Finding And Freeing Harvard’s Creative Minds

In her recent essay “Valuing the Creative and Reflective,” written for the benefit of Harvard’s admissions committee, A. Kingsley Porter University Professor Helen Vendler urges Harvard to reevaluate its admissions methodology.

The distinguished professor of English argues that the admissions standards familiar to today’s Harvard students—near-perfect GPAs and test scores, extracurricular leadership, public service and general geniality—privilege well-rounded, quantifiably accomplished candidates at the risk of passing over creative genius.

“The critical question for Harvard is not whether we are admitting a large number of future doctors and scientists and lawyers and businessmen (even future philanthropists): we are,” Professor Vendler writes. “The question is whether we can attract as many as possible of the future Emersons and Dickinsons.”

The question, in short: would Ralph Waldo Emerson, class of 1821, have been admitted to the Harvard class of 2016? Were he admitted, would he have wanted to come?

Harvard ought to ask these questions—ought to ask how it can attract the best and most creative students, not merely the busiest and most ambitious. Professor Vendler grounds this conclusion in a persuasive argument for the primacy of creative minds in defining the reputations not just of universities, but even of nations—we are remembered more for our artists than for our conventionally successful types.

The question that interests me, though, has less to do with what will make Harvard better, and more to do with what will make Harvard’s current student body better.

Professor Vendler quotes a line from John Ashbery ’49, “I tried each thing, only some were immortal and free,” and then identifies “immortal and free things” with “art and thought,” attaching particular metaphysical value to the work of artists and art-lovers. Used in this way, however, Ashbery’s line loses some of its suggestiveness. But if we call to mind some of the poetic work the line itself recalls, we see how much it could mean not just for arguments over the value of disciplines, but for anyone at all.

In his 1855 Preface to “Leaves of Grass,” Walt Whitman encourages the reader, “re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your soul.” This sentiment of Whitman’s is, I think, very close to Ashbery’s. There are things, both poets remind us, that are immortal and free, that are worthy of the soul; all else, though we may well try it, should at last be set aside.

Professor Vendler’s use of Ashbery’s line suggests that what must be cast aside is what is not artistic and reflective. This may well be what Ashbery means, but what Ashbery’s line called to my mind, by way of Walt Whitman among others (Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto” especially), was a more basic, vital kind of freedom, the freedom Whitman speaks of when he promises that whoever dismisses all that insults his soul will make of his own flesh “a great poem” with “the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face.”

This is a difficult freedom to define, but I think we tend to know it when we feel it. As a student of English literature I like to believe in the importance of the arts, but as a student of Harvard I am obliged to admit that I have seen immortality and freedom in the faces of all sorts of students, from aspiring artists to promising financiers, and I have seen an enslavement to the most mundane and mortal of our worries in the faces of the most and least “creative” alike. And then I have seen both of these in my own face, from time to time.

Suppose we set the future aside. Suppose we ask not how to get the next Emerson to Harvard, but how to make the people Harvard already has into the kind of people Professor Vendler imagines Emerson as being, people immortal and free. What would that look like?

I don’t have any answer to this question. Professor Vendler suggests we “mute our praise for achievement and leadership” and “pronounce equal praise for inner happiness, reflectiveness, and creativity,” and I think that would certainly help. Between recent tragedies and Divinity School Professor Jonathan L. Walton’s reflection on the importance of mental health care, we have been reminded lately that none of the many kinds of success we pursue should come at the expense of our inward happiness, our capacity to rest in ourselves and in others.

Whatever the way may be to that kind of happiness and the freedom that follows it, I find myself wondering what we might be capable of if we weren’t always trying so hard. If only we took the time to look, I wonder what Emersons we might find among us, what poems we might read already etched in our own faces.

—Staff writer Adam T. Horn can be reached at