Tuesday, May 01, 2007

When ambition is overrated

There's a nice article written by Michael Winerip in the New York Times of a couple days ago about his personal experience as an alumni interviewer for Harvard, whose admissions process he has witnessed over the years as it has become impossibly selective. According to Winerip, "[the] kids who don’t get into Harvard spend summers on schooners in Chesapeake Bay studying marine biology, building homes for the poor in Central America, touring Europe with all-star orchestras." Who does get into Harvard, one wonders. It certainly seems to help if one has a distinctive biography in an environment when even a title like editor of the school newspaper or valedictorian are run-of-the-mill. Of course, the students who have such unique opportunities available tend to be of well-off families who have a sophisticated understanding of the modern college application process.

It all makes me long for the days where everything after elementary school wasn't just one big effort to get into a selective college, where one didn't have to be so prepared, and where high school summers were a time for lazing and working a lowly job. Winerip says that during his summers, he "dug trenches for my local sewer department during the day, and sold hot dogs at Fenway Park at night." Though it is hardly at the level of researching for a NASA project, as one of his interviewees did, there is some merit to spending those hot summer days doing unglamorous grunt work. It sure makes one value their educational opportunities when one has to file papers all day or dig ditches, knowing that some people spend a lot longer than a summer in such jobs, and it punctures any sense of entitlement--that loathsome syndrome with which some Baby Boomers have imbued their children--that those who are less familiar with "a hard day's work" often feel.

As Winerip says of his own realization that seeing his children attain a Harvard degree (which they didn't) was not the end-all be-all achievement for him as a parent: "I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see." There is life beyond Harvard.


Michael Blaine said...

The way high school kids try to tailor themselves to the type of college they thing they should attend instead of tailoring their college choice to square with who they are and what they want to achieve is ridiculous.

These "name brand" schools take themselves far too seriously, and help to create an unhealthful college prep environment.

Michael Blaine said...

There's also the question of social justice in what elite US universities charge; is it right that some parents shell out $40,000/year for their kid, when an equally or more talented citizen of, let's say Kenya, could be educated for pennies on the dollar but never gets the opportunity?

That's why I have trouble opening my pocket book for my alma mater, whose financial endowment amounts to several billion dollars. How can I justly make education for already privileged kids marginally better when the same amount of money given to truly needy kids will fundamentally change their lives?

I can't.