On Judith Shklar, snobbery, and the SAT

22 May 2019


The SAT was back in the news last week, thanks to the College Board’s introduction of something called an “adversity score.” Admissions officers will now see a number, between 1 and 100, quantifying various socioeconomic factors associated with an applicant’s hometown and upbringing. Although the number will not affect students’ official SAT scores, the “environmental context dashboard” that accompanies their scores is designed to give universities more data about students’ relative disadvantages—or, at least, the disadvantages that correlate with economics.


I’m agnostic as to whether this new metric represents progress in the world of standardized testing. I’d assumed that admissions officers were already making many of these economic calculations internally, so that a kid from rural Louisiana gets an understandable boost over an applicant from the DC suburbs. Then again, most universities can’t compete with the small army of regional officers that make up Yale admissions—in which case, more socioeconomic information from the College Board could be quite useful. I wonder, though, if such information could backfire at universities that don’t have hefty endowments. With more small colleges closing because of budget issues, confirmation of a student’s relative wealth might in fact reinforce favoritism for those with the lowest “adversity scores,” who would be presumed likeliest to pay full tuition.


Critics of race-based affirmative action often argue that class, rather than race, is the more salient barrier to a university education, and the College Board may be partly conceding this point. The education journalist Jeffrey Selingo predicts that the College Board is preparing for the legal strictures of a “post-affirmative action world.” Others, like Thomas Chatterton Williams, counter that the “adversity score” amounts to a “pseudoscientific index of oppression.” Williams writes that the SAT can’t measure the racism he encountered as a black teenager living in a wealthier white neighborhood, and it probably shouldn’t presume to try: “No two lives are commensurate and not all adversity can be taken into account.”


But beyond the policy fight, I’m interested in the way the SAT continues to shine a light on our democratic paradox between equality and liberty. Tocqueville observed that “the people do not want the rich to sacrifice their money but their pride.” Perhaps some of the backlash against the College Board’s decision comes from the perception that the score enables college admissions officers—the gatekeepers of cultural pride—to scrutinize applicants’ finances. Of course, it’s easy to argue the reverse: families from elite zip-codes are prideful of all sorts of educational advantages. No one is asking parents to sacrifice their income; they just need to sacrifice the assumption that all high school students are on an even playing field.


Recent French debates over the future of the École nationale d’administration show that anxieties about academic elitism are not unique to the US. However, only a small slice of the French population will try for a seat at a grande école. Whereas the SAT represents something of an American right of passage. Almost every American considering postsecondary education—whether an associate degree in criminal justice or a BA in art history—has some familiarity with the SAT. That is, unless they take the ACT, and there are theories that the College Board’s announcement is intended to reclaim lost market share. But even if they never formally sit for the SAT, US high schoolers undergo practice tests, vocabulary drills, and the distribution of no. 2 pencils.


This explains why alterations to the test are always an object of national angst and ire. On the one hand, the SAT illustrates American education at its most egalitarian: millions of teenagers shuffle into gymnasiums on the same Saturday to answer the same multiple-choice questions. As our own Art Goldhammer noted in his recent speech on meritocracy, standardized tests served a noble post-War goal, giving gifted students from modest backgrounds the opportunity to enroll in institutions that had previously been reserved for graduates of New England prep schools. On the other hand, the SAT seems to protect the liberty of the few. Yes, it can catapult underprivileged students into the Ivy League, but the test has also further stratified wealth and prestige, enabling students at the top to pursue their educations free from the rest of the electorate.


The political theorist Judith Shklar once defined snobbery as “the habit of making inequality hurt.” In true Tocquevillian fashion, Shklar argued that snobbery is fiercely undemocratic because it nurtures a fear of our fellow citizens and perpetuates the hypocrisies of the ancien régime. Still, Shklar said, democrats can become snobs in spite of themselves. A functioning civil sphere fosters “little societies,” and these sub-groups will always entail an element of exclusion. The tendency toward exclusion is, in a sense, built into our democratic freedom of association. Thus, snobbery can be a thoroughly democratic vice—one which will permeate America’s elite universities so long as they go on rejecting the majority of students who apply.


