Andrew Samwick is very smart, in an academic way. What he values is some combination
of analytical intelligence, imagination, open-mindedness, and insight. If you’re
looking for that combination, the academy is a good place to start, and graduate
programs are a much better place to find it than undergraduates. So it’s not
surprising that Samwick
found his PhD class at MIT to be smarter than his undergraduate class at
Samwick wonders, however, about those undergraduates who "failed to impress"
him. Were they given some kind of artificial leg up in the admissions process,
on the grounds of race or wealth? He says no, and I believe him, and he also
says that it’s a "mystery" why these kids "did not seem to have
the intellectual firepower to be at the nation’s most selective institution".
No it isn’t. The fact is that if you’re a 17-year-old applying to Harvard (or
anywhere else), it’s all but impossible to give the admissions officer a really
good idea of your intellectual firepower. You can demonstrate a certain amount
of academic success at the high-school level, but that’s not at all the same
thing, and can be a sign that you’re a hard and diligent worker as opposed to
a brilliant prodigy who never really needed to work at anything. And in any
case Harvard would not want to admit only brilliant prodigies, even if it were
able to identify them.
The meritocratic ideal which governs Harvard applies not only to narrowly-defined
academic ability. Many of the "dim white kids" who failed to impress
Samwick went on, I’m sure, to highly successful careers – and I wouldn’t
be at all surprised to learn that it is they, rather than the superstars, who
ended up donating the most money to the Harvard endowment.