Saturday, July 05, 2008

Hollow Tree Felled! Elves Flee!

We had some unexpected holiday excitement yesterday. One of the trees in front of our house developed an alarming crack that made a ominous popping sounds in every breeze. The city decided they would take it down next week. To our surprise, though, they decided to send the crew out on the Fourth of July to get it down right away. Evidently the storm prediction changed their mind.

So all the Gruntleds pulled up chairs on the front porch and watched the pros do their stuff. And the neighbors all came out. And the dog-walkers stopped by, dogs and all. It really was marvelous to see the ballet of guys with cherry-picker, crane, chipper, and chain saws efficiently take down a 60-foot tree on a narrow street amidst all the wires of modern life.

The hollow space is big enough to put Endub, Gruntled child #2, inside (she took the pictures).

A spokesman for the residents said "It's a sad day for us. But it had to be. Life goes on."

Friday, July 04, 2008

Spend the Fourth of July with John Adams

The Gruntleds have just finished watching "John Adams," the excellent miniseries that ran on HBO, now rentable (thank you, Netflix). Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney do a superb job in the central roles of John and Abigail Adams, and the rest of the cast and script are really fine. I thought David Morse did a particularly good job in the hard role of making George Washington a man and not just an icon.

What I found especially gripping were the debates in Congress about independence. Watching that cranky bunch of localists debate whether it was just to make revolution, and whether it was wise to make this new thing, a republic, brought home to me that the choice of independence was not obvious, and the people who opposed it were not blind reactionaries. As a centrist and an institution builder, I would have been deeply torn about the wisdom of independence and revolutionary war. I suspect that I would have been working for a compromise and reconciliation to the end of June in 1776.

I think the larger picture is that Britain was always destined to bring the American colonies under tighter control just as soon as it was practical. American liberties, from Jamestown to the French and Indian War, were the result of sloth, distraction, and the sheer logistical challenge of governing people across an ocean in the age of sail. There was never a British constituency for the idea of American liberty.

Well, perhaps there was a covert constituency, at that. Burke, as an Irish MP, could sympathize with the idea that one People really did have a right to govern themselves. And I have a suspicion that the Howe brothers, admiral and general, deliberately held off from crushing the American army at its weakest point. Perhaps those free British gentlemen saw the point being made by those other free British gentlemen in Philadelphia 232 years ago.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

At the Top of the Academic Heap, Academics Matter a Little Less

This is the seemingly paradoxical finding of Joseph Soares' The Privilege of Power. This study is primarily about Yale, but applies to other universities and colleges at the top of the status hierarchy. A kid with perfect SAT scores is more likely to get turned down at Yale than at a state university or a second tier private college.

There are several reasons for this. First, the SAT is not actually a very good predictor of how well kids will do in the top colleges anymore. The test was never a great predictor -- never as good as high school grades, for example. These days, the Yale pool is so chock full of super test takers, and Yale College is so saturated with grade inflation, that there is not enough variation between the two scores to predict anything. So it makes sense that the top schools use the SAT less.

Second, what the SAT is better at is indicating family wealth. Two thirds of Yale's students still come from rich families, even after the supposed meritocratic revolution. Yale could fill the entire college with rich kids with high SAT scores. Since it wants some diversity in its student body, and since it wants to get all kinds of leaders, not just the rich ones, it makes sense that Yale bumps some high scorers to get lower scorers who bring something else to the table. This includes athletes (who get the most preference) and legacies (alumni relatives).

Third, the top schools have so many more fantastic applicants than they have spaces that they could apply all sorts of selection criteria besides academic achievement, and still end up with an academically stellar class. The admissions dean at my alma mater, Swarthmore, has said that he could pick five first-year classes out of each applicant pool, with no overlap, and each one would make a great class. Yale, in response to this overwhelming demand, has recently announced that it will create a new undergraduate college.

The seeming paradox is that the most "academically selective" schools are actually less likely to select solely on academics than the somewhat less academically selective tier below them. Most of this "paradox" is really just the crudity of the standards and terminology of college rankings. What the top colleges say they are trying to pick are not the best students -- all their students are above a high threshold. What the elite schools say they are trying to pick are future leaders. And future leaders are not all high test scorers.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Why Admitting Women Raised Test Scores

Several men's colleges found that their test scores went up significantly when they admitted women. The readiest explanation is that women are just better students than men. In many respects this is true.

Joseph Soares, in The Power of Privilege: Yale and America's Elite Colleges, treats the story of the supposed displacement of the old boys' network by meritocracy at Yale and other elite colleges. I will consider the major conclusion of his work tomorrow. Today I want to lift up an illuminating detail of that process.

