Is the SAT Biased?

Amidst the pandemic, there’s renewed interest in removing the SAT and ACT from the college admission decision process. There are certainly valid reasons why such an argument makes sense. But Riley makes a compelling counterpoint to one common refrain, that the SAT is itself biased.

Ultimately, the SAT is discriminatory by definition. It is designed to discriminate based on intellectual background and test ability. It is true, however, that people of poor backgrounds have a worse educational system to begin with, and so it makes sense that they would perform worse on the SAT when compared with their wealthier peers. This performance disparity is in fact quite staggering, and I’ve written about the College Board’s effort to alleviate this by creating an adversity index. This effort falls flat in many ways, but does help demonstrate that a lot of work needs to be done.

Despite all of the problems that the SAT does have (including the monopoly of the College Board with college admissions), there is one upside. Having a test that is taken by a large swath of the population provides significant insight into the education system.

I would argue that the SAT does a lot to show the disparity in a concrete and near-universal way. Riley argues the same, “Given [the] vast differences in upbringings, habits, attitudes and priorities across various groups, why would we expect to see anything approaching racial or ethnic parity in SAT scores? These disparities may become more apparent when we look at the test results, but that doesn’t mean the test is causing the results. And it doesn’t follow that scrapping the test will do anything to resolve the underlying disparities” (2020). Likewise, the SAT correlates well with college outcomes.

Putting more focus on the educational systems that are at the heart of the problem, though substantially more difficult and out of the control of colleges, will be a much more effective solution. As Riley summarily ends, “getting rid of the SAT will only obscure where they are, not change the discomfiting reality” (2020).

Dossier

“Scrapping the SAT Won’t Help Black and Latino Students,” by Jason Riley, May 26, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/scrapping-the-sat-wont-help-black-and-latino-students-11590532734

How Important is a Hyphen?

How much of your own experiences that shaped your character will be passed on to your children? Will they be able to learn the same lessons you learned the hard way, i.e. by experience, or the easy way, i.e. by you teaching them?

I think this is a struggle that every family in America must contend with, and is especially true with immigrant families, as Seema Jilani describes. In America, there is at once a sense of the nation being a “cultural melting pot,” but within those groups, there is a rising tide of resistance that those original cultures should not be amalgamated in entirety such that their ideals are erased forever.

Jilani has a powerful testament to her own upbringing in America, using the metaphor of the hyphen:

At the dinner table, my father once coached us, “When people ask you where you’re from, what do you say?” I guessed, “Pakistani-American?”

“Wrong. You are American. Period. Lose the hyphen.”

That hyphen held our traditions, our dichotomies, our complexities, our spicy food and an even spicier culture, rich with tradition. That hyphen was the bridge to our past.

Seema Jilani

I think that there are two meanings to this. The hyphen is important; it contains the history of a family and the culture and values they bring with them. Those should not be forgotten. But ultimately, we are Americans first.

We all have a hyphen; it may not be another country, but that hyphen is by definition a part of America, and that should not be forgotten either.

Dossier

“My Daughter Passes for White,” by Seema Jilani, February 28, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/28/opinion/biracial-pakistani-child.html

The Value of Downtime

The appetite for written work has diminished. People don’t read nearly as much as they used to, choosing to watch or listen instead. Ironically, in an attempt to be more productive, people end up being less focused and therefore less engaged.

EDIT: I wrote this well before the COVID-19 pandemic came to full force. I think it is even more relevant now that we have been relegated to our homes, stuck to ponder. The downtime we have has sparked people to recognize that having purpose to life is critically important to sanity. While being “productive” in the common sense of the word is not necessary, it can imbue meaning. However, just relaxing during this time is perfectly fine. Just because you didn’t learn a new skill or read more books, does not mean that you wasted your time.

It also leaves little time for thought. So many fill their downtime—during a commute for example—with podcasts and audiobooks. With the advent of waterproof phones, even the once pristine shower has not been spared. We no longer have any sanctuaries of thought. Productivity seems to have taken over. This is why it can be important to throw productivity to the wayside, slow down, and be alone with your thoughts.

This is where music is useful. People listen to music all the time, but often only when doing something else mundane. And I think that robs music of its purpose. Music takes you on a journey of emotions. It allows you to feel emotion. Therefore it is valuable to listen to music and do nothing else. Allow your thoughts to wander and roam, guided along an open field by the music.

