“Men of character” on the rise, cold numbers fading

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.

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18 thoughts on ““Men of character” on the rise, cold numbers fading

  1. I was the kid that always had trouble with standardized exams despite being the son of a doctor. My sister is the intelligent one. People say I’m intelligent but the tests say otherwise and I trust the exams since they are objective measures. I could only muster a 1260 SAT score back in 1999 after a month long intense practice since my first score was 1190 (my test prep teachers were frustrated at me that I couldn’t improve) My parents were not happy but still was admitted to the University of Rochester (okay school). I even attempted the ACT.
    I believe my composite score was 25 or 27. I can’t remember but nothing to brag about. Don’t get me started on MCATs and USMLEs…terrible just terrible. Can you imagine the desi shame I had to go through? As a brown kid it was an embarrassment especially compared to Asian kids. I use to think standardized tests were bogus and we should get rid of them. I was wrong and my opinion has changed. I only wanted to get rid of them for selfish reasons not to help the poor even though I probably convinced myself at the time that such tests were biased. However I remember a close friend who is the son of poor parents from South America. It was because of such standardized tests that he was able to go to college on a partial scholarship and even in college I noticed that he had unique abilities that nobody picked up on. For example, because he was didn’t have much money left he couldn’t afford paper to take notes so he would attend class and just remember everything the professor wrote on the board, process it, and ask really in depth questions. He was a engineering major and earned a masters degree as well. Now he is a successful engineer out west and I was right, he is special. He is now a member of Mensa. I remember I did dig deeper in his family history and intelligence is genetic because according to my friend his father came from a poor village but was considered advanced when he was young however there was little opportunity to go to a gifted school or receive an education higher than the 8th grade. His father ended up being a mechanic at an airplane factory but suffered a debilitating injury.

    Standardized tests just proved I wasn’t intelligent but my friend was gifted. I’m happy for people like him who get to escape their tough upbringing but now with standardized test being removed from the admissions process, individuals like him will be increasingly rare. Fucking elites.

    By the way, can you do a post on the military and SES class/education/intelligence make up? I know Jordan Peterson mentioned it from time to time but I wonder if you have any particular insights.

  2. I think that it is a hilariously cruel historical irony that just when the Scotch-Irish have finally bought into the “institutions matter more than people paradigm” to the extent that it can be difficult to separate us out as a cohort, those institutions are not only failing, but are actually becoming hostile to many of us. Then again, maybe we are like the Injuns and Negroes, we just can’t seem to make those institutions from an alien culture work the way they are supposed to.

  3. Out of curiosity Razib, have you read Freddie DeBoer’s book on education yet? Obviously the science says nothing you wouldn’t be aware of already (and he’s complained that the editors made him dumb it down) but I know you like to read political arguments you disagree with provided they aren’t latter-day sophists, and Freddie assuredly is not that. It’s also a quick read with less than 250 pages.

  4. 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.

    Not exactly certain that they remain public as traditionally understood. Certainly they were set up that way, and officially have more commitments to advance various social justice concerns like ready access for low income students than most private institutions, esp. elite ones.

    However, according to this two year old study, from 1900 through the 1990s, between 40 and 80 percent of the University’s budget was provided by the state legislature. A few other (cherry-picked?) passages of interest from the same source:

    When the 1960 Master Plan was negotiated, UC had a total enrollment of 55,900. Reflecting the workload model first established in 1911, the state agreed to fund one faculty position for every 14.5 students as UC grew in enrollment and campuses.

    The election of Ronald Reagan as California’s governor, in 1966 and 1970, … marked a shift in the relationship between California’s higher education community and the state… The erosion in the historic compact of state funding for UC enrollment and program growth extended into the 1970s and the governorship of Jerry Brown (1974-1982) who did not share the commitment to public higher education that marked his father’s tenure as governor… In a trend that would accelerate in the 1970s, UC kept to its Master Plan target of enrolling more and more students. But state investment in new buildings and maintenance (for example) was minimal, resulting in a large backlog of infrastructure costs… George Deukmejian (1982-1990) worked with state lawmakers and UC’s then-president David Gardner to re-invest in UC, creating an important but short-lived reprieve to the long-term trend of declining state investment.

