Letters to the editor

But there is a better reason to take science seriously. Yes, our intuitions and hypotheses are imperfect and unreliable, but the beauty of science is that these ideas are tested against reality, through observation, prediction, and experiment. The reason to be confident that the Earth revolves around the sun, for instance, does not come from evolution or theology. It comes from the discoveries made by astronomers.

I do agree with Barrett that scientific accounts of the origins of religious beliefs do not necessarily undermine the truth of such beliefs, but I’m less sanguine about the relationship between science and religion more generally. The problem is that religions consistently make claims—about the age of the Earth, the nature of mental illness, the origins of species, the nature of consciousness, and so on—that turn out to be wrong. This clash is not inevitable; one might choose to hold supernatural beliefs that can never be proven wrong, as Barrett does with regard to evolution, or one can restrict religion to statements about value and give up on statements about reality, as Stephen Jay Gould proposed. But neither approach corresponds to religion as it is practiced and understood by most of the human race.

Stephen Evans provides an interesting example of people who do not believe in an afterlife or in a specific account of divine creation. As I discussed in my article, such people clearly exist, but they are the exception: supernatural belief is the universal default. This claim is nicely supported by Evans’s point that Buddhists hold precisely the same sorts of dualist views as Christians.

Finally, both Nelson Hoffman and Paul Bohn have interesting things to say, but I am mystified by their pessimism. Regarding Hoffman’s concerns, no scientist thinks that everything is an accident. In particular, many aspects of the human brain display complex, adaptive, and non-accidental design, and so are plausibly viewed as biological adaptations. Bohn starts by describing my account as “wholly plausible” but then ends up putting it in the same category as intelligent-design arguments for the existence of God, an analogy that probably isn’t meant to be flattering. In fact, my proposal might well be wrong, but it is a psychological theory of the usual sort, based on the same experimental methods that have been used to study other aspects of mental life. The question of why people have supernatural beliefs is just another scientific problem—though, admittedly, an unusually interesting one.

College Admissions

As a firsthand observer (our only child started college this fall), my view of the college admissions process is different from Ross Douthat’s (“Does Meritocracy Work?,” November Atlantic). From his perspective, my daughter and her classmates represent a naked display of power and privilege: graduates of an expensive prep school, many of them are attending the best colleges in the country and paying full freight. But a closer look at the situation reveals an admissions success story.

Overwhelmingly, the parents of my daughter’s classmates were raised in modest circumstances and then hoovered up by the great meritocracy machine. They attended good colleges, worked hard, stayed married, bugged their kids to study more and party less, and saved enough money to pay exorbitant tuition bills.

Should their children be swept aside in favor of less-talented kids just because their parents played by the rules and climbed the ladder of success? I don’t think so. In the coming decades America will need the very best leaders to overcome the daunting problems that it faces, and they should be recruited from every income class, even the higher ones.

Peter K. Clark
Lafayette, Calif.

Ross Douthat replies:

Peter Clark’s concerns are understandable, but no one is advocating that smart, hardworking students from upper-income families be “swept aside” in order to broaden poor students’ access to higher education. It’s true that any kind of class-based affirmative action would necessarily make some well-off students marginally less likely to be admitted to their first- or second-choice school. But there’s very little evidence that a student is seriously disadvantaged later in life by attending Skidmore rather than Stanford, or Colgate rather than Cornell. And American higher education contains so many good schools that, as James Fallows and V. V. Ganeshananthan have pointed out in The Atlantic, nearly every applicant can find “a school that fits his or her skills, needs, and interests.” In addition, many excellent schools are actively competing for high-scoring students from high-income families, showering them with merit aid in the hopes of enticing them to attend. Given these advantages—as well as the preferences that schools already offer legacies, athletes, and minorities—it seems only fair to provide a few more advantages to the disadvantaged as well.

In “The Best Class Money Can Buy”   (November Atlantic), Matthew Quirk labels enrollment managers as extortionist—concerned only with squeezing more money out of students to maximize revenue and rankings. Any attempts at objectivity pale in comparison to his biased metaphors.

Quirk’s article is, however, a fairly accurate portrayal of enrollment management—ten years ago. I was dean of enrollment at Johns Hopkins when it found itself on the front page of The Wall Street Journal for even considering denying competitive aid to students who would enroll anyway, and I have seen firsthand the changes in enrollment management over the past decade. In the early 1990s, as my colleagues and I experimented with new enrollment-management techniques as they applied to financial aid, it became increasingly evident that unless we used these tools in a way that was consistent with institutional vision, our work would not survive in the long term. Most of us—not some, as Quirk would have us believe—have adjusted accordingly.

Since 1999, our enrollment-management approach at Dickinson College—clearly aligned with the college’s mission—has done just that, and it is working. We have tripled our enrollment of first-year students from underrepresented groups, halved non-need-based aid, and increased average SAT scores by 100 points. It would be hard to argue that our strategy, especially in increasing enrollment of students of color and decreasing non-need-based aid, has benefited the college at the expense of the students.

Institutional financial aid is not an entitlement; it is an investment in students who in the aggregate will benefit from and contribute to the college, and we must all be thoughtful and, yes, strategic in the awarding of it. To that end, the independent colleges in Minnesota and Pennsylvania have been studying this issue and are committed to finding ways, within legal limits, to address the imbalance.

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