One of the major cultural findings of the past twenty years is that developed Western nations exhibit certain peculiarities that set them apart from the human norm. For example, reliance and adherence to abstract rules and laws, personal consequences be damned. In most of the world, people see merit in aiding and favoring friends and family when it comes to meting out punishment for violations of norms. This is not as true in Western nations.
A radio program I listened to many years ago talked about what Russians immigrating to the USA told each other. For example, the police in Russia and the United States were very different. Russian police were much more corrupt…but inter-personally they were much nicer and more willing to let violators slide. Russians were told that in America, you better follow the law because it was much more difficult to charm yourself out of being arrested or cited.
On a spectrum, there is adherence to abstract principles, and then there is the reliance on human judgment. To illustrate the former, consider that the Roman Senator Manlius executed his own son for disobeying a command. At the other extreme, there are many cases of venality nad corruption, where the law is simply a word turned to individual gain. There needs to be a reasonable balance, though your mileage will vary.
In traditional China, it was understood that feelings of affinity due to family and friendship would be important. That is one reason that bureaucrats were usually assigned far from their homes. And, that is also why there was periodic recourse to competitive examinations. The system of introductions excessively favored the powerful and wealthy (I am aware that competitive examinations were not entirely fair!).
History allows us to understand why something like this would happen: UC admitted 64 well-connected or rich students over more qualified ones, audit finds. The UC system is public. It is there to serve the people of the state of California. This is not Stanford or Harvard, which are elite factories.
Here is what seems clear: the more the emphasis on “holistic” and “soft” variables in the applications, the more likely this sort of thing will happen. The wealthy and well connected are much more likely to know someone in administration or admissions. A “good word” on the inside. Additionally, there is an incentive for people in the university to admit these people, since high-net-worth alumni give money back to the university. Finally, the wealthy and connected can land better recommendations and more diverse and impressive extracurriculars.
“Holistic” admissions are not WEIRD. It is the reemergence of older forms of elite selection which rely on recommendation and networks. Standardized tests are the opposite. They are WEIRD, because a “good word” gets you nowhere. There is lots of talk about test prep, but the older standardized tests show very little improvement from these efforts. I’ve been talking about this for twenty years, and the result remains robust (the tests have probably gotten easier to ‘study for’ more recently).
People routinely complain that standardized tests are unfair because the well-off score higher than the poor. One reason that the well-off in the USA are well-off is that they are smart, and intelligence is partly genetic. Many doctors come from modest means, but were the bright kid in their class. A lot of their children will be smart. This is not wholly true, as intelligence is heritable, with a random component. Some children of well-off people are dumb, even if the parents are smart, and some poorer children of average parents are smart (a friend was raised by a working-class single mother, with his father being a bohemian musician, but he ended up going to Harvard to do math; he’s pretty atypical in his family). The USA is not a totally fair society, but neither is it totally unfair.
When you see elite people complain in the media how unfair standardized tests are, and how much money their parents paid for them to do better, it’s because these elite people are too stupid to do well on these tests. Standardized tests are unfair for these people because their birth confers a certain polish and acceptance through their connections. Standardized tests are insulated from this.
Standardized tests are scary…because they are inhuman. They lack the ability to soften the edge if one does badly. There’s a coldness to them.
For various reasons, the United States is getting rid of standardized testing in many situations, from undergraduate to graduate admissions. I think this is the wrong move, but it’s a fait accompli. What will the future look like? The creation of new elites will now be under much stronger “intelligent design.” There will be fewer elites with poor personalities, and more with “leadership” and “spunk”. On the surface, the elites will be more diverse.
But choices can have unintended consequences. Pulling away the cold gaze of something like standardized testing will introduce human corruption and the privileged feed upon corruption like vultures to carrion.
In the 21st century cherish your patrons. At the end of the day, everyone is either a dominus or client. We’re all just guests in Ibram X. Kendi’s world now.