Deresiewicz, Pinker and the IIT JEE

A few months back, William Deresiewicz, formerly of Yale, wrote a long piece advising people why they should not send their kids to Ivy League schools. He talked about students in Ivy League schools becoming single dimensioned, hyper-competitive, and less appreciative of the finer things in life. He spoke of the Ivy League system being broken, and not close to what it used to be once upon a time.

Now, Steven Pinker (he of the Stuff of Thought and Language Instinct fame) of Harvard has responded, and he has the opposite problem with Ivy League students. Halfway though the semester, the class is half-empty, he cribs, with students more involved in extra curricular activities rather than attending class. This implies that all the effort the university puts in building world-class libraries and laboratories and other facilities go waste. Pinker’s diagnosis is different – he blames the “well roundedness” criteria that universities use for admissions (supposedly initially put in place to restrict the number of jewish students, and then kept in place to restrict the number of asians).

I’m about halfway through Pinker’s article, and I remember reading Deresiewicz’s article in full, and my reaction to both is the same – “IIT JEE rocks”. By having a standardised exam to admit students, the IITs actually take pressure off high school students rather than imposing more pressure – since the criteria for admission are clear – that one examination, a student of class 11 or 12 has her objectives clear in front of her in case she wants to go to IIT – single-minded mugging of Maths, Physics and Chemistry.

With a more “well-rounded” criterion – say one that includes social service and extra curricular activities and sport and all such, the objective function is not that clear, and the student needs to slog towards an uncertain objective function, which is significantly inferior to slogging towards a known objective function.

Some of the cribs that Pinker puts in his post is true of IITs as well – I’ve had several professors lecture to me about the lack of seriousness on the part of IIT students, and how they would prefer students who might be less brilliant but more serious about their learning (an oft touted solution to this was to jack up the fees and make students dependent on education loans they had to repay. Not sure if the IITs have implemented this, but the IIMs have, for sure).

But then IIT Madras, where I studied for four years, and where everyone had come in after passing a rigorous standardised test, had no shortage of characters. While everyone who was in had necessarily shown single-minded devotion to mugging maths physics and chemistry in the preceding year or two, a large number of students there had interests that went much beyond those three scientific subjects. In that sense, if the Ivy League schools want to see a system where standardised admissions process actually lead to a fairly diverse class, they need not look beyond the IITs (a system they are no doubt familiar with since the IITs contribute generously to the grad student population of the Ivy League schools).

One of the frequent criticisms of the IIT JEE is that it can easily be gamed – rather than selecting the “brightest” students or those that have the best understanding of maths, physics and chemistry, the IITs end up selecting students who are best prepared for the standardised exam. An oft-touted solution to this is to make the entry process more “holistic” (in India that means including board exam marks (??!!) ), to make it less game-able. However, evidence from the Deresiewicz and Pinker pieces suggests that even the “holistic” admissions process that the Ivy League schools follow are easily gamed, and that the gaming of those systems is in fact biased towards kids with rich parents.

A while back I was looking at the admissions process of some Ivy League schools – both undergrad and MBA programs. Now, all these schools tout diversity as one of their drawing criteria. But if you look a little deeper, you will notice that this purported diversity is only skin-deep (literally!). While these schools might do a fantastic job of getting students from different nationalities, skin colour, undergraduate backgrounds and work experience, the way their essays are structured implies that the students they get are largely similar in thought – students should have done some social work, they should have exhibited a particular kind of leadership, they should be politically correct, and so forth.

The reason I mention this is that “holistic” admissions criteria need not actually produce a student body that is necessarily more diverse than that produced by a standardised test – it all depends upon the axis that you look along!

PS: I happened to have a good day on 7th May 2000, when I wrote the IIT JEE and did rather well, so this post might be biased by that. I don’t know if I would have taken such a charitable view towards standardised tests if I hadn’t done so well in them.

2 thoughts on “Deresiewicz, Pinker and the IIT JEE”

    1. Which article? The Deresiewicz one or the Pinker one? Pinker actually makes a case for using only standardised tests (JEE/SAT) for admissions.

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