run schools then you will have shown that they are not a waste of money.

Depends on what those metrics are. I believe in terms of raw income, the outcomes are the same either way. Mostly it matters in terms of choice of profession. You're just as likely to make just as much money as a doctor if you go to a state medical school vs. a private, elite medical school. However, the guy who attended an elite medical school is more likely to make that same salary at a position in clinical research at an elite research institution by dint of the connections and research opportunities you had at the elite school...

Likewise, one could make an excellent salary as a machinist or a plumber even without a college education, or one could make the same salary as a project manager if you went to college.

If money is the only outcome of interest, then I think you will not find much difference in the comparative worth of private colleges vs. public ones for the same, identical student.
posted by deanc at 6:48 PM on October 5, 2005


Wait, I thought sein and I were arguing private/public in a pre-college setting.

But I don't think it's subjective. I think both of us are too lazy to try to prove anything. But I think one sort of education is better.
posted by dame at 7:53 PM on October 5, 2005


keswick: haha Good Will Hunting!
posted by growli at 7:59 PM on October 5, 2005


My thought is that elite institutions exist to protect the very facets of society that led to their existence in the first place. The homogeneity of their student populations isbest measured not in terms of race and class (although these can be very good measures), but in terms of adherence to the idea that these institutions are valuable and deserve protection. "Selective" means that they select only those applicants that very much want to be assimilated into that special culture of power and prestige, so that they may go on to continue the traditions that led to such inequality, rather than selective of creative, intelligent, and well rounded individuals.
posted by dsword at 8:34 PM on October 5, 2005


They have better parties too.

In defense of the private high school I went to, yeah it was elitist as hell, but it did give out a number of scholarships. I can't beat dsword's structural argument, but a lot of my friends would have been at the mercy of the local city public school system, and it wasn't, and still isn't pretty.
posted by bardic at 8:44 PM on October 5, 2005


Seems pointless to debate the relative intrinsic merits -- i.e., what kind of education you get -- of public vs. private schools. Not really what Gladwell's concerned with here.

He's pointing out, pretty revealingly, the gaping disconnect between the rhetoric of higher education and its m.o. One of the comical things is how those who run them understand that universities are luxury brands but can't quite admit it -- mostly because it would bum out the customers, who cling even more tenaciously than even the peppiest admissions officer to the righteousness of the selection process. (In the same way, customers who had to pay a lot for that degree are the folks who can be counted on to argue ad nauseam about its intrinsic merits.)

Side note: About 10 or 12 years ago, documents were discovered suggesting that the administration of the University of Chicago wanted to admit better-adjusted, better-looking people (don't remember the phrasing exactly). I believe it brought them a little hostility -- or at least a lot of derision -- from their clientele, which cherishes their brand's emphasis on social maladroitness, academic rigor, and general unpleasantness.
posted by Rutherford B. Hatch at 9:13 PM on October 5, 2005


I respect Gladwell's approach to bringing "social economics" to the masses, but like vacapinta said, this has got to be one of the oldest debate topics ever. Essentially, the question is "What is the formula for success?" It's asked everyday by everyone from the venture capitalist who has $200 million to invest to the restaurant chef who has to create an appetizing menu.

In this article, Gladwell puts it in the context of the Ivy League schools that attempt to pick extraordinary future financial successes (read: above average) using a controversial (not purely academic) admissions criteria system. Surprise! it doesn't work precisely because there is no clear-cut formula that translates those admission criteria into post-graduate success.

That said, I'm still a big fan of Gladwell and have bought all his books for the interesting social context he brings to textbook issues.
posted by junesix at 9:16 PM on October 5, 2005


Chuckles: University burned all the drive energy and competitiveness that ever had right out of me. I actually think that is a good thing, but I don't think it effects very many people that way...

That may not be a common experience, but I can assure you that you're not alone in it.

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
-Albert Einstein

posted by blockhead at 9:39 PM on October 5, 2005


I'm dropping names again, but I had to comment because Gladwell based his article on the research of Jerry Karabel, the professor who's married to my dissertation advisor. Anyhow, the basic relevance of this article to the debate over affirmative action is that "merit" in college admissions is a notoriously malleable concept that has changed considerably throughout American history. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are not only important in themselves, but because many things they innovated [e.g. entrance exams, personal essays, alumni interviews] still make a part of what we take for granted about the admissions process at even the most lower-tier colleges. Since "merit" is both changeable and historically contingent, all you have to do to get a different ethnic, racial, or socioeconomic make-up of your student body is to change your definition of "merit." This lends support to the pro-affirmative action side, because it suggests that the argument that affirmative action rewards the unqualified still begs the question of what constitutes a "qualification."

