Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession with Smartness Shortchanges Students

By Alexander W. Astin

Published by Stylus Publishing; Reprint edition

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

Many books are published yearly that never grace the aisles of Barnes & Nobles nor the few remaining privately-owned bookstores, like Vroman’s in Pasadena,Ca. where I like to peruse the aisles to see what’s been published recently. If deemed particularly worthy, you may find an advertisement for some in the New York Review of Books, where University presses publish ads, but most of these books languish without receiving much of a readership. Among them are numerous publications penned by university faculty members. (I don’t know if the “publish or perish” rule still applies, but I do know that a professor raises his or her profile by publishing.)

One such book is Are You Smart Enough? by Alexander W. Astin, professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and founding director of UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. Professor Astin is a frequently-cited author in the field of higher education.

In Are You Smart Enough? Professor Astin calls attention an injustice in United States colleges’ system of admitting students. They are admitted almost solely based on their SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Tests) scores. The top ten colleges in the country—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Stanford, UC Berkeley, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Chicago—admit students based almost entirely on their SAT scores. This is practice which has been going on for some time.

Indeed, an entire industry has grown to help student improve their scores, for a cost, of course.

At first glance this might not seem like an injustice at all—why not admit students based on their scores? But, upon a closer look, we find that doing so slants admission in favor of the smart white students who excel in taking these kinds of tests.

“The pecking order of America’s 4,000-plus colleges and universities can be visualized by imagining a pyramid-shaped hierarchy with only a few dozen elite institutions occupying the peak. [Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Chicago University, NYU, Barnard, etc.] As you drop down lower in the hierarchy, the pyramid keeps getting wider until you reach the base, which is very wide and contains mostly community colleges.”

As we all know, it’s quite prestigious to gain admission into Harvard or Yale or Princeton. If you do, you will be considered to be very smart by your family and peers. If you don’t score well on the SAT exams, you will be deemed only worthy of a lesser college or consigned to taking courses part-time at your local community college.

By the time they graduate from high school, most students will have made the assumption that they just aren’t smart enough to study at the Ivy Leagues. And, we all know, don’t we the power one’s estimation of oneself plays in one’s achievements.

Other attributes are summarily ignored—like being handy, creative, musical, sensible, well balanced, athletic (unless one is outstandingly so and therefore offered a scholarship to play on a school team.) If you are dyslexic or have any other kind of learning disability, forget about it.

From 1981 to 2007, I lived in New York City. I taught at mostly institutions that were designed to give poor and immigrant students job readiness skills, things like typing, word processing, Excel, business English, and computer programing. I was impressed by the level of intelligence of my students. I thought, if they were given the right opportunities, they might do just as well as their “smart” peers who attend prestigious institutions. I also thought that the variance in levels of intelligence were exaggerated, that there was less difference than commonly thought.

Professor Astin points out that when so much emphasis is placed on how smart students supposedly are, other things are ignored—like the business of teaching itself, which is the main purpose of institutions of high learning.

This admission procedure tends to ensure the status quo remains as is regarding the power structure that dominates our country, to ensure that white men from wealthy families stay in power. It means that the hierarchy that governs our country is locked in place.

Professor Astin writes: “When we look at American education as a whole, continuing to focus so much attention on merely being smart and on identifying the smartest students is a losing proposition. Such a focus not only leaves the average and below-average students out in the cold, but also distracts our educational institutions from concentrating on their principal mission: to develop students’ smartness. By continuing to define smartness with such narrowly conceived measures as the SAT and ACT, we ignore the great diversity of human talents, especially those ‘affective’ talents—leadership, empathy, tolerance self-understanding, civic-mindedness, interpersonal skills, and so on—that are so necessary to an effectively functioning society and world.

“Finally, by continuing to rely on normative measures simply because they simplify the task of identifying the smartest students, we artificially ration the amount of excellence that is possible in our educational system and continue to send negative and discouraging messages to most of the students who take these tests.”

The school one graduates from can make a difference in one’s ability to succeed in his or her life. Those who graduate from one of the big ten schools have a leg up from the get-go. There are law offices who will only hire Yale graduates.

How can a system weighted in favor of white students from highly-educated, well-to-do families be changed?

Professor Astin generously highlights the problem but offers little by way of advice as to how to fix it.

Perhaps it’s a ray of hope that we live in a very creative time, when all kinds of smart people are using the Internet to create start-up businesses and for other purposes.

(Jane M McCabe is an Associate Editor of Neworld Review and has been writing reviews for the magazine for ten years. She is also a painter. She lives in Los Angeles and has a dachshund named Sadie.)



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