Category Archives: Book Review

An Intimate Look at What’s Not Working in American Higher Education

I’ve spent my entire adult life thus far at university. I began my undergraduate degree at 17 years old and just graduated with my doctorate at 28. And, I now work at a non-profit education innovation hub affiliated with the largest university in the United States. I have devoted so much time to my education personally, and now professionally, because I love learning and, quite honestly, I am not sure what else I could do or would want to do.

Maturing personally and professionally within the American higher education system has left me with seemingly conflicting views of our institutions that I’m sure many other higher education professionals and professors share. On the one hand I view education as one of the most, if not the most, important thing in one’s life; education and learning enable everything else within my life. On the other hand, there are very real problems with our higher education institutions today, problems that are leaving students behind and underserving too many students once they get to campus.

The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us by Paul Tough is the most compelling account of the myriad problems plaguing higher education that I have read. Aside from what I think is an utterly uncompelling title (one that really undersells the importance of the book in my opinion), the data and stories contained within its pages give broad, yet intimate insights into the lives of the students that our education system is failing in mass numbers.

What makes this book special and enormously moving are that the problems with our higher education system Tough details are not only backed by data, but demonstrated by real stories with real college students that Tough interviewed and followed over many years. Connecting abstract institutional problems with the lives of real students makes the problems in higher education tangible and salient.

Tough organizes his reporting somewhat chronologically, starting with the decision to go to college and how it differs across income level. For students in higher income levels, the general rule and decision-making process of which college to attend is to go to the most selective college that will accept you. For lower income students, many of whom have parents without college degrees, figuring out which college to attend typically isn’t based on selectivity, but rather location or unambitious recommendations from high school guidance counselors. In what Tough calls “income-typical behavior” high-achieving students from low income neighborhoods miss out on the advantages that going to a selective university can offer for their economic mobility.

Tough then dives into the big business of test prep, and the importance of the SAT/ACT scores in higher education. The decision to heavily weigh SAT/ACT test scores, or use them at all, in the college admissions process is a hotly debated topic. On the one hand, the test scores are the most predictive piece of information admissions offices have for whether a student will be successful (i.e., GPA and graduation likelihood). On the other hand, the use of test scores appears to be leaving a non-trivial minority of students behind. And much of the time, these students are from below-average high schools that tend to be in low-income and/or minority neighborhoods.

College admissions and its focus on test scores works against many high performing students. There is a group of students, which Tough refers to as “deflated-SAT” students that have test scores much lower than their high school GPA would predict. These students account for about 1/6th of those that take the SAT/ACT. For the remaining students that take the SAT/ACT, 2/3rd of them score consistent with their GPA and the other 1/6th score higher than what their GPA would predict, who Tough calls “inflated-SAT” students. The students in the deflated-SAT group compared to the inflated-SAT group, however, are three times more likely to be low-income, three times more likely to be first generation college students, twice as likely to be female, and at least twice as likely to be black or Hispanic. With the exception of women, then, test scores work against already underserved populations in our institutions.

Tough describes research by DePaul university, which is a test-optional institution meaning that students with deflated SAT scores are not required to submit them if they choose not to, shows that students who do not submit their test scores do, in fact, have ACT scores about five points lower, on average, than students that do choose submit them (the university requests that they submit their scores for research purposes). Importantly, however, these students with deflated scores are no different than the students who submit their scores: they have equivalent freshman GPAs, are just as likely to enroll in their sophomore year, and their six-year graduation rates are within two percentage points of the test-submitting students.

After getting in, students need to stay in. Tough’s chapter, Staying In, describes many big problems facing public universities today. How to best help an increasingly diverse student body, and how to get students to graduate. At most public state universities, only around two thirds of students actually graduate, with rates being far higher at more homogeneous Ivy league universities and other prestigious institutions, but much lower for non-selective institutions and community colleges. Thus, even at our best state institutions, too many students are unsuccessful. And, these problems disproportionately plague minorities (but not Asians), first generation students, and low income students.

Why this happens is due to many reasons. For example, primary and secondary educational institutions are not equal across neighborhoods, and the prior knowledge and education of incoming students varies dramatically. In many ways, problems in higher education are rooted in many of the problems plaguing our primary and secondary schools. Moreover, underserved students are often the minority on campus, and their sense of belonging and community can suffer. These big problems are difficult to address at scale, though Tough describes inspirational cases of programs, such as those within the University of Texas university system that are making strides to combat these problems.

