Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Getting In

Yesterday NPR aired an extensive story, both morning and evening, about the college admissions process, and how many admissions professionals are calling for a major rethinking of the stressful, pressure-laden rite of passage. Applying and being admitted to prestigious schools is a teenager's initiation into social stratification. Parents and teachers call upon them to "be their best," which in this case is inevitably translated to, "get accepted to the top-ranked schools." The frenzy of test preparation, test-taking, personal coaching, strategic planning of extracurriculars, all for the sake of looking better than everyone else, is enough to make the "greedy 80's" look like European socialism.

At first I thought it sounded like a marketing dig from the smaller colleges: "Oh, those big schools aren't so great. You can get a fine education at a smaller school, with more interaction with professors and peers and a better atmosphere." To a generation schooled in educational elitism, any call for "re-thinking educational goals" sounds a lot like apologizing for less-than-optimal performance. The parents, more than anyone, are interested in brand-names: "I'm not paying that much money for a chummy, collegial atmosphere. I'm paying that much money for Yale, dammit! Harvard!"

But the call for change is coming from some of the top schools in the country. The dean of admissions at MIT, one of the most selective schools in the country, is saying the emperor has no clothes. The system of college ranking, she claims, is a tyrranous system that forces colleges to game their numbers. To make their stats look good, they encourage people to apply who really shouldn't, just so they can boost their percentage of applicants denied admission. They also are highly rewarded for having high graduation rates, which means there are strong disincentives for having high academic standards and flunking people out. In the end, the academic mission of the schools is being compromised for a sake of a highly orchestrated kabuki dance of social status.

What interests me most is that the call for new perspectives on college admissions sounds an awful lot like what the Self Knowledge Symposium has been saying for the last fifteen years: "Why are you in school? What do you want to accomplish here? Your life is about more than just finding a job or lining up an upwardly-mobile career. Find a setting and lifestyle that will let you do what you really want to do." Maybe our hardworking, ambitious culture is finally ready to let young people be young, and let them explore aspects of life that don't necessary translate into paychecks.

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