Home > Essays > Einstein’s Reminder to the SCOTUS in Reviewing Harvard’s Admissions Policy: “Not Everything That Matters Can Be Measured”

Einstein’s Reminder to the SCOTUS in Reviewing Harvard’s Admissions Policy: “Not Everything That Matters Can Be Measured”

June 1, 2021

The NYTimes education reporter Adam Liptak provided a preview of a case the SCOTUS is likely to take on regarding the diversity policy in place at Harvard. In the article he offers evidence

In looking for the quote on measurement in the headline of this post attributed to Albert Einstein, I came across a 2015 blog post by Steve Hargadon much of which I have posted below with my emphases in bold italics:

“Not everything worthwhile can be measured, and not everything that can be measured is worthwhile.”

This is my take on an idea that has been voiced by others, and which reminds us of the limitations on quantifying true value. My hero in measuring is W. Edwards Deming, who basically taught that it’s very easy to draw the wrong conclusions about data (see his “Red Bead Experiment”), so you teach the tools of measurement to those closest to the process, and you support them in learning how to use those measures to understand a process and make improvements. (Think about who that would be in education.)

He said: “The most important things cannot be measured.” And: “The most important things are unknown or unknowable.”

…William Bruce Cameron said that “…not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted” (often inaccurately attributed to Einstein)…

Likewise, the version I remember from my dad, Fred Hargadon–who as dean of admissions at both Stanford and then Princeton thought a lot about how students are measured–was alliterative, and gave its own spin: “Because we cannot measure the things that have the most meaning, we give the most meaning to the things we can measure.”

There’s a sense in my dad’s quote that is unsettling. My version, Deming’s, and Cameron’s give the sense of benign error; I hear in my dad’s version the possibility that this may be a human cognitive flaw. Even more intriguing, is it possible that we may sometimes be guilty of knowingly taking a shortcut in promoting simplistic measures to avoid harder, deeper, more reasoned thinking?

This latter interpretation, unfortunately, is how I see the current testing debate and dialog. The idea that the kind of tests we are focusing on nationally will actually helping students or our society rests on very shallow thinking.

The last observation is the most troubling to me… because the conservative members of the SCOTUS undoubtedly place a higher value on an “objective” test score to determine admissions to college than they place on the indisputably subjective analysis an admissions office applies. And if objective criteria— like race, gender, whether an applicant is a first generation college student, or whether the student is an immigrant— cannot be a factor in admissions how can other objective criteria— like whether an applicant plays the oboe, is the child of an alumnus, or was all-State quarterback— be used?
It strikes me that if an admissions office in a private college seeks a diverse student body that they should have the right to use whatever criteria they deem necessary to achieve that goal and if someone fails to be accepted to that institution they should not be entitled to challenge it.
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