The Years That Matter Most is truly eye opening to higher education’s problems; but isn’t ideologically driven. The stories he shares about real students facing real challenges at their university offer something for many to resonate with. And, Tough made me reflect on the ways in which these problems have personally impacted me during my decade-long educational journey. Although higher education does, indeed, work just fine for most students, our higher education institutions need to work for more. We need to find ways to build up underserved students – minorities, low income, first generation, and deflated-SAT – and we need to do so at scale.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Thoughts on Human Diversity

Human diversity is complex and controversial, but we know more about our diversity now than at any other point in human history. Charles Murray’s latest book, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class, has stirred up op-eds and disagreements in which critics have correctly focused on Murray’s suboptimal description about polygenic scores and the presumed causally between genetic associations with phenotypic traits. The points critics have raised are important and although I largely agree with these criticisms, others have already sufficiently discussed them. Here, instead, I want to focus on my thoughts about the race section of Human Diversity, and Murray’s argument against the idea that race is a social construct.

I have remained intentionally mute on the ongoing scholarly debate of race differences in psychological traits. The debate can be summarized as two oversimplified positions. On one side of the debate, the argument is that race is a social construct in which proponents assert that race differences in skin color or other outwardly visible traits do not correspond to meaningful differences in psychological traits, with IQ being the primary trait of focus. The other side of the debate argues that race is not a social construct, and there are real, partly genetically based differences between races in psychological traits, including IQ.

This debate about the ‘realness’ or ‘biologicalness’ of race intersects with various orthogonal questions: Can the term “race” be used interchangeably with “population”? What evolutionary processes are responsible for any observed differences? If natural selection is responsible for these observed differences, what are the selection pressures that prompted the differences?

Murray, unsurprising to many reading this I would presume, argues against the ‘race is a social construct’ position and states that there is sufficient evidence to reject the proposition that race is a social construct. Human Diversity includes three chapters dedicated to laying out his argument for why race is biologically real. The first chapter focuses on genetic distinctiveness among ancestral populations; the second on evolution since humans left Africa; and the third on population differences in genetic variants associated with psychological traits. This evidence, Murray argues, is supportive of the position that race is a biologically ‘real’ entity.

I disagree.

For a few years now, I have been passively observing the biological race debate unfolding between academics and intellectuals online, wrestling with the arguments and data to come to a confident conclusion about my own position on this topic. Reading Human Diversity has led to the culmination of my position that, yes, race – as has been historically and culturally defined, predominantly by skin color – is more of a social construct than a biological reality. Independent of this conclusion, even if one were to hold the view that race is ‘biological’ Murray’s argument for such a view is simply unconvincing.

The basis for my position that race is more accurately described as a social construct rather than a biological reality rests on two primary points, described in detail below. First, using the terms “race” and “population” interchangeably is inappropriate and inaccurate.  And, second, the extraordinary genetic diversity within continental regions is largely ignored, and currently, too limited to draw convincing conclusions about race differences in psychological traits.

Importantly, however, I do not disagree with the data that Murray presented in these chapters, but I do disagree with the conclusions he draws from them, and I find his presentation of the argument for the position that race is not a social construct inappropriate given the data he uses as support.

I do agree with the claim that human populations differ genetically and for many evolutionary-related reasons. This is an indisputable fact of modern genetic findings that cannot be dismissed. But that human populations differ genetically is not synonymous with the claim that human races differ genetically. Using “population” in place of “race” is a slight I’ve seen used to support the position that races – Black, White, Asian – differ genetically in meaningful ways that contribute to psychology and behavior, which I view as incorrect.

This inappropriate term-switching is used by Murray often in the race chapters of his book. The inconsistency is apparent by looking at the title of the book and comparing it with the chapter titles and propositions in the race section of Human Diversity. To argue against the position that race is a social construct, Murray inappropriately uses data about human populations. Although he defends his term switching by rightfully stating that race has “outlived its usefulness when discussing genetics” (p.135) he then proceeds to inappropriately use the term race throughout the chapters, and uses populations data to support his claim that race is biologically real. (At one point he even refers to other hominid species as “races” of humans.)

That human populations differ genetically, and that Africans, Europeans, and Asians have some broad-level statistical covariation in models is a more appropriately a reflection of human migration patterns over evolutionary history, than meaningful categorical distinctions for understanding psychology. As the number of groups in these statistical models increases, populations begin to split off by regions within these broad continental groups, as Murray shows. Specifying three, seven, or 15 groups, however, is a rather arbitrary decision. Imagine you are an alien visitor with only the genetic data that Murray describes in Chapter 7. Would you pick three groups? Seven? Why? Without pre-existing cultural concepts of race, it is hard to justify an answer that corresponds with socially derived racial groups.

Another problem with these kinds of data is that the data we have from populations within Africa and Asia are incredibly limited relative to that of populations from European. The genetic diversity in African populations is notoriously diverse, yet we have comparably minimal data. As Dr. Adam Rutherford discussed in his book, two Africans are likely to be more genetically distinct from each other than either is to a European. To simply lump all Africans into a single racial group is lazy, misinformed, and more of a reflection of the dearth of data that we have from the continent – an argument that Rutherford articulates elegantly in his book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived.

