Do college admissions overlook brilliant artists?

“The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college.” Helen Vendler writes in the current Harvard Magazine about the pitfalls of by-the-numbers admissions practices that can overlook creative brilliance. “The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning.

“Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one—but at that one surpasses all her companions? Will we welcome eagerly the person who has in high school been completely uninterested in public service or sports—but who may be the next Wallace Stevens? Can we preach the doctrine of excellence in an art; the doctrine of intellectual absorption in a single field of study; even the doctrine of unsociability; even the doctrine of indifference to money? (Wittgenstein, who was rich, gave all his money away as a distraction; Emily Dickinson, who was rich, appears not to have spent money, personally, on anything except for an occasional dress, and paper and ink.) Can frugality seem as desirable to our undergraduates as affluence—provided it is a frugality that nonetheless allows them enough leisure to think and write? Can we preach a doctrine of vocation in lieu of the doctrine of competitiveness and worldly achievement?

“These are crucial questions for Harvard. But there are also other questions we need to ask ourselves: Do we value mostly students who resemble us in talent and personality and choice of interests? Do we remind ourselves to ask, before conversing with a student with artistic or creative interests, what sort of questions will reveal the next T.S. Eliot? (Do we ever ask, “Who is the poet you have most enjoyed reading?” Eliot would have had an interesting answer to that.) Do we ask students who have done well in English which aspects of the English language or a foreign language they have enjoyed learning about, or what books they have read that most touched them? Do we ask students who have won prizes in art whether they ever go to museums? Do we ask in which medium they have felt themselves freest? Do we inquire whether students have artists (writers, composers, sculptors) in their families? Do we ask an introverted student what issues most occupy his mind, or suggest something (justice and injustice in her high school) for her to discuss? Will we believe a recommendation saying, “This student is the most gifted writer I have ever taught,” when the student exhibits, on his transcript, Cs in chemistry and mathematics, and has absolutely no high-school record of group activity? Can we see ourselves admitting such a student (which may entail not admitting someone else, who may have been a valedictorian)?”

 

For more see: http://harvardmagazine.com/2012/11/writers-and-artists-at-harvard

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