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.

Books! Books! Books!: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

December 7, 2012 at 12:07 am

Posted in culture, fabio

5 Responses

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  1. Good points, Fabio.

    “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.”

    One wonders why humanities instructors at the high-school level aren’t giving As to creative, original, intense, introverted, and insightful students if those are the things they value.

    And one wonders why students who are as thoughtful as she claims cannot pass rudimentary rote-learning bars, boring as they may be for such a student.

    Underneath what she’s saying seems to be the old slog about grades being an imperfect incentive system (they are), colleges being a hierarchical sorting system (it is), and that that represents social decline (it doesn’t).


    Graham Peterson

    December 7, 2012 at 12:16 am

  2. Vendler: ‘W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it doesn’t…’

    One feels Heidegger and Sartre have lived in vain. Why do we not say: W.H. Auden famously said—after seeing the Spanish Civil War—that “poetry makes nothing happen.” And it DOES.

    The enjoyment of poetry accomplishes nothing. And that accomplishment should get you into Harvard.



    December 7, 2012 at 7:51 am

  3. I agree with you about the complexities of elite admissions and that the university system as a whole can be trusted to provide opportunities for all kinds of talent. (Though I do think the diversity of college education is under threat, like diversity everywhere.) But I think as a criticism of Vendler’s piece, that point misses the mark. “The bottom line is that literature doesn’t need Harvard,” you say. But Vendler knows that. That’s her point. She is worried, not that literature will suffer from the lack of formative experience at Harvard, but that Harvard will no longer be able to pride itself on the greatest works of world literature, because the great writers simply did not attend Harvard.

    Harvard can remain confident that many of the great politicians and business leaders and scientists (even social scientists) of the future will have gotten at least some part of their education there. And recruitment is well-suited to ensuring that. (As you point out, recruitment is all about serving the many masters that really determines the fate of graduates, beyond the content of the education itself.) Vendler is simply pointing out that Harvard may be excluding people it would like to count among its alumni. That’s not “pure idealism”; it’s as realistic and pragmatic as can be.



    December 7, 2012 at 8:40 am

  4. Surprised no mention of Ron Unz’ article on elite college admissions:

    I know it’s not a very high circulation publication, but that particular article is all over the internet.


    Wonks Anonymous

    December 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm

  5. I wondered if the standards of any point in time really would have allowed literary leaders to gain admission. So I figured I’d look at a little data. This is unscientific, but could be the beginning of something scientific. I figured 1955 would be a good year for looking at the leaders of yesterday, so I obtained the list of National Book Award winners & finalists from 1955 (, a list containing such figures as Faulkner, Steinbeck, William Carlos Williams, e.e. cummings, and Carl Sandberg. Then I looked up their educational institutions in Wikipedia (or Google, in the three cases in which information was not available in Wikipedia. The Ivy League is well-represented in non-fiction and poetry, but not so much in fiction; in any case, the list does clearly suggest that literary leaders never did need Harvard. (Institutions lists are for undergraduate degrees unless otherwise noted; in the early 1900s, some professional degrees could be taken as undergraduate degrees).

    Fiction Winner:
    William Faulkner , A Fable high school dropout

    Fiction Finalists:
    Harriette Arnow – The Dollmaker Berea college & University of Louisville
    Hamilton Basso – The View from Pompey’s Head Tulane dropout
    Davis Grubb – The Night of the Hunter Carnegie Institute
    Randall Jarrell – Pictures from an Institution Vanderbilt
    Milton Lott – The Last Hunt UC Berkeley
    Frederick Manfred – Lord Grizzly Calvin College
    William March – The Bad Seed U of Alabama dropout
    Wright Morris – The Huge Season Pacific Union College & Pomona College
    Frank Rooney – The Courts of Memory unclear
    John Steinbeck – Sweet Thursday Stanford dropout

    Nonfiction Winner:
    Joseph Wood Krutch, The Measure of Man U of Tennessee; grad at Columbia

    Nonfiction Finalists:
    Van Wyck Brooks – Scenes and Portraits Harvard
    Harrison Brown – The Challenge of Man’s Future JHU
    Elmer Davis – But We Were Born Free Franklin College; Rhodes Scholarship
    Hermann Hagedorn – The Roosevelt Family of Sagamore Hill Harvard; grad at Columbia
    Paul Horgan – Great River New Mexico Military Institute
    John La Farge – The Manner is Ordinary Mount St. Mary’s & St. Johns
    David Lavender – Bent’s Fort Princeton
    Carl Sandburg – Abraham Lincoln Lombard College dropout
    Wallace Stegner – Beyond the Hundredth Meridian U of Utah; grad at U of Iowa
    Norman Thomas – The Test of Freedom Bucknell & Princeton; grad at Union Theological
    E.B. White – The Second Tree from the Corner Cornell

    Poetry Winner:
    Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems Harvard non-degree; New York Law School

    Poetry Finalists:
    e.e. cummings – Poems, 1923-1954 Harvard
    Leonie Adams – Poems: A Selection Barnard
    Louise Bogan – Collected Poems, 1923-1953 Boston University dropout
    Robinson Jeffers – Hungerfield and Other Poems Occidental College; grad at USC & U of Washington
    Archibald MacLeish – Songs for Eve Yale; Harvard Law
    Phyllis McGinley – The Love Letters USC & U of Utah
    Merrill Moore – The Verse Diary of a Psychiatrist Vanderbilt
    LeRoy Smith – A Character Invented U of Pennsylvania
    May Swenson – Another Animal, Utah State U
    William Carlos Williams – The Desert Music U of Pennsylvania
    Marya Zaturenska – Selected Poems Valparaiso & U of Wisconsin



    December 7, 2012 at 9:32 pm

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