Yale has always admitted men of the northeastern Protestant establishment who showed promise of turning into leaders. In the early 20th century increasing numbers of smart, promising men who were not of the northeastern Protestant establishment also wanted in. Most challenging to Yale and the other elite colleges were the Jews, known in Yale euphemism of the '30s as "Brooklyn boys." The Ivies and other elite colleges invented the College Board and its standardized tests as a way of screening all applicants in a common way. At first they expected that the northeastern Protestant rich boys would win on that test, too, as they had on other selection criteria. It soon became clear that non-WASPs, especially Jews, were doing quite well on the standardized tests. It also became clear that the SAT and other standardized tests didn't predict school performance very well, anyway.

Thus, Yale and the other elite colleges scaled back the weight they put on standardized tests in the '50s and '60s. They developed many other measures of leadership potential for the young men they considered for admission. Test scores counted to some extent, but the "character" and "culture" measures, though less quantitative, counted for a great deal.

When Yale decided, in a hurry, in the late '60s to admit women, the men who had always run admissions felt at a loss to know how to weigh the character, culture, and leadership potential of women. So for the pioneering classes of "co-eds," Yale relied almost exclusively on test scores. As a result, 1970, the first full year of women's admission to Yale College, Yale posted its highest average test scores.

The median SAT verbal score for the class admitted
in 1952: 634
in 1970: 699
in 1992: 660

By the end of the '70s Yale had figured out how to weigh women's character, too -- which meant they admitted women with lower average test scores, just as they had always done for men.

Admitting women to Yale -- and probably at other former men's colleges -- temporarily raised standardized test scores significantly because that was all they had to go on. When the rudiments of an old girls' network began to be constructed, Yale women could have lower test scores, "gentlewoman's Cs," and leadership potential. Just like the men.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Gross Happiness 3

Arthur Brooks is an economist, so it is not surprising that the latter half of Gross National Happiness is devoted to the correlation of different economic conditions with happiness.

His main finding is that happiness correlates most with your view of mobility, not with actual inequality.

The United States has a high level of income inequality compared to other industrialized nations. However, how happy people are does not correlate well with what income they have. Instead, the happiest people are the ones who believe that you can change your income if you want to - regardless of what your income is now or of how much it has actually changed. Likewise, the least happy people are the ones who believe that it is hard to change your income - regardless of what your income is now or how much it has actually changed.

Brooks is a free marketeer, though not an all-out libertarian (he is, after all, a practicing Catholic). He thinks that free markets promote mobility, and they promote the belief in mobility. Both of these things -- actual mobility, and the belief in mobility -- add to gross national happiness.

Mrs. G. thinks Brooks should have made a much stronger case for the Catholic social teaching that promotes property ownership for all. I agree, though I think this is more a difference of emphasis in Brooks' argument than of his actually rejecting Catholic social teaching.

The summary number that Brooks gives us is a comparison of two measures of inequality (the Gini coefficient). On a scale from 0 to 1, with 0 meaning everyone is the same and 1 means they are all different, the income inequality measure for the United States is .44, which is fairly high. On the other hand, when we compare how people think about mobility, the difference among Americans is only .18. The gloomy end of the distribution, who think that it is hard to change class position, is a pretty small -- and unhappy - minority.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Gross Happiness 2

I wrote earlier about Arthur Brooks' Gross National Happiness. There I was reporting his headline finding that conservatives are happier than liberals. We read the whole book in our summer study group, so now I can report a bit more fully.

The first part of the book looks at marriage, parenthood, religion, and political ideology as they affect long-term happiness. Here is the summary contrast:

Married, conservative, religious parents who say they are very happy: 52%

Single, liberal, secular, childless people who say they are very happy: 14%

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Form of Government is Still The Most Important Issue at the General Assembly

All this week I have been blogging on the Presbyterian General Assembly.

The FOG has been somewhat overshadowed in the last few days of the Assembly by the usual sex fights. In the long run, though, the proposed revisions of the Form of Government are a better way to deal with divisive issues, such as sex. The genius of the presbyterian, connectional system is that we trust our own presbyteries to justly discern the essential tenets of the Reformed faith and our constitution. This has always meant that some presbyteries are more liberal, and some presbyteries are more conservative, and most are in the middle. This has always meant that if a minister moved from one presbytery to another, he or she ran the risk of a tough examination and a no vote.

The Peace, Unity, and Purity report adopted at the last GA started the process by restoring the Adopting Act of 1729. The intent of the nFOG is to return the Book of Order to a framework guiding the detail work of presbyteries, rather than a rulebook through which one end of the church punishes another. We can complete the process with Book of Confessions revision to restore one authoritative confessional standard to the church, which would also be a framework for the detail work of the presbyteries.

Now, more than ever, we need to discuss the new Form of Government, modifying it if necessary, and adopt it at the next Assembly. Our current plan of division, dilution, and schism is clearly not working.