15 March, 2003: A painful path to follow

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Everyone should read Francis Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica -- a classic analysis of academic politics. (Seems to be out of print as a book, but a little work will turn the HTML into something readable on paper....) Thanks to Martin for suggesting this.

This has marvellous commentary on, for instance, the delaying of business:

Another sport which wastes unlimited time is Comma-hunting. Once start a comma and the whole pack will be off, full cry, especially if they have had a literary training.

and the collegiate system:

It is this feeling which... differentiates, more than anything else, a College from a boarding-house; for in a boarding-house hatred is concentrated, not upon rival establishments, but upon the other members of the same establishment.

Moving on, it's always amusing to see the media having a feeding frenzy over university admissions (I can't be bothered to give individual links, but this Google News search should give a taste).

Most commentators are taking as an article of faith that A-level grades are a useful indicator of ability, and that university admission offers should be made on that basis. Yet this is plainly not true, since popular courses typically have a surplus of applicants with all A-grades. This of course means that universities are left to apply other criteria to select among them. These criteria are relatively opaque, seem arbitrary, and the media -- egged on by parents whining that little Johnny, with A grades in General Studies, Home Economics and Sociology has for some reason been rejected from his chosen course -- can readily turn them into stories about elitism, positive discrimination, or however their particular biases spin the stories. And somehow this is all supposed to be the fault of the universities.

If you believe that university admissions procedures should be transparent -- perhaps they should be, up to a point, but that's another argument -- then what's needed is to increase the resolution of A-level grading at the top of the range, but attempts to do this are usually denounced by commentators:

Heads are very strongly opposed to the introduction of a starred A grade. When the starred A grade was introduced at GCSE, it devalued the A grade, especially in the eyes of bright 16 year olds who were put under enormous extra pressure.

(John Dunford of the Secondary Heads Association)

Um. That's kind-of the point, isn't it?

Unsurprisingly the Economist had a good piece on this, but it's not available on the web unless you subscribe. (It's here if you do.) But their proposed solution was SATs; now, the SAT people don't give sample tests on their web site until you give them money, which is a bad sign to start with, but in any case I remember looking at these things years ago and they seemed pretty pissant. ``11+ for 18-year olds'' may be a bit too close to the truth. (If you believe that these are genuine you'll see my point....)

And quite how you're supposed to be able to determine ability at undergraduate level based on coachable multiple-choice tests I don't understand.

I give up.

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.