More Diversity, Lower Standards

The English departments of Cornell and Harvard have dropped the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) requirement for graduate applicants—a noteworthy move that amounts to a setback for the quality of education and a win for diversity and lower standards.

Insidehighered.com reports the Cornell development and includes a link to a candid statement from the English department about its motives. The professors voted overwhelmingly to drop the two tests involved, the general one (with the mathematical, verbal, and analytic sections) and the subject one (a multiple-choice test of literary-historical knowledge and literary language comprehension).

The main reason, the statement says, is this:

GRE scores are not good predictors of success or failure in a Ph.D. program in English, and the uncertain predictive value of the GRE exam is far outweighed by the toll it takes on student diversity.

Yes, diversity—that’s the issue. The statement doesn’t get specific about diversity, preferring instead to highlight cost and access, but we may be sure that what troubles the department most is the racial proportions that the test delivers.

[How Social Justice Undermines True Diversity]

The score gap between white and black test-takers is significant, and it’s relentless anxiety for educators who believe in equity and social justice. The Cornell faculty signal that commitment with the requisite and properly solemn declaration at the end of the statement of the department’s “larger mission.” Those who think that the purpose of graduate training in English involves instruction in literary history, literary analysis, research methods, and teaching methods apply a narrow, overly professional understanding of the mission. The statement broadens that traditional definition into a wholesale social and political endeavor:

to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination, and justice.

This is one of those breathy moral declarations that only an elite academic could make. To those of us with common sense, the inflation of what a small humanities Ph.D. program at an Ivy League school does into a “force of language toward . . . justice” is a self-congratulatory absurdity. Language like this is merely progressivist bureaucratese.

Behind the pomposity, however, is sober dismay. The GRE exam is a threat to diversity and justice for the simple reason that the score gap between whites and blacks is so large. (See, for instance, Table 1.3 in this report from ETS.) If GRE scores are included in the application, admissions committees have a harder time recruiting from this latter group, which remains profoundly underrepresented in the overall doctoral population. Better to drop the whole thing, to kill the messenger than to try to downplay the score gaps during the applicant screening process.

The move is a sign of deep frustration. Despite the 50-year push toward diversity in the literary curriculum, especially the inclusion of more Anglophone and African American literature on the syllabus, along with steady efforts of affirmative action in admissions not only in graduate school but at the undergraduate level as well, the results for English remain demoralizing.

[How Diversity Hijacked History 101 and All the Humanities]

According to the Survey of Earned Doctorates, in 2017 there were 1,465 total doctorates awarded in “Letters” in the United States. “Letters” includes the fields of English and American literature, classics, comparative literature, rhetoric, and composition. Of that total, only 45 PhDs went to “Black or African American” students. In other words, only three percent of the recipients fell into that demographic group.

For the subfield of “English literature, British and Commonwealth,” we have 369 doctorates awarded. Only seven of that year’s honors went to “Black or African American” students.

English professors look at those numbers and shudder. After all this time and effort, they say to themselves, having made their fields oriented around identity concerns (race being the leading marker), they still can’t attract more than a handful of that favored demographic. What more can they do to show that they care, that their labors do aim for “large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination, and justice”?

With those distressing rates of completion in hand, the faculty have an easy decision to make. Dropping the GRE is a no-brainer. With so few African American students earning an English Ph.D., the departments absolutely must lower the bar of entry. This is especially true in an era of decline in undergraduate English majors. As you can see from the chart below, from 2011 to 2017, the change in the number of degrees awarded in English fell by more than 20 percent.

According to a report from the Council of Graduate Schools, applications in all the arts and humanities fell three percent from 2012 to 2017. That was the worst rate of all the fields; overall, graduate applications are up.

That means graduate programs in English must hustle to keep the pipeline running. They can’t sit back as they did in the Golden Age of Enrollments (the Sixties, mostly) and let the students line up outside their doors. They are losing market share, and competition over under-represented groups is stiffer than ever.

The GRE doesn’t help. The test is, in fact, a fair assessment of what it tests for—verbal skill and analytical talent on the general exam, literary historical knowledge and literary reading comprehension on the subject exam—and those aptitudes and acquisitions are crucial to the quality of the field in future times. But other exigencies displace them right now. It’s a different numbers game: how many applicants do we have, and how many African American students can we admit?

