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Columns

Imaginary Lint

Humanities

By Sue Meng

On average, Harvard students will probably attend 10.5 interviews before they graduate. Not that this is an official number, by any means, but I figure by the time you count the admissions interview, a slew of extracurricular “what vision do you have for this club/organization/a cappella group?”-type grillings, consulting case inquisitions, and then throw in a couple of mock interviews for good measure, the number is hovering somewhere around the double-digit mark.

Back in the day when I was a prospective freshman talking to then-larger-than-life Harvard grads about their experiences, one woman summed up her four year-education with the two things Harvard had taught her: how to tell which fork is which and how to schmooze it up at an interview. These, she assured me, would be important life skills, much more crucial than spouting Shakespeare or knowing about partial derivatives. Forget about grade inflation—everyone should graduate summa cum laude in poise, congeniality and schmooze ability: the Faculty of Articulation and Sociability.

But still, $35,000 a year to wax eloquent at 15-minute interviews and to recognize the order of silverware (which every self-respecting child of the ’90s should know from Pretty Woman anyway) seems a smidgeon too steep. And was this grad just being facetious? Or do our four years here teach us, in addition to reading critically and coming up with two-minute soundbytes in sections, to be functioning, socialized adults in a certain stratum of plum society?

The whole concept of interviews is bizarre; the point of the thing is for people whose sole purpose is to be judgmental to judge you in a situation in which everything from your posture to the lint you forgot to pick off your jacket lapel is being actively scrutinized. Great eye contact? A perfect 10! Ladies—legs crossed demurely at ankles? 10! Limp handshake? Unfortunate, 8. Cell phone go off? Sorry, back to square one.

The interview itself isn’t much better. The ubiquitous “tell me about yourself” results in a disastrous list of compartmental rambling: should I start with my concentration? hometown? knowledge of esoteric languages? Then there are the questions out of left field. I tried to do an informal poll of seniors who had recently gone through the interview obstacle course, and some of the winners were: What is the role of clowns in society? Is Puff Daddy (or P.Diddy) guilty? Is the Unabomber a good writer? Needless to say, the lucky folks the questions were put to all recounted these stories with similar dazed expressions. Are interviews just getting more sophisticated? Whatever happened to “what is your favorite book?”

If this is the case, maybe we do need four years to practice walking these gauntlets. And in certain ways, Harvard delivers. It struck me the other day that what really makes college different from high school is that because so much of our time here is spent outside the classroom, much more is mined than simply our minds. Although few would jump at the analogy, there remain a whole lot of finishing-school flourishes in our education. Even without realizing it, Masters’ teas, Crimson shoots, leadership conferences and mock interviews groom us to be citizens of a world of how-do-you-dos, firm handshakes and power suits. In part, it is because we are exposed to a wider world, in which we are judged by the quality of our minds but also by how we exhibit ourselves to strangers allotted a few minutes to judge the success of the exhibition.

So enter an awkward freshman prone to awkward silences and exit a smooth-talking senior? Is affability one of the “approaches to knowledge” that we spend our years here cultivating? Or is this too simple a view to take of the well-rounded intellectual and personal evolution that takes place over four years? In some ways, the question at the root of all this is whether our education develops primarily our public or private selves, and to what extent we get to choose.

The whole phenomenon of evaluative interviews suggests that poise, erudition and schmoozability count as much as the value of our ideas. The justification seems to be that the first requirement of a public citizen is the ability to engage with the larger world: a successful education would teach students to schmooze, and to schmooze well.

As a result, public selves may become overdeveloped at the expense of our private selves. By trying to fit lives into neatly divided parts, we risk becoming little more than walking five-minute prepared statements, so polished that our exteriors become impenetrable. Many people write about the phenomenon of “rolodex-building” at Harvard: the oft-expressed sentiment that we are so concerned with our futures that we lose the raw unpredictability of the present. So often required to distill ourselves into personal statements and choreographed answers, whittled down to bare statistics, we lose our better, less articulate selves.

The beauty of a classroom education is that we never have to be interviewed: we are asked what we think, not how or why we think it. Explain yourself is rarely asked; explain the world around you often is.

Interviews aren’t bad things, since they demand that we think coherently about ourselves. It is a great luxury (and therefore worth savoring) to spend four years thinking about something else.

Sue Meng ’03 is a history and literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.

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