Innate Intelligence: The 800-Pound Non-Sequitur

Last night on Real Time with Bill Maher there was an argument about the SATs. One of the points that was missed was that the new SAT is going to be more transparent about what it tests and how you can practice for it. This is a good thing. One of the anecdotes in Chris Hayes's recent book, Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, has to do with the standardized test that got him into his private school. When the test started, it had an equalizing effect and helped kids from different socioeconomic levels get into the school. But a decade later, a test prep industry grew up around it, giving the rich an advantage again. The new SAT will reportedly release free instructional videos and more test prep material in conjunction with Khan Academy. Their goal, apparently, is to remove the mystique surrounding the test so that test prep companies can't market themselves by promising to "unlock the secrets of the SAT." However, as James Murphy argues in The Atlantic, the test prep industry will never go away as long as students can gain an advantage through practice and instruction that bridges the gap between what students learn in school and what the SAT tests for. The SAT will also stop testing knowledge of obscure vocabulary words that don't actually show up in college courses, which is good because it is high time that supercilious pedants such as myself stop coasting through the educational system simply by ornamenting their discourse with abstruse verbiage.

Turning back to Real Time, the conversation veered off into what I think is an easy trap for these kinds of debates about educational standards. That is the trap of intellectual essentialism. Andrew Sullivan noted that liberals are offended by the idea of unequal outcomes and that some people are just better at things than others. As a liberal myself, I am not offended by unequal outcomes or unequal abilities per se. What I am offended by is the notion that the mechanisms of meritocracy (like SATs) can assess human worth to a scientific certainty and apportion material well-being accordingly -- i.e. that we can justify the coexistence of deprivation and decadence based on some objectively knowable hierarchy of human ability. Tests like the SATs are useful not as the end-all-be-all assessors of human intellectual worth, but as efficient, administrable mechanisms for determining who should get into certain schools. SATs, like many of the factors that go into admissions, are to some extent arbitrary. But that's not to say that SATs are meaningless; schools inevitably have to select some admissions criteria for achieving their institutional objectives -- whether it's diversity, breadth of studies, extracurriculars, community service or the aptitudes tested by the SATs.

The goal of education, and the assessment tools used in the educational process, should be to give students an idea of their unique potential, strengths, weaknesses and interests so that they can hopefully carve out a productive life for themselves that they find rewarding, that allows them to make a contribution to society, and that allows them to provide for themselves and their families. This might lend itself to a broader array of educational or vocational opportunities and a wider variety of assessment mechanisms. In short, American education -- and American meritocracy more broadly -- should help people find or make a place for themselves, not to put people in their place.

Admittedly, not all majors or professions will pay the same salary or have the same kind of cultural prestige. But we can show appreciation for various skills sets, abilities and types of work by making sure that all work is rewarded. We should not seek to use any test or metric -- no matter how meritocratic, scientific or correlated with desirable life outcomes -- to justify our levels of economic inequality or material deprivation. Poverty, homelessness, and lack of food or medical care are not the just deserts for the intrinsically inferior, or a sign that the meritocracy is working by giving the "losers" their due. We often fear the so-called lowering of educational or occupational standards, but when the mechanisms of the meritocracy become too self-righteous or unforgiving, we creep into a rigidly hierarchical and even sadistic form of social Darwinism. I consider that cultural mindset an even greater danger to human well-being than the relativism of "everybody wins."