The Atlantic's November College Admissions section completely ignores some of the more significant problems with the SAT and its use in the admissions process.
As a regional test-prep firm based in Chicago's North Shore suburbs, we have long been familiar with the advantage wealthier students have when preparing for the SAT and the ACT. Not only can they pay for courses and private tutoring, but we have recently seen a greater number of students be declared "learning disabled" and thus receive valuable extra time or other accommodations on standardized tests. Many other students are prescribed performance-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall, ostensibly to treat ADHD and other disorders.
The result is a skewing of SAT scores in favor of students wealthy and savvy enough to take advantage of these opportunities. One needn't make judgments about the value of various accommodations to agree that poor students inevitably receive far fewer of them.
Ross Douthat ("Does the Meritocracy Work?," November Atlantic) offers damning statistics to show that kids who are admitted to the best colleges tend to come from wealthier-than-average families. However, these statistics ignore one critical point: families with college-age kids are by definition not average. For one thing, they are older than average by a considerable amount. The median income for all families in 2001 was about $42,000 a year. But the median income for families headed by forty-five-to-fifty-four-year-olds—those most likely to have college-age kids—was $58,000.
I doubt this explains all the economic disparities Douthat complains of, but I suspect it explains a lot of them.
Ross Douthat's article was very interesting to me. I worked as a social worker for seven years for the state of Alabama and therefore had extensive contact with the poor. In order to work with them more effectively, I would send them for a psychological evaluation and IQ test. Their scores on the IQ tests were consistently low, around 75 to 80. This is the reason the poor are not attending college in large numbers. They do not have the intelligence (an IQ of 110 or higher) necessary to do college-level work.
My poor clients frequently told me they liked to work with their hands. They wanted good-paying factory jobs. We need to accept the lower quadrant in society with their limitations, and not outsource all the factory jobs overseas. All work is honorable. These people can contribute to society.
Seventy-five percent of the population has an IQ under 110. A Department of Education study shows twenty-nine out of every 100 students getting a degree, which is predictable if we consider how IQ limits who can do college-level work. I do not agree with Douthat's statement that IQ is not inherited. Studies of children who are adopted show that they have IQs within five points of their biological parents', regardless of their environment.
Colleges are not discriminating against lower-income people; nature has limited what they can do. Perhaps the intellectual elite should have more contact with the poor so that they can understand them better before they write articles about them.
Katherine Owen Sechrist
Mountain Brook, Ala.
I am in full agreement with Ross Douthat that higher education is not always about meritocracy. The barriers to college attendance and graduation for low-income students are immense and unreasonable, and too many institutions and individuals in higher education lose sight of social justice in the largely artificial rankings race. We need to get creative about admissions solutions, because higher education is and should be accessible to all students regardless of their ability to pay. The more higher education reproduces socioeconomic inequities, the more our society loses in terms of progressive thought, practice, and innovation.
However, Douthat's argument that graduates of elite or highly selective schools enjoy a lifetime of advantage completely discounts the fact that many of them work to reverse social and economic inequities in their postgraduate lives. Many have a "pay it forward" mentality that places a premium on using their education to change society in positive, more egalitarian ways. Students who have been raised with more resources than others often share this commitment with their families.
My fellow Stanford graduates (class of 1994), themselves from diverse economic backgrounds, are spread around the world, working to improve conditions among the impoverished and the disadvantaged on a global scale. Closer to home, they are in county hospitals, public schools, and philanthropic organizations. They are leading diversity initiatives in the workplace, mentoring young people who have few other sources of social support, and imbuing business with social consciousness. They are raising children with an emphasis on thinking outward, not inward. They are not fanning privilege.
Los Angeles, Calif.
Ross Douthat replies:
Dave Munger makes a good point about how family income changes with parental age; ideally, studies of family income and college access would focus specifically on families with college-age students. I'm skeptical, however, that parental age explains "a lot" of the economic disparities. The child of a family earning the median income he cites, for instance, would have at least a 13 percent chance of earning a bachelor's degree by age twenty-four. A child from a family making more than $90,000, on the other hand, has a 50 percent chance of earning a B.A. over the same period.
I will not wade into the marshes of the IQ debate, but Katherine Owen Sechrist is no doubt right that many young Americans would be unlikely to succeed in college, or attend at all, even with a more level admissions playing field. The problem is that many low-income students who are prepared for college, and who score well on standardized tests, either don't go or enroll and then drop out after encountering economic and cultural hurdles. It's this population we should be concerned about, for the sake of both social mobility and America's long-term economic competitiveness.
And I only wish I could believe Shannon Gilmartin's appealing but unsupported assertion that more than a small percentage of young elites will spend their lives "working to improve conditions among the impoverished and the disadvantaged on a global scale."
I enjoyed Bernard-Henri Lévy's account of his visit with Norman Mailer in Provincetown ("In the Footsteps of Tocqueville," November Atlantic). His comments, however, do not reveal a close reading of Mailer's work. Lévy says that the hero of Tough Guys Don't Dance is gay. Tim Madden is straight, as is clearly revealed in several places in the novel, especially in the long opening conversation with his father. A more egregious error is Lévy's assertion that Mailer is "the most secular of American novelists." Even a cursory reading of Advertisements for Myself, Of a Fire on the Moon, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, or, most important, The Gospel According to the Son reveals Mailer's deep, idiosyncratic religiosity. For more than forty years he has written about his belief in a limited, imperfect God locked in a struggle with a powerful and wily Devil. Humanity is a third, often co-equal force, sometimes on the side of good and sometimes on that of evil. Mailer's well-considered theological beliefs are palpably obvious to his readers, who are many.
J. Michael Lennon
Clark McCann (Letters to the Editor, November Atlantic) charges that Bernard-Henri Lévy "smears" the "intelligent design" advocate Jonathan Wells and his book Icons of Evolution. Forgive me for replying to another reader's letter, but there's always the chance someone might believe it to be accurate.
McCann begins by ridiculing the idea that Wells is part of "a Moonie conspiracy against evolution." But read Wells's own words, as quoted in the Science review of Icons: "Father's [Moon's] words, my studies, and my prayers convinced me that I should devote my life to destroying Darwinism, just as many of my fellow Unificationists had already devoted their lives to destroying Marxism. When Father chose me to enter a Ph.D. program in 1978, I welcomed the opportunity to prepare myself for battle."
I would need more space than a letter allows to demolish every point Wells makes in his book, so I will offer only my favorite example of his poor scholarship and limited understanding of science—one from my own field, molecular phylogenetics. In Icons, Wells attempts to cast doubt on the ability of DNA and protein sequences to untangle the common ancestry of species. He picks what he thinks are obviously ridiculous results from the scientific literature, and among these is one that "puts cows closer to whales than to horses." Now, anyone who has been following the subject lately knows that strong confirmation of this result has come from both molecular and fossil data. Not only are whales related to cows, but they are in fact close relatives of hippos, all in the group of even-toed ungulates, Artiodactyla. Horses are members of the odd-toed ungulates, Perissodactyla. To be fair, most of this confirmation came after Wells's book was published. But it does handily refute his argument.
Wells's book is scientifically useless. I am unaware of any textbook that was, or needed to be, corrected based on anything Wells wrote.
San Jose, Calif.