Dossier

“Is Reading a Chore?” by Sahil Nawab, April 24, 2020. http://www.sahilnawab.com/blog/is-reading-a-chore/

“Why Boredom is Good For You,” by Veritasium, September 29, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LKPwKFigF8U

Utopia to Dystopia

A few conflicting trends can be seen in society today. Over the past few decades, we have been a part of an unprecedented acceleration; one of technology, productivity and output, material consumption, pace of life, depression, and loneliness. Is all of that “forward” movement good? Or is it even movement at all?

Ross Douthat, in “The Age of Decadence,” argues that “the feeling of acceleration is an illusion, conjured by our expectations of perpetual progress and exaggerated by the distorting filter of the internet[.]” This American ideal that the future will be always be better is actually quite recent, and unique.

The peasantry in medieval Europe would not have such beliefs, but rather thought of a past in which Christ’s redeeming qualities were more than the abstractions described by the clergy. Even Renaissance writers described the exalted classics of Ancient Greece and Rome, believing that they would never be matched by their contemporary work. In this age, ironically when compared to today, only in the Islamic World did the future look bright, with scientific and literary advancements coming at a breathtaking pace.

When the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one occured, common wisdom says that this shift heralded a new age in which Humanity had finally began conquering the world. But it really wasn’t so for the average human alive. In fact, historians might argue that civilization conquered humanity.

This transition from a scavenger way of life instead resulted in a dramatic reduction in overall quality of life. While at times there was a surplus of food, farming became a monoculture; surviving on only one or two staples and their diets faltered on the front of diversity. People became stuck—attached to their land—and with that, imprisoned by the very crops they sought to domesticate. This lack of freedom became suffocating to culture and community.

Our modern culture may have removed the shackles of agriculture, but in that process, it put on the yoke of technology and in recent years tightened the reins.

Technological progress has continued to accelerate, or has it? In recent years it seems that progress has slowed; we’ve reached the peak, arriving at an unbreakable glass ceiling. Moore’s Law has broken down, it seems like every new innovation is only the tiniest bit of change from the previous generation. No lone individual can innovate within a field; it instead takes an interdisciplinary team to do so, as we’ve exhausted the possibilities and reached the limits of individual human expertise.

But there is still hope. Marques Brownlee compares this to cars, asking the question, “Are we at peak car?” Answering this shines a glimmer of light on a future where, despite stagnation, society can continue to grow.

All of these, taken into the context of society at large, have thus far resulted in a breakdown of our future outlook. Society at large has moved from thinking of the future as utopia to dystopia. The enormity of this change in outlook is reflected in our popular literature.

[W]e are aging, comfortable and stuck, cut off from the past and no longer optimistic about the future, spurning both memory and ambition while we await some saving innovation or revelation, growing old unhappily together in the light of tiny screens.

Ross Douthat

It is that gloomy light that now illuminates our thoughts as we drift off to a spiteful sleep. In the elite ranks, even the notion of sleep is frowned upon. After all, it only detracts from productivity and constant output. Ironically the elite work longer hours than ever before, and it is now the middle class that works less and less. This isn’t laziness; rather they can’t. The elite have broken up middle class jobs into component pieces and taken away any semblance of skill, leaving little behind. What scraps are left are handed out to the cheapest labor, and the remaining high level management is reserved for the elite. The mundane jobs left have therefore no path forward; no future outlook where those employed can work their way up the corporate ladder.

It is because of this economic stagnation that Douthat argues that society today has entered into a period of decadence.

The word “decadence” is used promiscuously but rarely precisely. In political debates, it’s associated with a lack of resolution in the face of threats. . . . In the popular imagination, it’s associated with . . . gluttony, . . . and chocolate strawberries. Aesthetically and intellectually it hints at exhaustion, finality — “the feeling, at once oppressive and exalting, of being the last in a series,” in the words of the Russian poet Vyacheslav Ivanov.

But it’s possible to distill a useful definition from all these associations. Following in the footsteps of the great cultural critic Jacques Barzun, we can say that decadence refers to economic stagnation, institutional decay and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development. Under decadence, Barzun wrote, “The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.” He added, “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent.” And crucially, the stagnation is often a consequence of previous development: The decadent society is, by definition, a victim of its own success.

Ross Douthat

Key to Douthat’s argument is that “decadence is a comfortable disease.” Society is doing fine.

