Monday, March 17, 2008

The College Admissions Machine

The irony of Keith Gessen, Harvard grad and founder of elite(ist?) litmag N+1, writing an essay about how hard it is for kids to get into top colleges and more importantly the machine of college admissions (including cliche bullshit application essays) and calling out authors of books about that subject on they're members of the "so-called American meritocracy", is not lost on me.

And yet, somehow, the meritocracy keeps chugging along. Both Jager-Hyman and Samuels — along with just about everyone else — agree that things have gone too far with the college admissions game. “Destructive and anti-democratic,” Nicholas Lemann called it in “The Big Test,” his superb social history of the SAT: “It warps the sensibilities and distorts the education of the millions of people whose lives it touches.” I would go further: in a post-ideological age, the admissions frenzy has become its own ideology. My Russian parents, for example, while too sophisticated to disapprove of drinking or smoking, were not above suggesting that “Harvard” might not like it. Harvard might be mortified; Harvard might take it amiss. Harvard is coming to dinner — please tuck in your shirt.

Even worse than the temporary psychological distortion is, as Lemann argued in “The Big Test,” the permanent sense of entitlement the admissions game provides. Winners can plausibly claim they participated in a brutal competition (even if many potential competitors were never told about it). So we owe no one anything. Many of the people I went to school with became doctors, public advocates, television writers who bring laughter to the American people. But most of them became, like my friend who believed that getting into Harvard was the hardest thing in life, investment bankers. We meritocrats have not, generally speaking, used our fantastic test-taking abilities to build a more equitable world. In fact, buoyed by a sense of the fairness of the process, we may have done the reverse.

But he has a point. (I am sure Gawker has torn up this essay and it is mildly ridiculous, but it does speak to a lot of the issues involved with attending a top university. Entitlement is a real problem, and one I think about a lot.)

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