If Big Ideas Are Elusive, Blame The New York Times
I’ll open with a confession: this piece began as an op-ed, which I submitted to The New York Times last week in response to yet another article about the college application process that read like a reject from the “first world problems” section of The Onion: Jenny Anderson’s “For a Standout College Essay, Applicants Fill Their Summers” (8/5/2011). I’m not surprised that they didn’t publish me; the article in question was roundly trounced in the Letters section, and I flatter/console myself that a case of publisher’s regret, not the quality and persuasiveness of my writing, consigned my rant to the cyber-dustbin. It might have stayed there had the Times not printed another op-ed this weekend, one which so perfectly exemplified the point I was trying to make that I had to jump back into the debate. Or, rather, I had to create the debate, because the Times refuses to acknowledge it exists – and that is part of the problem.
Anderson’s article troubled me with its use of “essay” and “personal statement” as synonymous terms for the 250 words, give or take, that high school seniors write in order to get into college. According to Anderson, college applicants now spend their summers in search of experiences that will yield “inspiration” for the only part of the application which permits the student to speak in her own voice. The more fascinating the experience, Anderson’s sources suggest, the better the essay; all the student has to do is describe the wonderfulness of, say, a summer in China, and the essay will be a success. (And by “success” I mean of course “successful at getting the student into college.”)
Anyone who appreciates the essay knows that the genre takes its name from the French verb essai, “to try.” I checked the Oxford English Dictionary to make sure I hadn’t missed any more appropriate contemporary definitions, but no; as far as Oxford is concerned, an essay is still an “attempt, endeavor,” a “first tentative effort.” I’m not merely nitpicking about semantics, here, but wondering what exactly the current incarnation of application “essays” say about the young people who write them and the schools that request them. These students do not seem to be writing about “trying” or “learning.” They are writing about succeeding, because they already have, and they expect to continue to do so. It bothered me that at no point in Anderson’s article did anyone – admissions staff, application counselors, the students, or the author – acknowledge that these cultural experiences might be more than “priceless fodder for the application process.” No one mentioned the opportunity to actually learn about another culture or Renaissance art; it was all about the essay, and the essay was all about the student.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that what these students are writing may be personal statements, but they are not essays. An essay transcends the personal: it uses evidence – experience, literary text, historical event, etc. – to reveal an idea with significance beyond the self. Montaigne, the genre’s early master, may have declared that “my sole aim is to reveal myself;” however, later in the same piece he said of learning, “the stomach has not performed its function if it has not changed the condition and character of what it was given to digest … Let (the student) be taught not so much the facts of history as how to judge them.” This distinction is at the heart of the current debate over what college should ask of and offer to its students. My freshman writing seminars are filled with young people too invested in success to risk failure by “digesting” something new. At the beginning of every semester, I ban the word “relatable,” which often robs them of their highest form of praise, because they judge a text not by the new ideas it offers, but by how it reflects or confirms their own experience. (This tendency may seem innocent enough when applied to an essay by Virginia Woolf; apply it to presidential candidates, however, and see how insidious it can be.)
This phenomenon speaks not to my students’ selfishness or lack of ability – they are for the most part talented, generous people. But they have been trained to see success and fulfillment as personal, as opposed to social, goals. The desire to distinguish themselves from their peers, fueled by the college application process and then fanned by the need to fill the new grid of the resume, often involves forgetting that individual achievement should not be the sole goal of higher education. Learning is useful and valid only to the extent that it changes us for the better and helps us change others, too; the same might be said of the essay. I wish college applicants were encouraged to use their rare experiences to write about what they hope to offer the world, instead of what they have already been offered by it.
Which is why, when I read Neal Gabler’s tersely elegant essay “The Elusive Big Idea” (8/13/2011), I wanted to punch somebody (not Gabler) in the head. From my position at the gateway between high school and college, there’s a clear connection between the standardized, rote-knowledge narcissism of the application process and the decline of big ideas, in the academy and beyond. Gabler describes this as “the retreat in universities from the real world;” he writes: “we know more than we have ever known, and we think about it less.” We can hardly blame this on high school students, but we can question intellectual communities that increasingly rely on and demand quantifiable results. Gabler’s essay – and yes, it is an essay – echoes Montaigne as it mourns a time when “we sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.” It boggles my mind that an institution as eminent as the Times can’t or won’t interrogate the connection between high school seniors who think that the rest of the world exists for the sole purpose of getting them into college, and a society in which knowing has, in Gabler’s words, “more immediate value” than thinking.
And I can’t help but wonder why the Times continues to feed the hysteria surrounding the application process. They claim to be merely reporting on a culture that they actually helped create, one which rewards what students have already learned and done (often at great expense), and asks little or nothing about what they hope to learn and do. Obviously, the Times is not involved in admitting these kids to college, but I would argue that these very frequent pieces convince parents and students that a ludicrous (and ludicrously costly) circus of tutors and test prep and summer excursions is the key to higher learning. Never once have I seen an article or op-ed follow one of these privileged students through their first year to see how all that hoopla actually prepared them for the rigors of college work, nor have I seen an extensive profile of any of the many wonderful programs in this country that help kids for whom a summer in Nanjing is not an option, and whose personal statements must find significance in a very different set of experiences. (I’d appreciate evidence to the contrary; feel free to post it in the comments.) While the Times’ college application blog “The Choice” did feature an entry on students who work in the summer, and noted that “Southern Methodist University’s director of admissions, Stephanie Dupaul, provided the reassuring words that some of the best personal essays she’d read were the result of a summer working in fast food,” Anderson’s article featured an admissions official who “joked that they were witnessing ‘the complete disappearance of summer jobs.’” Could that perhaps be the result of, say, articles like this one? And why did the wildly popular piece touting summer travel not link to the far less visible blog post about summer jobs?
The Times needs to acknowledge its role in creating the very narrow definition of success that the college application process rewards, a definition which has next to nothing to do with an excellent education, but everything to do with the elusiveness of big ideas. High school may be about what you know, but higher education is – or should be – about how you use that knowledge in the world; colleges and universities should actively seek students who know the difference. An essay is not a Scantron sheet on which you list the right answers to earn a good grade; it is a space to show your reader what you think, why you think it, and why that thought matters, to you and to your reader – something we writing teachers like to call the “so what?” This summer, I taught a class called “An Introduction to College Writing” for motivated high school students, in which I hoped to show them that what they know won’t help them much if they have no idea why it’s important. To put it in literary terms, I had four weeks to transform a room full of Gradgrinds into Montaignes, and to convince them that this transformation would make them better learners and better candidates for college. As the course drew to a close, I exhorted them to write application essays in which they weren’t solo superstars, but motivated people eager to learn from and contribute to an academic community. It seems I did them a disservice; I should have just told them to go to Europe – or to read about themselves in The New York Times.
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