Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, March 7, 2011

Crazy U

Let me tell you a few things about Andy Ferguson’s new book Crazy U: it’s well-researched, insightful, thought-provoking, and sometimes hysterically funny. He’s good on everything: college admissions standards, evaluation of candidates, financial aid, you name it. And he links the themes together in sometimes unexpected ways.

Consider for example this passage, from a section on how the admissions policies of Ivy League universities have changed over the years:

“In a way you had more human diversity in the old Harvard,” a friend once told me, after a lifetime of doing business with Harvard graduates. His attitude was more analytic than bitter, however. “It used to be the only thing an incoming class shared was blue blood. But bloodlines are a pretty negligible thing. It allows for an amazing variety in human types. You had real jocks and serious dopes, a few geniuses, a few drunks, a few ne’er-do-wells, and a very high percentage of people with completely average intelligence. Harvard really did reflect the country in that way back then. “You still have a lot of blue bloods getting in, multigeneration Harvard families. But now a majority of kids coming into Harvard all share traits that are much more important than blood, race, or class. On a deeper level, in the essentials, they’re very much alike. They’ve all got that same need to achieve, focus, strive, succeed, compete, be the best—or at least be declared the best by someone in authority. And they’ve all figured out how to please important people.” Harvard grads disagree with this, of course. They like to say that the new Harvard represents the triumph of meritocracy. No, my friend said. “It’s the triumph of a certain kind of person.”

Then, some pages farther on, Ferguson is discussing the lamentable “Me essay,” the tell-us-everything-deeply-personal-about-yourself essay most colleges ask their applicants to write, and in that context he asks,

But what qualities does the Me Essay measure? If they were trying to capture the ability to write and reason, this could be accomplished by less melodramatic means. No, the admissions essay rewarded personal qualities beyond mathematical reasoning and verbal facility. Some of the traits were appealing enough, in appropriate doses. Refreshingly effusive kids, admirably enthusiastic kids, the all-American Eddie-attaboys might very well thrive on the essay. But it would also reward other characteristics, like narcissism, exhibitionism, Uriah Heep–ish insincerity, and the unwholesome thrill that some people get from gyrating before strangers. Which of these traits, I wondered, predicted scholarly aptitude or academic success? I saw it at every turn, as my friend had said of Harvard: the system “privileged” a certain kind of kid. And if you weren’t that kind of kid the best course was to figure out how to pretend you were.

Suddenly you see how the whole system of college admissions coalesces around, not just ambition, but a particular kind of ambition — something far more social than intellectual. It’s kind of nauseating, to be honest — though perhaps I feel that way because I’ve just helped to shepherd my son through college applications. But whether you’ve got college-aged kids or not, and even if you don't have kids and don't even plan to have them, you ought to read Crazy U. It’s a first-rate piece of popular cultural criticism, and it’s very, very funny.

10 comments:

  • Curious to know what small liberal arts colleges look for, because they all, not just Ivies, have their own scholar template. Just finished the application process with my deep-thinker, non-game-player son. At every turn he had the opportunity to answer the questions truthfully or the way he knew the colleges would respond affirmatively to. Discouraging way to introduce my son to higher education.

  • As someone who teaches at a liberal arts college, I'd love to say that we're totally different than the Big Universities, but honestly I don't know how different we are. Our own admissions policies befuddle me.

  • As an independent college counselor, I think that college admissions is a little different at every school. I work with high school students and I encourage them to be themselves on their college applications and essays. They may not get accepted by every school, but they will get accepted by the schools that value the qualities they possess.

    Susie Watts
    Denver, Colorado

  • But now a majority of kids coming into Harvard all share traits that are much more important than blood, race, or class. On a deeper level, in the essentials, they’re very much alike. They’ve all got that same need to achieve, focus, strive, succeed, compete, be the best—or at least be declared the best by someone in authority. And they’ve all figured out how to please important people.”

