Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Elite Institutions and Qualified Students

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Dec 12, 2006

Responding to The Failure of Critical Thinking by John V. Lombardi

It is disappointing and more than a little disturbing to see a professor write with such little regard for his opposition but also for the principles of reason he lauds so misleadingly in his article.

To his opposition he should at least show the courtesy of accurate representation. The deemed emphasis on elite universities is entirely imagined, and moreover, it is not argued that elite universities should admit every needy undergraduate that exists.

Indeed, he seems very misinformed on just what it is that is supposed to make these institutions elite. In this article, it seems that they are elite because they charge more tuition. However, what is intended to make them elite is that they have the highest standards and admit the very best students

This - and not the straw man excuse offered by the author - is why elite universities should offer scholarships and other supports for needy students. Even though they have had to cope with disadvantages, students who are very needy can be as qualified as students who are very rich.

The possibility that universities might be concerned about the academic capabilities of their new students, and that they might operate using some sort of merit-based screening, does not appear to occur to the author. This lapse is startling. Is he not aware of the SATs and other evaluation mechanisms? Is he not aware of the admissions process at his own institution?

Instead, we are treated to the ridiculous parody of an argument, to the effect that "The elite status of an institution comes from its ability to spend more money than institutions deemed 'non-elite'"" and that the "amenities define elite status for undergraduates."

Even were the poor subsidized, argues the author, "that doesn't really work" because if the poor students are admitted, then some qualified students from higher income groups would be pushed out. "There are not enough spots in what we call elite institutions to accommodate all the deserving students of all income levels."

One wonders where he dug up this ridiculous bit of logic. Were selection performed based solely on merit, then the number of qualified students equals the number of spaces, since if there are x number of spaces, then to 'qualify' is by definition to be in the top x number of students.

The author's definition of 'qualified' appears to be somewhat different, however. Exactly what it is, he doesn't tell us, but it appears to be some selection process that excludes poor people, so he can make up the fantasy of evicting qualified higher income students were those poor students admitted.

While it is true that for each poor student admitted a richer student much instead attend some other institution, it is a fallacy to say that this richer student was qualified. Only if you suppose that academic ability plays no part in the selection - the absurd premise underlying the entire article - does the statement become true.

The fact is, when elite institutions preferentially admit the rich, they fail not only society but themselves as well. To spend additional money providing preferential treatment to people who are already wealthy is a poor use of community resources. And it robs the institutions of students worthy of their status.

Perhaps the author should spend some time reflecting on the purpose of academic institutions, rather than wasting his effort defending the rich from imagined slights and unfair treatment from an ungrateful society.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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