Failing Gatekeepers

I attended Phillips Exeter and Princeton. As an undergraduate, I majored in English and studied three other languages – one living, two dead. I loved most of my courses.

As I recall, in the late 1970s standards were quite high in Princeton’s English Department; I worked very hard at my studies and achieved only the level of being slightly above average in my departmental ranking. I did not graduate with honors. At the time, I excused my undistinguished academic record as having been caused by my participation in – and an excessive focus on – varsity athletics, but as many others have shown, that’s a lame excuse.

My loves of reading and writing, nurtured through my formal education, have followed me through life; I would also like to think that my course of study – which bore no direct relationship to my subsequent career – helped me develop habits of clarity of thought and expression that have proven invaluable.

At the same time, I have long been aware that the prestige of my degrees carries an outsized weight in the eyes of the world. Over the course of the thirty-nine years since I graduated from college, others have invariably shown a heightened respect for my presumed intelligence once they learned of where I had gotten my degree – and in certain circles, the high school I attended adds yet another layer of mystique. While such reactions have undoubtedly helped me get opportunities that wouldn’t have been open to me if I had acquired the exact same skills at schools that nobody had heard of, I quickly realized that such reactions were wildly overblown. In my very first job out of college – as a management trainee at one of the big banks – I observed that some of the other trainees who had attended vastly less prestigious institutions were just as smart, better prepared as to technical skills and a whole lot more worldly wise than I was. I caught on just in time.

***

I belabor all of that to acknowledge that I have benefited hugely from the way our education/job selection systems are organized. That said, I have come to believe that in recent decades educational standards have fallen precipitously at our nation’s most prestigious schools – at least in the liberal arts – and that the whole system by which college degrees, particularly high prestige ones, are used as a sieve to narrow the field of potential job candidates by major employers is both deeply unfair to huge segments of society and (in part because of today’s lower standards) absurdly inefficient. Surely there are better ways for us to teach vital skills and choose high-potential job candidates than to take it on faith that Harvard and its peers have not only chosen the best, but trained them rigorously.

***

Anecdotal evidence to support my belief that standards have fallen: in the company that I used to help manage, we hired lots of young people. I remember having been consistently astonished by the barely literate marketing materials and meeting notes written by seemingly bright, polished young employees who had graduated from top schools. I would read their work products with dismay, thinking: really? This kid went to Bowdoin? And graduated? What happened?

I may not have been a distinguished scholar, but by the time I graduated I could at least put together a coherent paragraph.

Another manifestation of falling standards: grade inflation has rendered most grades meaningless. When more than half of Harvard’s graduates have GPAs of A- or better (https://www.businessinsider.com/more-than-half-of-harvards-most-recent-graduates-had-an-a-gpa-or-better-2015-5), grades tell us little about how a student performed. What does that leave prospective employers with? First impressions and a reliance on the admissions officers’ judgments about a job applicant’s achievements in eleventh grade.

And finally, how can we not see affirmative action (or its mirror-image twin, discrimination against Asian-American applicants) as requiring a lowering of standards – not just for admission, but for graduation?

***

These observations raise the obvious question: why have standards fallen?

I think we need look no farther than the politicization of the academy.

Just this morning, I stumbled across an astonishing statement from Cornell University, justifying the decision of its English Department to drop the GRE requirement for Ph.D. applicants:

“We need the strength of a diverse community in order to pursue the English department’s larger mission: to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination and justice.” https://www.insidehighered.com/admissions/article/2019/03/18/cornell-and-harvard-english-departments-drop-gre-requirement

I cannot imagine such an assertion having been made when I was a student. What does it mean “to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination and justice”? The key words, in my reading are “alliance” (with whom? against whom?) and “justice” (surely, in this context, a code word for progressive activism). Since when has The “larger mission” of English Departments been political indoctrination? Since they’ve given up on reading with understanding and writing with clarity, apparently.

***

It now seems that the most important thing about high-prestige colleges – at least for liberal arts majors – is not what you learned there, but that you got in. They are highly desirable clubs for the upper class and those who are chosen (by admissions officers) to constitute the next generation of the self-affirmed elites.

Why did the wealthy parents now facing federal charges try to bribe their children’s ways into these schools? For the same reason that lots of other wealthy parents give large donations to their alma maters or to the “better” schools that they hope their children will be admitted to. They want to make sure that their children get the right labels and meet the right people, whether or not those children can compete academically with their prospective classmates. It’s not about where they will learn best (in fact, there’s plenty of evidence that students learn best when they are not academically overmatched), it’s about how they will cement their places in the higher-prestige/better opportunities world.