Photo: Photo by Chris Barbalis on Unsplash

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein

Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory.

5 thoughts on “More Diversity, Lower Standards

  1. I generally agree with what you say about lefty academics and the degeneration of academia, and I’m glad I did English Lit in the seventies, but the quote from the bureaucrats

    “GRE scores are not good predictors of success or failure in a Ph.D. program in English, and the uncertain predictive value of the GRE exam is far outweighed by the toll it takes on student diversity.”

    doesn’t quite lead to your conclusion

    “Yes, diversity—that’s the issue.”

    It also claims that GREs don’t predict success – you should try to answer that argument too.

    1. I do not have a PhD, was never in a PhD program and was not an English major. Still, let me attempt an answer. The claim is an ignoratio elenchi or some other species of relevance fallacy. A red herring. An ex-parrot. It serves as a specious cover for the second claim, which is the true and only reason.

      Obtaining a PhD requires, unless I am mistaken, a thesis that is in some way an original, non-obvious contribution to the discipline. It requires creativity, in other words. What test is there that predicts success in creation? The process is, unless I am mistaken, long and arduous, over the course of which a 23 year old develops into a 30 year old. What test is there that can predict success in that development? Given the glut of PhDs relative to university employment opportunities, many PhD candidates probably drop out of their programs after being better able, a few years in, to perform a rational cost-benefit calculation for deciding whether to continue. What test is there that can predict the result of such a future calculation?

      The MCAT and LSAT may be better predictors of success, if success is defined merely by (a) graduating with the degree, (b) passing the licensing exam, and (c) obtaining remunerative employment. Success in those fields is a matter of possessing a minimum threshold level of intelligence and knowledge–which the tests are capable (if designed well) of testing–plus perseverance, which is a pretty light requirement in the case of a law degree and which is untestable n any case. But in law and medicine, the length of the tunnel is fixed and known in advance; one can always see the light at its end even if one can’t reach it. Not so, unless I am mistaken, for a PhD in any subject, but especially, unless I am mistaken, in one where creativity, novelty, imagination, inspiration, are more vital to success than in others. Also, the quantity of employment opportunities requiring the law or medical degree is greater than for PhDs in English, providing greater incentive for completion.

      A test there must be, a filter of some kind, else how does one even begin to winnow the field of applicants? But that is an administrative, logistical requirement that is logically independent of selecting only the “best” applicants. In my view, tests like the SAT, GRE and the others serve their purpose by establishing a minimum threshold below which the applicant’s intellectual ability is probably not up to the task, but above which other factors figure more prominently in a person’s eventual success or failure. I would love to see a study that compared the relative success rates of 1400 SAT scorers versus 1500s versus 1600s. To really gauge the usefulness of the GRE, one would have to be able to compare the number of persons whose scores were so low that they weren’t admitted to any program yet still obtained a PhD with those whose scores at least gained them admission to a program, which of course can’t be done.

  2. hiring less competent people has always been the real reason for affirmative action laws. blacks are just the weapon the left uses to force the American people to accept these evil laws. our incompetent federal government bureaucracy is a direct result of these laws.

  3. One wild card here — degrees required for employment and/or advancement in employment. For example, colleges want a terminal degree for faculty status, hence the demand for the Doctorate in Nursing (which didn’t used to even exist) for the collegiate (as opposed to hospital-based) nursing programs. My guess is the same is true for the exercise science and other health-related professions, as well as criminal justice.

    These are people seeking jobs teaching undergraduates, and it’s reflective of the move toward credentialization. Where nursing (etc.) courses were once taught by MDs and experienced nurses (who may have had only a high school education), there is now the push for the terminal degrees. Because it looks good to the accreditators and such….

    Likewise where a lot of the people who worked in the sciences would only have a master’s degree (or perhaps just a solid BS one), they now need a doctorate to get promoted above entry-level, and increasingly to even get hired. Again, it’s overcredentilization — and the demands for the degrees in response to employer expectations that applicants have them.

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