    How do we know that the the desire to "achieve, focus, strive...etc." is somehow more of an "essential" trait, more "important" than belonging to a certain social class? And since when did blue-bloods start to come in an amazing variety whereas kids who "strive to succeed" are all homogeneous? I don't know, Alan, there's a definite hint of nostalgia here. Today's system isn't perfect, by any means -- far from it, really -- but I'll take it any day over a system that privileges blue-bloods.

    In India, college admissions are decided by competitive exams, unlike here in the US, where colleges consider grades, SAT scores, extra-curricular activities, recommendation letters and the like. I'd argue that the competitive exam is even more "meritocratic" than the system here. The Indian system privileges kids who are able to do well in certain kinds of exams, the system here privileges kids who are able to write better essays and project a certain kind of (probably fake) self-hood. There's no getting away from the fact that any kind of "true" diversity is impossible. But I'll take these systems over the old class-based admissions system any day.

    All that said, it does sound like a good book and I've put it on my list!

  • Reading this I thought of the guy who played drums in my HS rock band. He and the bass player went to Yale; then he went on to Harvard Law This: "They’ve all got that same need to achieve, focus, strive, succeed, compete, be the best—or at least be declared the best by someone in authority." fits him to a T; or at least did when he was 17.

    For fun I just did searches on his, Alan's, and my name in Google. Guess who the "winner" was...

  • Having worked with several Harvard undergraduates as interns at my workplace (small magazine), I have found them to be universally enchanted with the concept of pleasing authority. It was a depressing experience, to say the least.

    When faced with the usual intern-level publishing chores, Harvard students tended to have a poor sense of the balance between externally and internally set goals. Often, there was a sort of "box checking" attitude, where the intern wanted sharp definitions of "correct" and "incorrect", rather than accepting tasks as learning experiences and accepting corrections and suggestions.

    While all interns and new hires have to struggle to define their standards and understand office dynamics, the Harvard kids were the most adamant that they be subjected to "real" external and objective measures. It took much longer to get them to understand that there were no gold stars to be handed out, only infinite amounts of work to be done, and that working up to one's own standard was the surest way to win the game.

    Granted, publishing work attracts a certain subset...

  • Starts out good: "They’ve all got that same need to achieve, focus, strive, succeed, compete, be the best" but then it just becomes bitter: "or at least be declared the best by someone in authority. And they’ve all figured out how to please important people." If you think that the kids that go to the very best schools aren't smart and driven and instead just pass that off as "they're just suck ups" it says a lot more about you then them.

  • "If you think that the kids that go to the very best schools aren't smart and driven and instead just pass that off as "they're just suck ups" it says a lot more about you then them."

    There would seem to be some of that, if not in the passage, then in some of the readings of the passage.

    But also there's this.

    A fellow I worked with when I lived out West went to a highly selective, very competive art school. It was hard to get into, and it was also hard to stay in. To hear him tell it, a given cohort washed out to the tune of about 25% year. Only one out of four freshman ended up with diplomas.

    I don't know if it's true, but what I have heard it's a real accomplishment to flunk out of Harvard, which makes a perverse sort of sense. If the had flunkout and drop outs that would cast doubt on their (much vaunted) admissions process.

    Now maybe what I've heard just isn't true. Maybe staying in Harvard and graduating from Harvard is just as hard, perhaps even harder than getting into Harvard in the first place.

    Or maybe it is true, in which case a lot of what is being "measured" by a Harvard degree is how good you are at getting into Harvard. That doesn't mean a person who gets into Harvard is stupid or a suck up. But then don't think that's what Ferguson was suggesting in the first place.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Joshua, attempts to measure social phenomena are notorious for measuring the specific things observable with the measuring tool rather than the broader social phenomenon people wish to extrapolate from those data.

    Standardized tests measure test-taking skills. Job performance metrics measure the ability to meet those metrics. Reward programmers for fixing bugs and they will end up writing code with more bugs so they can get rewarded for fixing them.

    So it makes perfect sense to ask critically, "What exactly is the Harvard admissions process actually selecting for?"

  • Perhaps this so-called socialization of the college admissions process, and the college experience for that matter, explains why the United States is statistically falling behind in certain black-and-white academic categories. Maybe we need to get back to the solemn seriousness required of a global leader in innovation and ethics.

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