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Not So Special After All?

What Harvard can—and must—learn from David Brooks

By Anthony S.A. Freinberg

I have to admit, it stung a little. When I picked up my New York Times last Tuesday morning, I immediately turned—like a good editorial columnist—to the op-ed page. And there staring back at me was David Brooks’ column, entitled “Stressed for Success?” The piece analyzed how “the [college] admissions process has gone totally insane” and why high school seniors should strive, as hard as it might be, to keep their college acceptances and rejections in proportion. So far, so good. And then it came: “If you put me in a room with 15 students from any of the top 100 schools in this country and asked me at the end of an hour whether these were Harvard kids or Penn State kids, I would not be able to tell you.”

Put it down to arrogance or snobbery, perhaps, but that is not a sentence that cheers me up, especially. Rather worried, I called Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73. “Aren’t we doing something wrong?” I asked. “I mean, isn’t the admissions office falling down on the job somewhat if people can’t tell the difference between us and Nittany Lions?” McGrath Lewis sought to reassure me. “The essence of it is that there are bright, engaging people at colleges around the country,” she said. “In normal intercourse in daily life…the differences that may be discernable to an admissions committee may be obscured.”

It would certainly be possible—if outrageously self-serving—to dispute Brooks’ claim. (“After all, so what if he can’t tell that we’re superior to Penn State students, he’s probably just not very perceptive.”) A more worthwhile exercise, though, is to think of how Harvard students should want to distinguish themselves from their peers at other colleges. After all, stereotypical as it sounds, most Harvard students really are not satisfied with second best…or first equal. The challenge, it seems, is to define what students ought to get from their Harvard educations.

First and foremost, we must recognize that a college education is not—and should not be—about how many facts we can absorb in four years. Being able to think intelligently about the problems we face is clearly a terrifically important skill—but we confuse true intellectual enlightenment with Harvard-style academics at our peril. Harvard’s current system—based around facile response papers, mandatory section participation and finals where students spew professors’ own words back at them (or, more likely, at teaching fellows)—does not encourage students to think for themselves enough, and often squelches independent thought. Brooks shrewdly identified this as the major drawback to theoretically top-notch college educations, saying, “The students at the really elite schools may have more social confidence, but students at less prestigious schools may learn not to let their lives be guided by other people’s status rules—a lesson that is worth the tuition all by itself.”

Most importantly, graduating students should be self-assured and self-aware: self-assured enough to navigate confidently through the problems they will face in life and yet self-aware enough to recognize their limitations. They should also have a firm moral compass, not necessarily a rigidly inflexible set of rules, but certainly a definite sense of right and wrong which can be applied throughout life. They should be civilized, without ever losing sight of the importance of being civil.

If that list seems to you like a series of mushily vague generalizations, I think you’re on to something. It is interesting to think, however, that all of those qualities, amorphous as they are, should come before academic prowess. As Brooks aptly put it, “There are a lot of smart, lively young people in this country, and you will find them at whatever school you go to.” Of course, Harvard students like to think that they’re the smartest of all, but in truth IQ seems fairly irrelevant—not only in the real world, but also on campus. As the admissions office never tires of repeating, Harvard every year turns down plenty of applicants sporting 1600s on the SAT. In so doing, the admissions office recognizes what is self-evident: If Harvard students are to distinguish themselves down the line, in the vast majority of cases it won’t be through their ability to do mental arithmetic.

As things stand, there are many fine points to a Harvard education. But it could certainly be better. (My half-hour of “Jeopardy!” every afternoon is often more intellectually enlightening—and almost always more enjoyable—than my daily hour of section.) With the ongoing curricular review, Harvard has a real chance to improve the standard of its undergraduate education by removing a few of the myriad academic hoops students currently have to jump through and, in the process, putting the focus back on high-quality work rather than high-quantity. Right now, in other words, Harvard has a rare opportunity to prove Brooks wrong. It had better seize it. After all, as McGrath Lewis said to me, “Talented and interesting young people are in abundance in this country.” For better or worse (and it is debatable), many Harvard students have spent most of their brief lives convinced of their inherent academic superiority. But unless they graduate with the broad range of skills necessary to distinguish themselves from their highly talented peers at other institutions, adulthood will sadly be, just as Brooks said, “the land of anticlimaxes.”

Anthony S.A. Freinberg ’04 is a history concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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