Weekly I/O #21
Tyranny of Merit, SAT, First-generation Students, Lottery for College Admission, Political Divides
Weekly I/O is a project where I share my learning Input/Output. Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter with five things I discovered and learned that week.
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The below is extracted from the email sent on Apr 25, 2021
Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week.
Michael Sandel, the author of Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?, addressed the arrogance generated by meritocracy among the winners and the denigration it imposes on those excluded in his new book The Tyranny of Merit. As Preet Bharara commented on the book, “Michael Sandel digs at the roots of our divisions, dissects the causes of inequality, and dismantles the lazy orthodoxy of those on the left and the right”.
For me, it was a really pleasant experience to see this philosopher criticized the prevailing merit-based attitudes toward success, from both left and right wings, that have accompanied globalization and rising inequality.
One of the most interesting alternative ways he offered to think about success is to be more attentive to the role of luck in our lives. For example, NBA basketball stars can earn tons of money nowadays. However, their talent can pay off because they are lucky to live in a society that actually values and rewards them. Imagine if they live in Renaissance Florence, when fresco painters, not basketball players, were in high demand.
Another example is to draw a lottery for elite college admission, which you will read in the following paragraph.
Here’s a list of what I’m exploring and pondering this week
The inputs I want to share this week are all from the aforementioned book The Tyranny of Merit. Because there are too many interesting things in the book, I only put the notes from Chapter 6: The Sorting Machine here.
This chapter, in Michael Sandel’s words, is about “how higher education has become a sorting machine that promises mobility on the basis of merit but entrenches privilege and promotes attitudes toward success corrosive of the commonality democracy requires.”
Some of the points below may sound a little bit arbitrary or not very logically coherent because I omitted a lot of context and reference in the books. Please let me know if anything sounds confused.
1. The goal SAT failed to achieve: upending the hereditary elites and replacing them with meritocratic ones to enhance upper mobility.
Book: The Tyranny of Merit
During early decades of the twentieth century, admission to the Ivy League School depended largely not on academic ability but on whether you are from the right Socioeconomic background. Each college had its own entrance exams, but many people who failed to get a passing grade were nonetheless admitted if they attended one of the private boarding schools that catered to upper-class families or they were children of alumni.
The notion of elite college should recruit and train the most talented students found its most influential articulation by James Bryant Conant, the president of Harvard University in the 1940s. His ambition was to upend the hereditary elites and replace them with meritocratic ones. 
To identify promising students regardless of their family background, Conant insisted that the test for the Harvard Scholarship should measure native intelligence, not mastery of academic subjects, to avoid giving an advantage to those who had attended privileged secondary schools. The test he chose is a version of an IQ test used by the army during World War I which called the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). This test turned out to be not just a way of handing out a few scholarships at Harvard, but the basic mechanism for sorting the American population.
Conant called the term “social mobility” the heart of his argument and used it to define the American ideal of a classless society: “If large numbers of young people can develop their own capacities irrespective of the economic status of their parents, then social mobility is high.”
However, as thing turns out, Conant was too sanguine. Making higher education meritocratic did not bring about a classless society. What’s worse, it disparaged those excluded for the lack of talent. As Conant later acknowledged, sorting for talent and seeking equality are different. 
 “To be sure, the meaning of merit is fiercely contested. In debates over affirmative action, for example, some argue that counting race and ethnicity as factors in admission violates merit; others reply that the ability to bring distinctive life experiences and perspectives to the classroom and the wider society is a merit relevant to a university’s mission. But the fact that our debates about college admissions are typically arguments about merit testifies to the hold of meritocratic ideals.” — Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit (p. 163)
 “Conant’s meritocratic vision was egalitarian in the sense that he wanted to open Harvard and other elite universities to the most talented students in the country, however modest their social and economic backgrounds. At a time when Ivy League colleges were dominated by families of established privilege, this was a noble ambition. But Conant was not concerned with expanding access to higher education. He did not want to increase the number of students attending college; he wanted simply to ensure that those who did attend were truly the most capable. In line with this view, he opposed the GI Bill, enacted by FDR in 1944, which provided free college education for returning veterans. The nation did not need more students going to college, Conant thought; it needed better ones.” — Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit (p. 161)
2. SAT test scores are even more correlated with family income than how school grades are.
Book: The Tyranny of Merit
The SAT has not played out the way it was expected. It turns out that it doesn’t measure scholarly aptitude or native intelligence independent of social and educational background. Conversely, SAT test scores are highly correlated with family income.