Parents are not wrong, as things stand today, to worry about the prestige of the schools their children will attend. Admittedly, the alleged bribers and cheaters manifested this concern improperly; but really, is their motivation much different from the parents who make large gifts to the schools to achieve the same ends? No.  

There’s a certain self-fulfilling logic to the process by which everybody wants to go to schools that everybody else wants to go to, so those schools get to choose whomever they want and, the assumption is that their student bodies are therefore the best. Such schools see themselves – and in fact take on the role – as gatekeepers for elite post-graduate schools and major employers.

So why do I assert that there are better ways for us to teach vital skills and, as employers, to choose high-potential job candidates than to take it on faith that Harvard and its peers have not only chosen the best, but trained them rigorously?

Because there has to be a better – and fairer – way to find high-potential job applicants than to limit the applicant pools to people who did very well in eleventh grade – and thus got into a high-prestige college – and might well have squandered their college years.

The devaluing of prestigious degrees, at least in my mind, follows the lowering of standards and the politicization of curricula in the liberal arts. I no longer trust that just because a young person went to a name brand school, he or she can reliably be expected to read, write or even think clearly.

I do know that a young person who went to one of these schools has something going for him. If he’s white, either his parents are very rich or he tests well; if she’s Asian-American, she almost certainly tests off the charts. But (if they were liberal arts majors) what can I assume that they know, coming out of college? Not much, beyond progressive political cant. To tell you the truth, that knowledge probably won’t help them much on the job.

College has become a horrifyingly expensive and wildly inefficient means of teaching young people useful skills, and a devastatingly effective means of excluding whole segments of society from professional-track opportunities. It cements and (seemingly) justifies on meritocratic grounds class distinctions that bear little relation to the skills nominally conferred.

***

Most jobs that are available to liberal arts majors begin as, in effect, apprenticeships. Each business has to teach young people what’s expected of them; little is taken on faith. The question a prospective employer faces, therefore, is which candidate is likeliest to learn quickly, behave properly and apply basic skills in communication and logic to their assigned tasks?

Admittedly a high IQ, which will help with the “will learn quickly” part of the equation, can be fairly safely assumed of those who have graduated from prestigious colleges (they are highly selective, after all) – but raw intelligence is far more widely distributed in the general population than is reflected in the overwhelmingly prosperous demographics of the student bodies of prestigious (and expensive) colleges. As to the other major qualifications for an apprenticeship – behaving properly and applying basic skills – I have become a cynic as to what such degrees actually represent.

Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars seem like an absurd price to pay for what passes for undergraduate liberal arts educations these days. They are only justified in most buyers’ minds because a prestigious college degree currently functions as a gating item for all kinds of opportunities for which the educations – or indoctrinations – currently on offer offer no real advantages.

Shouldn’t we have a system whereby employers can learn about prospective employees’ skills from rigorous tests and writing samples, ignoring the prestige – or lack thereof – of their degrees? If we did, as an employer, I would take the young person who had demonstrated skills in reading, writing and math, and had spent four years after high school working at actual jobs where he or she had served other people, over the kid who spent four years in a frat or a political indoctrination camp every time.

And such a system would be a whole lot fairer to the huge segments of the population who, as things stand now, will never have the opportunity or the means to go to Stanford or Yale.

There will always be a place for those who want to study English literature – or the other liberal arts – for their own sakes and for the skills they build – even if where those subjects are studied matters not at all.

M.H. Johnston

3 comments to Failing Gatekeepers

  • John Trafton  says:

    Thank you!

  • DCS  says:

    A really great piece. Thanks for bringing your powers of analysis to this issue.

  • McCaig  says:

    Bill Belichick insists in the meritocracy that is the NFL that “it is not what you know but who you know” suggesting the intangible that those admitted might, despite their IQ, be in a position to know who to seek help from rather than how to solve problems. Also consider (and this is from another respondent here – not me) that affirmative action should be about helping with admissions not outcomes…suggesting that rigorous academic standards are appropriate and beneficial.And as PG Wodehouse said (in reference to ‘the beloved spouse’: “She’s got brains for two which is eexactly the quantity the girl who marries you needs”. Good article

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