The lack-of-data problem leads me to another criticism of Murray’s argument, which he outlines in Chapter 8: that “evolutionary selection pressure since humans left Africa has been extensive and mostly local”. I have two problems with this line of argumentation. First, what seems to be ignored here is that evolution didn’t stop in African populations when some humans migrated out of Africa – populations in Africa continued to evolve and change, too(!).

The chapter describes evolutionary processes responsible for changes in genetic frequencies between populations, and how migration causes reduction in genetic diversity in the migrating populations. But, the ability of genes to vary (for various evolutionary reasons) across populations does not necessitate that there is, or has been, selection pressures to build adaptations between populations, nor does it make it necessarily more likely. The fact that migrating populations can contribute to genetic differences between Africans (as a group) and Europeans (as a group), must also apply to different (migrating) African populations. The argument is not specific to races; though when Murray frames his argument as ‘evolution post-Africa is extensive’, the evolutionary changes within Africa are ignored.

The second problem I have with this argument is that nearly all the evidence for local adaptations across populations are related to specific physiological process or medical disease traits, not psychological traits. Murray and most other’s arguing for his position describe several population specific traits: sickle cell, altitude adaptations, lactose tolerance, etc. (which don’t even vary consistently across racial lines anyway). The primary difference between these kinds of adaptations and the proposed psychological traits that proponents of Murray’s position argue for, such as IQ or personality, is that the physiological and disease traits have clearly defined selection pressures underlying their evolution and extensive empirical support. Proposals for psychological race differences, however, do not, nor is there strong evidence in support of the claims that I have read. A recent study by doctoral student Kevin Bird tested this idea specifically and shows that IQ differences between Blacks and Whites are not genetically driven nor is there evidence of natural selection operating to produce differences.

Although I think evidence of race differences in psychological traits is unlikely to be (accurately) found in the current research environment, I do not think it is unreasonable to hypothesize and explore questions related to psychological differences between populations (or races). However, it seems to me that the likelihood of finding differences between races is more unlikely than finding differences between populations. Because the variation within races (e.g., ‘blacks’ and ‘whites’ as broad groups) is undoubtedly larger than the variation within specific human populations, the effect sizes for ‘race’ differences would have to be large relative to population differences to be accurately detectable.

Moreover, as I mentioned above, we have an extremely limited amount of genetic data from African populations, relative to populations in Europe and (east) Asia. Thus, current results comparing data from one European population and data from one African population, for example, tells us only about those two specific populations, not about Whites and Blacks as racial groups. More accurate information will be known as the amount of genetic data from non-European populations becomes comparable to that of European populations, and problems of comparing across human populations is resolved.


Murray’s claim that we should move on from the use of race in genetics in favor of population is one I agree with. But that is not consistent with the claim that race is not a social construct. Race, as he describes in Chapter 6, came into the cultural lexicon to categorize people by different skin color and other outward features. What genetics has done is to clearly show that race as skin color or outward features is not a proxy for genetic variation of human populations. Two populations can look the same, but be genetically distant. As Rutherford explains in his book, using ‘black’ skin as a categorical marker hardly makes sense.

What genetics has done for our understanding of race is analogous to what happened in taxonomy with the evolution and genetic revolutions. As described by Dr. Carol Yoon in Naming Nature, taxonomy historically was based on the outward appearance of organisms. Humans have all sorts of culturally useful names for categories of animals, such as fish, birds, and bugs. These categories of animals, like humans, contain enormous diversity within them. Dolphins and trout both swim, bats and magpies both fly, but these outward characteristics from which we group them do not correspond to the biological reality of their relatedness.

This is what has happened with race, in my opinion. As our knowledge of genetics and human diversity has flourished, race – once a seemingly reliable, accurate, and obvious way to categorize human groups – has become a social construct with the acquisition of knowledge. We now know that social categories of race as defined by skin color are not a reliable and accurate way to categorize human groups. So, Murray is right to say that race is no longer an appropriate way to discuss human diversity. He is wrong to conclude from this that race is therefore not a social construct. Race, in my view, is as biologically real as the socially derived, yet meaningful, category “fish”.

Brief Book Review: The Education of an Idealist


Memoirs are a new genre I’ve been exploring recently, The Education of an Idealist being my third over the past few months, preceded by Educated: A Memoir and Becoming (Michelle Obama needs no subtitle). The common thread throughout each has been the personal education journey of the subject, despite the actual journeys of Tara, Michelle, and Samantha being exceptionally different.

Samantha’s journey began in Ireland and followed her to America when she was a young girl. She ferociously absorbed American culture throughout her childhood becoming intensely passionate about baseball – a sport which I could never quite grasp the interest of. The aspect of her story which I liked most was that her path wandered, beginning in sports journalism, and ending as the United States Ambassador at the United Nations. The stories of many successful individuals, in contrast, tend to look linear in hindsight: a determined person with a clear goal since adolescence. A story that is true of only a select few.

