Battlepanda: Ivy League Degrees as Elite Consumer Goods


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Ivy League Degrees as Elite Consumer Goods

Applying to colleges in the U.S. was a nightmare for me. But one part, at least, was easy: The extra-curricular section -- I had none. Being an anti-social, unathletic child, I edited no school newspapers, joined no hocky teams, did not debate or join the model United Nations. I left the extra-curricular sections completely blank, confident that it couldn't be of any possible importance.


What does it matter how well an entering student can throw a ball or run a mile anyhow? Me and my mom talked it over and decided that American Universities are excessively progressive. Which is why it's ironic to find out that the emphasis on "well-roundedness" actually began as a way to weed the Jews from the Gentiles in the application pool at Harvard.

Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker article
deserves to be read. It starts off as a standard critique on unfair admission practises, with a description of Gladwell's own 10-minute college application process in Canada and some mocking observation about how Harvard graduates tend to wear their degrees like some people wear designer cloths -- dying to show them off yet afraid of coming across as gauchely ostentatious. BUT WAIT...having explored the unpleasant history of "well-roundedness" and alumni-admissions as Jew-and-working-class-exclusion devices, Gladwell muses on whether they could be very effective at accomplishing the kind of selection that Harvard legitimately wants -- atheletes are driven, legacy families have lotsa dough, a life outside of academics suggest a student has social skills and thus likely to suceed. Maybe Harvard is simply ensuring that its brand remains burnished by admitting people who are most likely to turn out to be superstars, even if it means making admission decisons based on notes like the following:
“This young woman could be one of the brightest applicants in the pool but there are several references to shyness,” read one. Another comment reads, “Seems a tad frothy.” One application—and at this point you can almost hear it going to the bottom of the pile—was notated, “Short with big ears.”
So, Ivy-leagues schools don't exclude brighter students for those who are athletic, or have alumni connections, or otherwise seem to be a "good fit" to be mean about it. They are simply doing what furthers the interests of their institution. But does that make it O.K.? I don't think so. And I don't think Gladwell does either, in the final analysis.
In the nineteen-eighties, when Harvard was accused of enforcing a secret quota on Asian admissions, its defense was that once you adjusted for the preferences given to the children of alumni and for the preferences given to athletes, Asians really weren’t being discriminated against. But you could sense Harvard’s exasperation that the issue was being raised at all. If Harvard had too many Asians, it wouldn’t be Harvard, just as Harvard wouldn’t be Harvard with too many Jews or pansies or parlor pinks or shy types or short people with big ears.
By the way, I used to think that Gladwell was a flaky and superficial writer because I flipped through "Blink", and while it was entertaining enough, it seems to contradict itself constantly. When I actually read through it though, it was a different experience. I came to appreciate the mercurial way Gladwell switches from one point of view to another while his light, readable prose propelled you along, almost without realizing how many sharp corners Gladwell just dragged you around. He is a genious at sculpting a catchy concepts out of seemingly patternless events and data and anecdotes. Even if those catchy concepts doesn't really have any validity outside of his books, they provide great narrative drive within them (in "Blink" he basically says -- making snap judgements is good. Except when it's bad. If you can take just the right things into account, then making a decision quickly can very well yield a better result than if you took your time. Most people don't take the right things into account when making a decision quickly.") I look forward to reading "The Tipping Point" as the first book in my 52 books in 52 weeks resolution.