Solving the Dim White Kids Mystery

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.

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