    Figure 5 on p. 11 shows state funding as a share of UC expenditures between 1950 & 1990. It peaked at about 70% in the early 1950s, descending pretty steadily to less than 30% in 1995.

    According to Wikipedia, state support was down to 11% of expenses in 2011-12.

    The trends are similar throughout “public” higher education nationwide. Consistent with the old saying about the piper payer and the tune caller, it is not surprising to see affection for the affluent playing a role in admissions. It might be easier to reduce that by having the state return to its previous role in funding.

  5. MP, few years ago the UC let a lot of out of state students in to charge higher tuition. the problem now is that the Chinese cash cows are disappearing (for political reasons).

    a friend who went to Berkeley 2006-2010 told me that the % of out state students shot up while she was there to the point where everyone noticed…

  6. The highly regarded Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, VA is facing plans to get rid of its exam in exchange for a random lottery among everyone who qualifies (raising the minimum GPA to apply, because previously the GPA only let you take the test) plus region based quotas (five areas for Fairfax, and also for various nearby counties.) The goal is to increase the number of black, Hispanic, and white admits, and reduce the dominance of Asian-Americans (primarily second generation children of immigrants). Well, the white part is not usually stated as the goal per se, but the documents all agree that that will be the effect, much as it was in Montgomery County in MD with their similar changes to Blair admissions.

  7. This year many of the SAT and ACT tests are being canceled due to coronavirus and schools are being forced to accept students without the tests. I imagine this will be the end of using the tests in public schools.

    The tests are also a useful way for students to judge schools. My daughter wants to play a sport at the division 3 level. In one minute, we can eliminate most colleges by looking at the average SAT score and whether they have a engineering school.

  8. Smarter parents have so-so kids and the reverse: Galton’s regression toward the mean

    just use the breeder’s eq. get an expected value for off & use the population variance as variance about that mean. so yeah

  9. This year many of the SAT and ACT tests are being canceled due to coronavirus and schools are being forced to accept students without the tests. I imagine this will be the end of using the tests in public schools.

    many universities will be feeling strong financial crunches. why have a screening process that you don’t have total control over? in the short term it’s probably rational to get rid of these tests for selective schools so they can ‘sell’ admissions to wealthy ppl who buy up their reputation…

  10. Contrarian response with stuff I’ve probably said before: As a UK person, kind of conflicted on the ideas claims that not having SAT based college entry will lead to very much different elites. Maybe, but in UK it seems like educational mobility about the same as US despite everything being on achieved grades, interviews, etc. I don’t know that US poor working class kids actually has better chances than UK equiv bcos SAT. There is no “cold gaze of standardized testing” and it doesn’t seem to matter very much.

    (To look at relative educational mobility across countries, I’ll take an example of this Naryan paper from 2018 – https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/28428, for example, see pages 29-31. Relative being here what we care about more than absolute, because absolute will somewhat penalize countries like the US which achieved high education early, then didn’t really expand it as quickly in subsequent generations).

    If there is a difference it seems small. There are more countries we could draw into the comparison though.

    Then on the question of the elite in particular, to the extent the US does have more of a meritocratic elite (and again, they don’t seem particularly smart), again find that it’s really hard for me to believe the case that the has led to a particularly *good* elite. The US elite, which the SAT built(?), seems by the account of USians themselves pretty bad!

    And it’s tempting to say that the bad among that elite are just the dumb children of privilege, but it seems to me pretty not so much… The US’s “New Men” who’ve risen on educational merit look at least as bad (or at least they look as bad on forms of media where they can self publish or are otherwise revealed to us).

    (Tangent on the China example, posting successful test graduates far from regions of birth ensured they weren’t as connected to local power gentry… but those gentry developed anyway, and while bureaucrats less likely to be corrupt alliance with them, also meant bureaucrats less likely to be able to cooperate with them for good of country and act as an balance to power of central imperial government. Was this actually a good thing for the country?).