It’s true that competitive schools, such as the University of Chicago and Bowdoin, have now gone “test optional,” allowing applicants to make their own choice about whether to submit their scores. Such a policy signals that universities themselves know the SAT is an imperfect metric. In admissions parlance, colleges are committed to building a more diverse and “holistic” incoming class. Yet I’ve heard from current UChicago undergraduates that they’re skeptical of this shift. At top universities, there’s a race to drive acceptance rates to obscene lows (UChicago’s acceptance has plunged to 5.9 percent, chasing Harvard’s record-breaking 4.5 percent). To keep up, universities need ever-more applicants so that they can reject most of them. Encouraging contenders to overlook their average SAT scores and apply anyway serves this numbers game quite well. So despite the egalitarian rhetoric, there’s snobbery in these statistics. Maybe it’s cynical to suspect this is the main motive. There’s the risk that cynics represent their own sub-group of snobs.


But what I admire about Shklar is that she defended liberalism while aggressively lowering our expectations for liberal culture. Instead of celebrating the classical virtues or modern freedoms, Shklar zeroed in on liberalism’s vices. Because liberalism widens the scope of the private realm, it extends the effect that our otherwise private vices—like cruelty, misanthropy, and snobbery—have on the wider culture. This is especially true in modern democracies, where the line between private and public is often blurred. For instance, the SAT could be viewed as a wholly private affair: individuals pay to take a test with a private company and can opt to share the results with a college of their own choosing. But, of course, many will prepare for the SAT at public high schools, take the test in a publicly-owned auditorium, and submit their scores to public universities. The shady social-striving behind the Operation Varsity Blues cheating scandal is now the purview of federal prosecutors.


We have yet to come to a consensus on whether the SAT is aimed to promote public or private goals. The main beneficiaries are surely the individual test-takers who do well. However, as Art reminded us, a democratic polity will only tolerate a meritocracy if it perceives a public gain, in the form of doctors, engineers, or teachers who share their knowledge. What the public won’t tolerate are walled-off academics, or citizens whose main claim to fame is the fact that they spent four years inside a particularly exclusive ivy tower—in other words, snobs.


Many hold out hope that greater access to education will eradicate snobbery. Yet it’s equally likely that education, especially the competitive higher education that the SAT facilitates, is one of snobbery’s main sources, inculcating the social inequalities and hypocrisies of our democracy. As Shklar put it:

The more academically distinguished a university is, the more demanding and exclusive it must be. Even if none of its members are practicing snobs, it will still acquire a reputation for snobbery among all those who resent its aloofness and the restless and disquieting activity of its scholars.

Some forms of exclusion are fairer and more socially-palatable than others, and perhaps the updated SAT can help curb the most anti-democratic versions of snobbery. But the contradictions of the SAT are indicative of larger democratic tensions. These contradictions will probably persist so long as Americans seek both liberty and equality, while trying to regulate one another’s pride.


Photo Credit: Cole Keister, College Graduation, via Unsplash.


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1 Comment

  • Eastrock says:

    Thanks for an interesting essay. I work in a clerical position at a certain elite university that rhymes with Bale, and the town is locked up by this vibe between the extremely wealthy school and its students, and the rest of the city. There is a snobbery emanating from the college, and almost everyone feels a kind of condescension, especially from the undergrads. We just had graduation, and the amount of parents and family wearing loafers that cost more than my rent walking the streets downtown, among the many homeless and under employed, is a strange and uncomfortable sight. Many, many people I know work there – it is the biggest employer in town – so we depend on it for our livelihood, a conflicting feeling …

    Every year it seems a local underprivileged high school student getting accepted makes the news as a feel good success story, but it feels to me like gross PR. I wonder if other elite-college towns have the same tension.

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