A Fool's Complaint
A Harvard instructor of my acquaintance tells a good anecdote about the contrast between the American and the European educational philosophies. One year he noticed that a high school student in the summer school electronics course he was teaching was doing poorly, and he and the teaching fellow were discussing why this might be. Perhaps, they suggested, he was not really interested in the material and was attending summer school only because his parents had made him. Perhaps he was having trouble adapting to being so far from home. That year the co-instructor for the course happened to be a Greek engineer. When he heard the discussion he said something that no American would ever have dreamed of saying. "I think," he said, "that he is just very stupid."
Most Americans have few qualms about embracing the rawest form of dog-eat-dog capitalism (including the only health care system in the world based entirely on private profit), and yet their unwillingness to label anyone as intrinsically less worthy and their commitment to "being nice" indicate a sense of compassion. Some might see a contradiction, but I think there's a logic behind it. Merciless selection seems less objectionable if we insist that no one is intrinsically unfit. The losers are victims of circumstance, who, in principle at least, can be helped to succeed.
To maintain that a large part of the population is condemned to failure from the outset would require a ruthlessness that Americans cannot muster except in jest (which might be why American comedy is largely about outrageous losers, like Kramer, Dilbert and Homer Simpson).
American higher education starkly reflects this unwillingness to seriously label anyone unfit. Costa Rica, my home country, is an extremely egalitarian society in which it is considered bad form to make anyone else look bad, or to try to make yourself look too good. But if you want to get into the University of Costa Rica your performance on a standardized admissions exam is the only factor determining your admission and your ability to enter the career of your choice. The idea that a university should employ a large number of admissions officers devoted to reading application essays and listening to tapes of students' violin recitals seems downright bizarre.
Much has been written lately about grade inflation in American colleges. I am uneasy addressing the topic, having benefited so abundantly from it. But there can be no doubt that this same unwillingness to label anyone as fundamentally unfit lies behind it. Intelligent students at the University of Costa Rica can hardly expect to go through college without failing a couple of courses, some of them two or three times in a row. A friend tells me of a math professor who gives no credit if a problem in a test has an incorrect answer. He then goes back to look for errors of procedure in the problems where the answer was right.
The question remains whether it's a good policy for schools to identify certain students as unfit. Good arguments can be made both ways. There is no doubt that many bad students really are the victims of circumstance and that preserving their self-esteem may allow them to stay afloat. On the other hand, there is really no way to keep bad students from doing badly without lowering the standards and keeping the good students from developing their full potential. The record does not help much in settling the issue: The United States is the wealthiest country and its top universities are generally acknowledged to be the best in the world. But many of its schools are downright awful and part of the reason for the success of the United States might be that so many foreign-trained experts (who usually turn out to be better qualified than the nationals) end up working here anyway.
Being unable to answer that question, I am reduced to offering a personal perspective (hence the title of this piece). When I was younger I lived in fear of finding out I was not as smart as I hoped I was. SAT's and IQ tests made me very uneasy. I still become jittery when someone in the room proposes a brainteaser I haven't heard before. That is part of the reason why I chose to attend an American college known for its unwillingness to give students C's. But this plan failed because intelligence is evident only in comparative terms, and it is painfully obvious that, judged by the standard of my peers, the Eastern European professors must be looking at my test papers and saying to themselves "I think that he is just very stupid."
Now I realize that there are students who are far smarter, more productive and more deserving than I. At first I was bitter (after all, by pretending that no one is less qualified we make it harder on people who end up realizing that they are less qualified). But I've come to understand that it is not a bad thing to accept that other people are better in some way (or even in every way). The trick (and it's an awfully hard trick to pull off) is to accept this without giving up trying to be as productive as one can in fact be. That part I'm still working on.
Alejandro Jenkins '01 is a math and physics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.