Samantha was humble throughout her story, intimately sharing her deepest insecurities, uncertainties, and fears with the reader. She acknowledged when serendipitous events, like meeting Barack Obama, were pivotal moments in her life course, as they so often are. But it is nonetheless comforting to hear about someone who reaches the echelon of their career by following a meandering path sprinkled with gracious opportunity.

The part of her story that was most interesting to me was her role as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans during the Bosnian genocide in the 1990s. There she learned of suffering, geopolitics, risk, and reporting. I had never before read from the perspective of a foreign correspondent, especially not during a tumultuous time in Balkan history. It was a particularly engrossing part of the book, perhaps because of the salience of being in a war zone and perhaps because I was too young at the time of the events to know of their occurrence.


But it is nonetheless comforting to hear about someone who reaches the echelon of their career by following a meandering path sprinkled with gracious opportunity.


Because of Samantha’s roles – as a foreign correspondent, as an aid for then Senator Obama, and finally as UN ambassador – her book not only served as story worthy of sharing, but also as an interesting history and political lesson. A substantial portion of her book focused on Balkan history, but an equally substantial portion of her book focused on UN international relations, particularly with Russia. She plainly portrayed the difficult position the United States is in when human rights issues intersect with geopolitical ones, such as the recognition of genocide on the world stage, and action in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria.

Samantha’s story showcases the contrasting reality of geopolitics with idealistic goals – goals from which she admirably never wavered on. Her educational journey throughout her story is evident – in her career and personal life. Learning about her story, and those of Tara Westover and Michelle Obama, demonstrates how deeply personal education really is, the true essence of which is too often lost in current educational institutions.

Brief Book Review: Mind in Motion


A goal of mine for 2020 is to write more — a goal many academics commit to each year. This year, however, as I have stepped away from the ivory tower, I am going to make a concerted effort to write more public essays and blog posts now that I am far less tied to the necessity of formal academic publishing. As part of this goal, I am introducing a new series, Brief Book Reviews, where I will do exactly as the title suggests: I’ll offer brief reviews of (hopefully) all the books I read this year. I hope to provide readers with at least a couple of interesting recommendations. (To see my 2019 book recommendations, see here)

First up for 2020 was Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought, by Barbara Tversky. I first heard of this book on Sam Harris’ podcast where he discussed Tversky’s interesting thesis that action and motion are the basis of abstract though. The thesis was phenomenally interesting as, evolutionarily speaking, we (and other animals) evolved diverse means of communication previous to the evolution of our remarkable and complex language systems. Her thesis is doubly interesting in that one hypothesis for the ultimate function of the brain (or, centralized nervous system) that I find enchanting is that the brain ultimately evolved to facilitate locomotion — all animals must move; and, those that do not, typically don’t need a brain. Take, as a favorite example of mine, the sea squirt (and other related species) which, upon locomoting to a suitable permanent location to attach to, it promptly digests its own brain — it is no longer needed.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 22 January 2020.

The Most Interesting [Non-Fiction] Books I Read This Year — 2019


This year has been filled with many wonderful books. Below are my top five most interesting books I read this year. These five books are diverse, each covering a different knowledge area, which I think is reflective of my effort to branch out (I even read a novel this year — a first in many, many years). Everyone’s “to read” list is too long, but hopefully at least one of these will snag a spot on your 2020 reading list. Happy reading.

1. The Second Kind of Impossible: The Extraordinary Quest for a New Form of Matter by Paul J. Steinhardt

The Second Kind of Impossiblewas an experience from start to finish. For the last year I had been searching for history of science books (my current favorite genre) and I stumbled upon this book on a display table at my local Barnes and Noble on a Saturday night book run. The reason I bought it? It was on sale. I had never heard of the book, despite it just being published a few months prior. It sounded interesting enough, and physics is my second favorite science subject next to evolution. The book sat on my “to read” pile until July when I cracked it open over the holiday weekend.

This book is the embodiment of a scientific journey. Pual Steinhardt recounts his 35-year journey to discover a new form of matter, “quasicrystals”. Through improbable set backs, inspiring insights, and far-flung journeys to the tundra, this is a journey that you just can’t wait to see how it ends. Part of what made this book so fascinating and exhilarating to read was that I had no prior knowledge of any aspect of the book. I didn’t know what a quasicrystal was, I did not know who Paul Steinhardt was, and I hadn’t read even a word about the final discovery. I have yet to read another science discovery book that was as enveloping as this one. Even if physics is not your topic of choice, the book is focused on the journey rather than dense scientific details, and is absolutely worth a spot on your “to read” pile.

Buy it here.

To continue reading, click here.

This post originally appeared on my Medium account on 1 December 2019.