Average SAT scores increase at each rung on the income ladder. The chance for scoring above 1400 (out of 1600) for students who come from a family with an annual income greater than $200,000 is one in five. But for students from a family with an annual income less than $20,000, the chance is one in fifty.
While high school grades are to some extent correlated with wealth, SAT test scores are even more so. This is partly because, contrary to long-standing claims by the testing industry, the SAT is coachable. Private tutoring helps students to boost their scores.
The College Board administering the SAT claimed that the scores to its test were not affected by tutoring for years. However, it recently dropped the pretense and partnered with the Khan Academy to provide free online SAT practice. Though it perhaps was a method worth undertaking, it seemed to result in an even greater scoring gap between the privileged and the rest since, unsurprisingly, students from families with higher incomes and education levels made greater use of the online help.
3. The percentage of “first-generation” students (the first in their families to attend college) at Harvard today is no higher than it was in 1960.
Book: The Tyranny of Merit
Some noteworthy data about higher education in America:
- The percentage of “first-generation” students (the first in their families to attend college) at Harvard today is no higher than it was in 1960.
- If you come from a rich family (top 1 percent), your chances of attending an Ivy League school are 77 times greater than if you come from a poor family (bottom 20 percent).
- At Ivy League colleges, Stanford, Duke, and other prestigious places, there are more students from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the entire bottom half of the country.
- At Yale and Princeton, only about one student in fifty comes from a poor family (bottom 20 percent).
- More than 70 percent of those who attend the hundred or so most competitive colleges in the United States come from the top quarter of the income scale; only 3 percent come from the bottom quarter.
4. Michael Sandel’s proposal for reforming college admission: Lottery of the Qualified.
Book: The Tyranny of Merit
Each year, more than 40,000 students apply for the roughly 2,000 places that Harvard and Stanford have to offer. The author’s proposal is, of the over 40,000 applicants, we first filtered out those who may not be qualified to perform well. This would winnow out perhaps 10,000 to 20,000 students.
Next, rather than try hard to predict who is the most talented and most likely to be successful, we choose the entering class by lottery.
This proposal doesn’t ignore merit, but it treats merit as a threshold qualification, not an ideal to be maximized. This is sensible since, firstly, even the wisest admissions officers can’t assess precisely which student will wind up being successful.
And the most compelling reason for this proposal is that it combats the tyranny of merit. As in the author’s words: “Setting a threshold of qualification and letting chance decide the rest would restore some sanity to the high school years, and relieve, at least to some extent, the soul-killing, résumé-stuffing, perfection-seeking experience they have become. It would also deflate meritocratic hubris, by making clear what is true in any case, that those who land on top do not make it on their own but owe their good fortune to family circumstances and native gifts that are morally akin to the luck of the draw.” 
 “In an unequal society, those who land on top want to believe their success is morally justified. In a meritocratic society, this means the winners must believe they have earned their success through their own talent and hard work. Paradoxically, this is the gift the cheating parents wanted to give their kids. If all they really cared about was enabling their children to live in affluence, they could have given them trust funds. But they wanted something else — the meritocratic cachet that admission to elite colleges confers.” — Sandel, Michael J. The Tyranny of Merit (p. 13)
5. One of the deepest political divides in American politics today is between those with and those without a college degree
Book: The Tyranny of Merit
Seeing college degrees as an avenue for advancement and as the basis of social esteem, elites have valorized a college degree so much that they have difficulty understanding the hubris a meritocracy can generate, and the harsh judgment it imposes on those without a college degree. One of the deepest political divides in American politics today is between those with and those without a college degree
“In the 2016 election, Trump won two-thirds of white voters without a college degree, while Hillary Clinton won decisively among voters with advanced degrees. A similar divide appeared in Britain’s Brexit referendum. Voters with no college education voted overwhelming for Brexit, while the vast majority of those with a postgraduate degree voted to remain.”
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