    So I don’t know; I get that it is right and just to oppose the claims and motivations of would-be SAT abolishers, which are untrue and ill, respectively. Claims that it has invidious outcomes are likely wrong and it would guess on balance of probabilities probably has some positive effect. And I can see it being a “Canary in the Coal Mine” kind of thing for general trends towards entrenchment.

    But I don’t know if in the broader view that as a specific kind of exam it actually matters *that* much for giving rise to social mobility, or that exams generally (and formal “selection by merit” processes even) actually matter for giving rise to a qualitatively better elite.

  11. A “curated” elite college admissions process has plenty to recommend it for significant segments of society. Black and Latino numbers can match or nearly match their percentage of the national population, the existing elite will have it’s 30-50% cut (more than enough!), and the losers will be non-wealthy, non-upper-middle-class Asians, as well as “deplorable” white Americans from the boondocks.

    Speaking of which, did anyone else notice the absolute cratering of old-stock protestant white American achievement in the past, I don’t know, 50 years? Their recent ancestors 100 years ago invented half of modernity, and now the main story is opioid addiction and growing cultural invisibility? I had a good friend at my Ivy League school from Nebraska, and he said that he felt as much or more of a minority there than anyone else. I thought about it, and he was absolutely right. White protestants not from the very last bits of the old Northeast WASP elite have got to be at something like 10-20% of the Ivy League student body at this point.

  12. @Matt: I studied for a bit at Oxbridge in the UK, as well as getting my main degree in the US Ivy League, and in my experience UK elite students (and professors) were a lot more well-rounded and cosmopolitan than their American peers. I think this has to do with the class system which is still such a big part of the culture in the UK. I understand that class mobility is similar to the USA, but the way I had it explained to me is that if a person from a poor background became successful in the UK, they would try their best to hide their poor uncouth background, while a similar person in the USA would never shut up about how they went from rags to riches. So in the UK, being well-rounded, well-spoken, etc, are upper class traits aspired to by nearly every upwardly mobile person. In the USA, things are more quotidian, people do what they have to to get ahead in their field. A person can be very talented in software programming or in finance for example but not have time for or care about anything else, and generally have kind of middle class tastes and interests. This has been changing, my younger friends working at elite tech companies in the USA all seem to try to have interesting hair styles and travel to exotic places and go hiking in very hard-to-get-to places. But the aspirational culture is still different than in the UK. (I have a pet theory that at heart America is a rural culture, while the the UK and France are urban cultures).

    So anyway the elite in the USA believe they are very meritocratic and just by doing their jobs well (and having progressive political beliefs) they are doing their small part to make America the wealthiest, most successful country on earth. British elites might have more of a holistic sense of their country, maybe a bit more noblesse-oblige? But I shouldn’t talk like too much of an expert on the UK because I was only there for a short time.

  13. @Matt: Another thing about America is that it is a very large and now very divided country. Most of the coastal meritocratic elite has nothing but scorn for the poor white trash they view as holding the country back by voting against their own interests, preventing much needed progress, and clinging to guns and racism. On a personal level, a lot of this elite was pretty nerdy in high school, and is often mainstream adjacent (Jewish, E or S Asian, random ethnic white, gay) rather than from the old dominant white groups, and I wonder if there is not a little bit of schadenfreude at the stupid jocks who used to torment us now suffering from various crises of their own making. There is definitely a noblesse oblige, but it is mentally directed at people viewed as much more deserving of help, like downtrodden racial minorities, sexual minorities, refugees, etc.

  14. “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 only possible systems that can be fair and not gamed are systems of truly difficult examinations something like the French Baccalaureate or the German Abitur, and a lottery.

    Since there are politically important groups that cannot or will not raise their children in 2 parent homes nor have true respect for learning nor force their sprogs to exert maximum effort in their studies, examination systems are out of the question.

    We must have a lottery.

  15. 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?

    It means the future will be increasingly dominated by the Chinese and America will become a “has been” much like the UK today. I am reading David Goldman’s book “You will be assimilated” about the rise of China and the decline of the U.S. Any move away from meritocracy will simply accelerate the decline of the U.S.

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