Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Character

It's always good to know you've had an impact on the world. Mine thus far consists, in part of course, of being cited on a college-admissions-coaching website. One with the optimistic name, "The Ivy Coach," located in the snow-heap that is De Blasio's neglected Upper East Side.

Anyway! The people who will get your child into HarvardYalePrinceton appear to have missed that my objection to holistic admissions was based on the argument that colleges can't actually make them. Not shouldn't - can't. "What on earth is wrong with judging personality and character?," asks the Coach. Nothing - but how on that same earth could people who only have access to admissions materials - and that may include notes from an interview - do anything of the kind?

But then it gets interesting. Their defense of holistic admissions centers on... the Unabomber. "Some admissions officer(s) at Harvard mistakenly judged the character of Ted Kaczynski and offered him admission to their university." The post is illustrated with a photo of Kaczynski in handcuffs. College should judge character, I *think* the argument goes, because if not, they'll get Unabombers. Or even if so, they may misjudge (or, like, fail to predict the behavior of an applicant many years after graduation), but they should still try. After all, ever since the Unabomber, Harvard's stock has plummeted, right? But really - how could schools spot future Unabombers? Wouldn't this mean going down a potentially dangerous path of stigmatizing those with certain mental illnesses or radical political viewpoints? Was the Unabomber's issue really one of character?

(The post goes on to make a comparison with dating - the very comparison that most demonstrates the problem of "holistic" in an admissions context. "If you don’t feel it, you just don’t feel it. It’s that simple." Yes, on a date. But what does an admissions committee "feel"?)

What does it say, though, that an Upper East Side tutoring firm is so devoted to holistic? For one thing, it suggests that holistic is - as I've suspected - more about benefitting the academically-mediocre children of the rich than it is about serving as a cover for quota-based affirmative action, or recognizing achievement in the face of obstacles. It could also be that for a place like this to get customers, it needs students (parents) to believe that anything's possible. That your child - who you, of course, think is special - is special, and will be recognized as such by any college that gets to know them.

3 comments:

Miss Self-Important said...

"For one thing, it suggests that holistic is - as I've suspected - more about benefitting the academically-mediocre children of the rich than it is about serving as a cover for quota-based affirmative action, or recognizing achievement in the face of obstacles."
Well, isn't that kind of impossible to conclude from the claims of a service that only exists for the academically-mediocre children of the rich? That this service finds it useful doesn't tell us why the universities themselves do. Holistic covers up all kinds of blemishes.

PS: For some reason, every time I try to comment on your blog, the whole site "becomes unresponsive" and gives me a picture of a kaput-face. I think that is a unsubtle hint about my commenting practices.

caryatis said...

Isn't "holistic" also a way to smuggle in affirmative action under the radar?

Phoebe said...

Re: the commenting, I have no idea - I haven't tinkered with that in years, but just took a look, tried to fix it, and got an avalanche of spam. The message is far more likely that I've run out of space on Blogger!

As for the rest - and this is for Caryatis as well - I'd agree that holistic covers up, broadly speaking, whatever colleges want to do regarding admissions. But the cynic/lefty in me suspects they're more interested in tuition dollars than utopian diversity programs, or obstacles-overcome.

And this does just get back to the original uses of "character," even if it's not always racial (i.e. about "overrepresentation" of Asians and Jews). There's this sense among whoever's relatively old-money at the time that it's unacceptable for an elite to be the people who test well and get high grades. Not because tests correlate too much with socioeconomic status, but because they don't correlate with it *enough*.