Published September 6, 2002
As more than 60 per cent of America’s young adults go off to college this time of year, it is perhaps worth a moment’s reflection on what they are expected to do to fit themselves for the acquisition of a college degree. For in the absence of a well-defined body of knowledge that all students are expected to acquire, the only common intellectual property among the “educated” seems to be personal authenticity.
That, at any rate, is what you might conclude from The Guide to Getting In: Winning the College Admissions Game Without Losing Your Mind by the Harvard Student Agencies, which informs the college-bound that the 500-word application essay is “your shot at showing those grizzled folks down in the admissions office who you really are.” The guide promises “some thoughts on how to bare your soul in a way that just might be fresh and exciting to people who’ve already seen it all.”
The humorist Leo Rosten used to tell of having given a commencement address in which he advised the graduates that all their learning was nothing compared with sincerity. “And if you can fake that,” he would say, “you’ll have the world at your feet.” It’s not a joke anymore, now that our premier educational institutions are encouraging young men and women to learn how to put on this kind of “soul-baring” dog-and-pony show instead of learning, well, what educational institutions used to be in the business of teaching.
For example, the recent book The Gatekeepers, about a college admissions officer at Wesleyan University, describes a coaching session for high-school seniors at which he tells the college-students-to-be that poems “were among the best essays he had ever received.” He admonishes them to “be true to who you are” on their application essays rather than to “write what you think the college wants to hear.” And that’s what the college wants to hear!
This cult of personal authenticity merges with the academic fetish for “diversity” in the policy of the California university system, which gives favorable consideration to applicants who have met and surmounted “life challenges” — including the challenge of belonging to a minority thought to be under-represented in the state’s universities. According to a source quoted by The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Golden, “the new standard has led to a flood of sob stories on college- application essays, in some cases after university staffers have coached minority students on how to identify and present their hardships.”
The Harvard Guide also suggests coaching in sincerity, though candidates should retain “creative control” over their essays. They should provide “a glimpse of your personality that doesn’t show up in the letter of recommendation your math teacher wrote (about your skill with polynomials)”— as if it were a joke that a college education might have something to do with skill at polynomials.
Something much closer to a candid and unmediated picture of an applicant will emerge if you sit him down and tell him he’s got three hours to write on, say, “three of the following 25 questions.” That, at least, is what they did on one of the several parts of the entrance exam for Oxford and Cambridge that applicants used to have to take when I was teaching in England some years ago.
The students were, naturally, subjected to exams on what they knew — questions on Descartes and modern history, for instance. But they were also asked to write essays that would reveal their nimbleness of mind and reasoning powers, things rarely on display in maudlin self-description.
So what kinds of questions were they asked? Here are some that I remember:
• Is popular culture a contradiction in terms?
• “The camera may do justice to laughter but must degrade sorrow.” (W.H. Auden). Discuss.
• Is there any point in considering what might have happened?
• “But the Government cannot do, by all its signaling and commanding, what the Society is radically indisposed to do.” (Thomas Carlyle). Discuss.
• Why should promises be kept?
• Is it possible to be tolerant towards different religions only if one is deeply attached to none?
• “Behind every form of government there lurks an oligarchy.” (Ronald Syme). Discuss.
• “To dissociate literary criticism from politics is itself to adopt a political position.” Discuss.
• “Whatever is the origin of scientific generalization, it is not induction from particular instances.” (Karl Popper). Discuss.
• In “A Study in Scarlet,” Sherlock Holmes asserts that the structure of the solar system is of no great importance. “If we [the earth] went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.” How legitimate is this attitude?
The point of such questions was to look for signs of intelligence and reasoning ability. At the most basic level, someone ought to be able to disentangle the logical snarl in “Should one tolerate those who do not believe in toleration?” And it was encouraging if an applicant could see both the etymological and historical dimensions to: “‘Civilization begins with the city.’ Discuss.”
Beyond that, there was the hope that someone answering a question like “Why should we save the whales?” would react with intellect, not just feelings. He might recognize, for instance, that the question contains a prior question: What is the nature of our moral obligation, if any, to a species, as opposed to an individual?
Questioners, that is, would tempt candidates by wording questions as invitations merely to regurgitate their prejudices — and then reward those who didn’t, who could look at a question from both sides, with all the argumentative logic and imaginative sympathy that such an exercise may require.
Oxford and Cambridge did away with the General Paper in the 1980s as part of a still mercifully incomplete process of Americanization. After all, it wasn’t fair to the stupid. One year they put the question: “‘The value of formal education is greatly over-rated.’ What do you think?” The clever ones would have spotted the confusion introduced by the passive voice and gone on to mention several hypothetical over-raters. But it would have occurred to none of them to question then, as it might occur to the brighter candidates now, whether a formal education was still an education at all.
Here is one for America’s applicants of the future: “The essay-on-self required by college entrance applications encourages cagey self-display and self-pity. This is itself a pity. Discuss.”