American education has never been beholden to academic excellence.
If you think the purpose of America’s best (whatever that means) higher ed institutions is entirely academic, then you don’t understand America.
Many years ago, I was talking to the dean of Columbia’s engineering school (the Fu School, irony incoming). We were walking down a hall with some classrooms on either side, and he was confessing that he wasn’t admitting the kind of student he wanted. The problem was that Columbia engineering had too many brilliant lab rats, workers capable of solving most problems but will only do what they’re told (his words). Such a student was beneath Columbia.
The kind of engineer (or student) that Columbia wants is obvious — they tell you. Columbia wants leaders. Students who will, at some point, make things happen. Princeton engineering has a ten-page mission statement that boils down to “we don’t want engineers; we want leaders who happen to be engineers.”
This is how David Hogg (school shooting activist) got admitted to Harvard (self-described education institution) despite having very average academics. Many of his classmates with better academics were rejected from University of Florida. But Mr. Hogg (no idea if related to the Hoggs of Hazard County) possessed the ineffable ingredients of leadership. Of making things happen. The saying goes: Harvard and Yale make Presidents and Supreme Court Justices. No one has ever accused Presidents of being geniuses. George Washington had an eighth-grade finishing school education, and his great military tactic was to attack the opponent in the middle of the night while they were drunk. And yet, Washington was not just a great leader but a necessary catalyst for transforming the feisty colonies into one nation.
This goes back to the founding of these institutions. Harvard was founded as a rejection of European education. Cotton Mather specifically references the popular European university models that were, in the words of this esteemed Puritan, “total fucking garbage.” Cotton has some street cred too — he was the grandson of the founders of the whole damn colony. (Cotton was also a spider expert, which is cool.)
So what exactly was rejected? The idea that higher ed was just a bunch of people showing up to hear a lecture. (Note: this is a rant, so grammatical conformity has been eschewed in favor of emotive urgency; I, too, blame mid-century poets.) Harvard’s most important feature was that it was residential (European colleges mostly weren’t), and that by living together, the students formed a healthy community. Cotton’s phrase of choice — the purpose of higher ed — was to develop “a collegiate way a living.” (This is why Americans call colleges “colleges” and non-Americans call them “universities,” which is largely derived from twelfth century University of Bologna nomenclature … seriously, your higher ed taxonomy comes from the same place that invented the world’s most suspicious meat product.)
So you know those conversations that occurred in South Korea in the 1960s (-present) and India in the 1990s (-present) on how education needs to reach into every corner of the country, first to ensure everyone is literate and then to disseminate valuable skills, and by this process the country’s economy can grow and a middle class can develop? Well, the colonial colleges never had that conversation. And the birth of publicly funded universal K-12 (really, elementary school) in the 1820s-30s wasn’t fueled by such conversations. The ‘best’ universities were attempting to produce leaders (religious, social, business — all types of leaders) while K-5(ish) was producing community — which was an argument to which Americans were susceptible precisely because the young nation’s higher ed institutions were built to produce community. (I write about this all over the place, but Americans are susceptible to the community argument precisely because America doesn’t have national institutions, aside from the NFL, so community-generating and unifying institutions are powerful lures for funding.) (This is also why colleges have football teams. Whahhh it’s about the money tho! Really, Harvard’s football team is about the money? Maybe it’s about leadership and teamwork and mustering the inner strength to give someone else brain damage before he gives you brain damage.)
And so, when Asians cry about Harvard not being an academic meritocracy, it’s really some kind of cultural colonialism. Pure academic meritocracy may be your culture, but it’s never been ours.
Of course, academic meritocracy and meritocracy aren’t the same thing, and Harvard is attempting to admit the best — but the best of potential leadership, not lab rats. Of course, this opens the door to all kinds of social engineering experiments, but what would be more insane than admitting students based on some admissions committee witchcraft would be to admit students based on test scores. It would be unAmerican.
(You know the personal essay part of American apps, wherein the applicant gets a 3-min open mic to pitch themselves? And, generally, the topic is directed at something non-academic? Well, you know that’s a fairly unique feature of American college apps — in most countries, the idea that a college wants to get to know you personally or read 500 words on your community service is absurd. That essay is an incredible testament to American idealism and faith in opportunity. And, btw Asians, when you get someone else to write your college app essay for you … the colleges know.)
The former dean of Princeton once said that the admissions committee just assumes that every applicant can “do the work” — that is, handle Princeton academically.
Of course that’s a lie — many can’t. But if you read between the lines, Hargadon was saying “we don’t really put much weight on academics.” As in, we’re not admitting the student with an 800 on SAT math over the student with a 680 because of those scores — they can both do the work.
This is a bitter pill swallowed each spring by thousands of Asian parents whose children have perfect/near-perfect test scores and not much else (not much = violin, tennis, honorable mention Intel competition). (How “thousands” swallow a single pill is the mystery of that last sentence.)
Prior to WW2, most post-high school orgs that taught “skills” were vo-tech variants (typing schools, or, my favorite, North Bennet Street School in Boston … organized to teach immigrants the incredibly lucrative art of violin-making … yes, they’re skill around and skill teach violin repair). These schools exploded onto the scene precisely because colleges didn’t really teach these skills (increasingly though, high schools did). After WW2, it finally dawned on states that they should have colleges that teach shit, so you get a bunch of state schools (created, expanded, etc). And yet, the top colleges, particularly those colonial ones, aren’t about to teach shit. They make CEOs and Presidents, etc. They want doers, not thinkers. They want students who will start companies, not get hired by them. And those goals have very little to do with academic success. You don’t get a $40 billion endowment by admitting students based on whether they’ve mastered trigonometric functions.
Yes, this also means that those K12 “academic excellence” metric-obsessed navel-gazers don’t even understand the basics of American education. But Finland outperforms us in PISA science … well, we outperform Finland in life, so keep staring at your test results ya nerd.
(it’s not even true, btw)
About Nathan Allen
Founder of Xio Research (A.I.), Applied Magic (A.I.), and Andover (data). A.I. strategy and development leader at IBM. Academic training is in intellectual history; his most recent book, Weapon of Choice, examines the creation of American identity and modern Western power. Don’t get too excited, Weapon of Choice isn’t about wars but rather more about the seeming ex nihilo development of individual agency … which doesn’t really seem sexy until you consider that individual agency covers everything from voting rights to the cash in your wallet to the reason mass communication even makes sense…. Lectures on historical aspects of media, privacy/law, and power structures (mostly). Previous book: Arsonist.