helen vendler vs. jerome karabel
Harvard Magazine has an article from literary scholar Helen Vendler. She’s on the Harvard undegraduate admissions committee and she wonders if current standards would make it hard for tomorrow’s literary leaders to gain admission. A representative clip:
The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader?
I’ve long given up on a purely idealistic view of college admissions. For example, if you read Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, perhaps the most important book ever written on elite undergraduate education in America, you quickly learn that college admissions reflect an economic and political equilibrium. A college, even one as wealthy as Harvard, serves many masters and that means you admit legacies and athletes and you have affirmative action. It also means that you create standards that students then strive to achieve, like the ideal type of the straight A student who is the newspaper editor as well.
You may think I’m a pessimist but I’m not. Rather, I’m amazed at the diversity of higher education. There’s more than one college, way more. There’s 2,000+ universities and liberal arts colleges. So yes, some of the future greats will end up at Harvard. But others won’t. Look at recent Pulitzer Prize winners. Many are Ivy League grads (Jennifer Egan – 2011 prize) and some are not (Paul Harding – 2010 prize). Some go to modest schools (Junot Diaz – 2009, went to Kean College). The bottom line is that literature doesn’t need Harvard. The motley crew that will become the next generation of Capotes and Rowling will come from all kinds of places.