With this stagnation comes social torpor. America is a more peaceable country than it was in 1970 or 1990, with lower crime rates and safer streets and better-behaved kids. But it’s also a country where that supposedly most American of qualities, wanderlust, has markedly declined: Americans no longer “go west” (or east or north or south) in search of opportunity the way they did 50 years ago; the rate at which people move between states has fallen from 3.5 percent in the early 1970s to 1.4 percent in 2010. Nor do Americans change jobs as often as they once did. For all the boosterish talk about retraining and self-employment, all the fears of a precarious job market, Americans are less likely to switch employers than they were a generation ago.

Meanwhile, those well-behaved young people are more depressed than prior cohorts, less likely to drive drunk or get pregnant but more tempted toward self-harm. They are also the most medicated generation in history, from the drugs prescribed for A.D.H.D. to the antidepressants offered to anxious teens, and most of the medications are designed to be calming, offering a smoothed-out experience rather than a spiky high. For adults, the increasingly legal drug of choice is marijuana, whose prototypical user is a relaxed and harmless figure — comfortably numb, experiencing stagnation as a chill good time.

Ross Douthat

To me, it seems that the averages are deceiving. Younger people are increasingly mobile, and less likely to set down roots in one area and stay long term, even if that’s what they desire. The elite are constantly in search of better opportunities. While it is the middle class, where “forced leisure,” i.e. unemployment as a result of increasingly elite skills needed, keeps them stuck.

Yet recently, a countermovement has emerged; a resurgence of age old ideals of humanity. It seems to be something that only the elites embrace; the middle class once again left behind. One can argue that that embrace is only superficial. Ultimately, the race is ongoing; people aren’t willing to step out as much as they are to slow down and relax, in effect preparing for the final sprint. One that might not ever come.

A century from today, what will this age be remembered as? An age of decadence? The precursor to dystopia? Or the beginning of a long and comfortable decline; a society ultimately on its way to a gradual death?

[T]rue dystopias are distinguished, in part, by the fact that many people inside them don’t realize that they’re living in one, because human beings are adaptable enough to take even absurd and inhuman premises for granted.

Ross Douthat

I can’t help but think, how close are we to the Hunger Games? But Douthat counters: decadence doesn’t necessarily lead to dystopia.

[Decadence], to be clear, [is] hardly the worst fate imaginable. Complaining about decadence is a luxury good — a feature of societies where the mail is delivered, the crime rate is relatively low, and there is plenty of entertainment at your fingertips. Human beings can still live vigorously amid a general stagnation, be fruitful amid sterility, be creative amid repetition. And the decadent society, unlike the full dystopia, allows those signs of contradictions to exist, which means that it’s always possible to imagine and work toward renewal and renaissance.

Ross Douthat

Dossier

“The Age of Decadence,” by Ross Douthat, February 7, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/07/opinion/sunday/western-society-decadence.html

“Are we at Peak Smartphone,” by Marques Brownlee, January 31, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-DtSrdh5dHU

“The case that America’s in decline,” by Sean Illing, February 28, 2020. https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2020/2/28/21137971/the-decadent-society-ross-douthat-book

“Sapiens,” by Yuval Noah Harari, 2015.

“The Meritocracy Trap,” by Daniel Markovits, September 2019.

Rural Medicine in Texas

I’m not sure that I can fathom what 11,000 square miles looks like, let alone being the only physician to serve that entire area. But Saslow does an amazing job conveying the sense emptiness that Garner and Cummings might feel when being the only physicians available in a vast and desolate region in Texas. On a side note, I still don’t understand how their economy works?

“In the medical desert that has become rural America, nothing is more basic or more essential than access to doctors, but they are increasingly difficult to find. The federal government now designates nearly 80 percent of rural America as “medically underserved.” It is home to 20 percent of the U.S. population but fewer than 10 percent of its doctors, and that ratio is worsening each year because of what health experts refer to as “the gray wave.” Rural doctors are three years older than urban doctors on average, with half over 50 and more than a quarter beyond 60. Health officials predict the number of rural doctors will decline by 23 percent over the next decade as the number of urban doctors remains flat.

In Texas alone, 159 of the state’s 254 counties have no general surgeons, 121 counties have no medical specialists, and 35 counties have no doctors at all [emphasis mine]. Thirty more counties are each forced to rely on just a single doctor, like Garner, a family physician by training who by necessity has become so much else…”

Eli Saslow

Dossier

“‘Out here, it’s just me’: In the medical desert of rural America, one doctor for 11,000 square miles,” by Eli Saslow, September 28, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/out-here-its-just-me/2019/09/28/fa1df9b6-deef-11e9-be96-6adb81821e90_story.html