By the way, Karabel is also the author of the Karabel Report, which has played a major role in influencing administrative debates over admissions policy at UC Berkeley. Karabel is also a major figure who appears in Nicholas Lemann's book, The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy. Lemann dubbed him and my dissertation advisor "the Ma & Pa Kettle of Berkeley" in the book.
posted by jonp72 at 10:31 PM on October 5, 2005


I had not realized that increasingly athletes are given such special consideration at schools that in fact are hardly outstanding for their teams in just about any sport.

The Ivy I went to is perpetually nationally ranked in hockey, wrestling, and polo. The Ivys are powers in lacrosse, racket sports of all kinds, crew, and a host of others. There are thousands and thousands of student athletes, and only a handful ever make it on TV.

That being said, I found nothing this article had to say to be at all insightful. Colleges are looking for more than just good SAT scores? Tarnation!
posted by ChasFile at 10:31 PM on October 5, 2005


I think all of you are missing the point. Although Gladwell is certainly interested in examining the definitions of merit in college admissions, his central thesis is that those definitions were developed specifically to include and exclude certain groups, which is far from an 'obvious' thing to point out. I was certainly unaware of how the Ivies excluded Jews-- I always thought it was just a quota, but to learn that they actually engaged in wholescale reassessment of merit specifically in order to admit people with lower grades and test scores is pretty fascinating.
posted by miss tea at 4:46 AM on October 6, 2005


At least anecdotally, I think that the present admission policies are keeping down the enrollment of children of immigrants through cognitive dissonance more than anything else.

Immigrant parents will usually do anything to increase their kids' college admissions chances, but when you tell them that hockey lessons are a far surer route to the Ivy League than violin lessons, very often just refuse to believe it, so thoroughly does it conflict with their deeply-held sense of proper priorities.
posted by MattD at 5:54 AM on October 6, 2005


His description of applying to university (feh, "college" - in Canada college is where they teach basket weaving and welding) is similar to the old application process in Alberta, except that you had to apply to each university individually. Also, they didn't ask for any information other than name, social insurance number, age, and grades. IIRC, by law they couldn't.

The only exam you had to take was an English proficiency exam, but only after you were accepted. If you failed, you had to take two courses in English composition.

Also, you were not allowed to even apply to live in residence unless your home address was more than one hour away from campus.
posted by watsondog at 4:27 PM on October 6, 2005


What gladwell and duck say about Ontario applications was still accurate when I applied. Only by then tuition cost $4500, and continued to go up. But it was nice - just list three universities (I don't remember having to order them by preference) for one fee, and send in your marks. The universities do all the rest.

how are Harvard et. al. different from other schools? Obviously you get to hang out in fancy Gothic buildings..

Now, see, this is inaccurate. Harvard doesn't have many Gothic buildings at all. They have Georgian and some modernist and at least one Frank Lloyd Wright, but I don't think I saw any Gothic buildings in my one day of tourism there. Whereas the University of Toronto is positively dripping with nineteenth century Gothicness, of a similar age to half of Cambridge (you know, the first one) and older than Yale's Gothic, which is really more accurately called Art Deco Gothic. (Pointless architecture anecdote: One early twentieth century Gothic building at Yale suposedly offended the aforementioned Frank Lloyd Wright so much that he always insisted on staying in it for accomodation, just so he didn't have to look at it. It's a charming building with Deans' faces for gargoyles and stained glass windows of industrial and technological history.)

More seriously, the whole thing about being well-rounded and a leader type might explain why my rather brilliant former roommate was not accepted to Harvard, despite having SATs and marks above their average. She is bookish, and smart, and could argue her way through the Sargasso Sea. And thus would be completely unsuited to American politics or business.

As for the whole athelete thing - just so long as those athletes are aware that the majority of their marks are determined by primarily nerdy and unathletic graduate students, who determine those marks on purely academic grounds, with no points for being well-rounded.
posted by jb at 3:38 PM on October 9, 2005


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