Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Will the Real Authentic Person Stand Up?

As students and faculty begin their migrations back to campus, it's of interest to note the sort of entering classes our admissions offices have cooked up for us this year. The latest in college admissions fashion: the quest for authenticity. Yes, our admissions officers are taking a page from Heidegger this year.

A generation or more of students have honed their ability to ape what they think admissions offices expect, padding and buffing their resumes with dozens of extracurricular and community service activities. Applications have increasingly and ever more perfectly reflected the expectations of admissions officers, and a suspicion has arisen that perhaps, just perhaps, applicants are merely aping those qualities that they above all prize (I'm sure they are shocked, shocked, that this is the case). Do the applicants build houses in Ecuador and join the Rhaeto-Romanisch language club because they want to, or because they think that's what it will take to get into the best college and land them the highest paying jobs? No one knows! Are they real? Are they authentic? Not even the students can say for sure. Bill Clinton is a prime representative of the first generation of these sorts of students who sought to become the kind of person that our meritocratic civilization expected one to be, to do what was necessary in order to succeed - ever more narrowly defined as power, money, and status (not honor, character, and virtue). Was it real, or was it an act of being real? We still don't know, and I'm not sure he knows. Zeligs everywhere.

According to the article linked above, admissions offices want to stay one step ahead of potential faux saints and geniuses, now seeking exhibitions of "authenticity" in the form of portrayals of imperfection and even humility. The simple translation is: we don't believe that you are all so perfect, so let's see the REAL you, blemishes and all. Will we now see a race to the bottom? You can bet that High School guidance counselors are re-jiggering their college application sample portfolios in order best to position their charges for the appearance of authenticity. Perhaps we'll see a spike in applications from students with fetching sentences such as "I try to be humbel about my high grades and the time I spend doing relief work."

Already the double-speak on display cannot fail to astound. Here's one exerpt from the article: "Colleges say what they want is honest, reflective students. As Jess Lord, dean of admission and financial aid at Haverford College in Pennsylvania puts it, 'everybody's imperfect.' 'Since that's true for all (students), those that portray that aspect of themselves are that much more authentic.'" Did you get that - "portray that aspect of themselves are much more authentic"! That's rich. Before long we'll have authenticity coaches. Maybe Dick Morris can start a company.

Others seem to grasp the conundrum they are creating. The article summarizes the logical muddle the student is in, quoting one high school guidance counselor to say, "As soon as you ask someone to be authentic it's impossible to be authentic." We should also recall Benjamin Franklin's counsel, who related in his "Autobiography" that as soon as he'd mastered practicing the virtue of humility, he became very proud of himself.

I'd personally like to see what would happen if we began admitting a certain percentage of students by lot. Yes, a silly idea, I know, but just think of the possibilities. We'd be ensured an actual diverse entering class, and I'll bet we'd get some students who would really surprise (both on the downside, for sure, but on the upside too - and wouldn't they be really interesting to have around, as a bit of yeast can leaven the whole loaf). It would also help the grade inflation situation: if a student couldn't cut the mustard, well, how nice it would be to be able to use the full grade scale once again. A student wouldn't know for sure if he or she "deserved" to be there, and might lose a bit of the demanding consumerist expectation of good service in return for payment. Just think of what it would be like to have A students that one could confidently know were stellar! We might actually get some authentic students, since there would be less incentive to don the patina of authenticity in order to curry the favor of admissions officers. And think - students might, might start to pursue studies and activities for the sheer love of the thing, and not always with the set of confused motives that now always fester in the back of their minds every time they join yet another after-school club. On the other hand, it might just flush out some of the people who are there for the line in the resume. It would surely also have the beneficial effect of dimming the societal importance of our admissions officers. And, it might even succeed in taking some of the competitive luster off our "best" institutions, a ridiculous situation in which schools protest mightily that rankings don't matter even as they post the results on their webpages, and in which high rankings are based on such self-reinforcing criteria as high rates of applicant rejections.

I can't fully fathom what we are doing to our students now that we are demanding that they feign authenticity and that they crow about their humility. I don't for a moment blame the students for this state of affairs - the young are formed extensively by the culture in which they are raised and formed, and even at times nurtured. What amazes me most are the noteworthy numbers of students who, in spite of this caustic culture, nevertheless manage to pursue their studies and engage in activities for the sole motive of doing good work, who exhibit the marks of good character (an aspiration fostered above all in the home, of course). These students most often might be best described as "countercultural": they are often distinguishable for not fitting in, whether for reasons of intellectual seriousness or serious religious commitments or yet others. What is the admissions office metric for finding these sorts of students, and not admitting them by happenstance along with the mainstream? Or, could it be that this is not the right question in the first instance? Perhaps we must acknowledge that the answer does not lie in the admissions office at all, but at the heart of the commitments of the institution itself, in the devotions of its faculty, its administrators and its curriculum. As David Brooks observed in his book "On Paradise Drive," academic relativist post-modernism and student meritocratic striving to just get along on the road to success are two ethics that in fact fit together very nicely. And as Wendell Berry has recently noted in his address at Bellarmine University, our great universities "no longer make even the pretense of preparing their students for responsible membership in a family, a community, or a polity. They have repudiated their old obligation to pass on to students at least something of their cultural inheritance.... The purpose of education is unabashedly utilitarian."

It is we, the professors and the administrators, who are charged with the ongoing cultivation of these students, and who have
been given the privilege of governing these great institutions. Better work must begin with us.

1 comment:

Black Sea said...

This post triggered several thoughts.

Why not simply ask prospective students to answer the following multiple-choice question:

I want to attend this college/university because:

1. My parents want me to
2. My parents DON'T want me to
3. My boyfriend or girlfriend wants me to
4. I want to get as far away as possible from my parents and/or my boyfriend or girlfriend
5. Other

The student would then elaborate, in essay form, on one of the above answers. Perhaps the responses would be more interesting than the current fare, though arguably no more authentic.

Also, if a person is inclined, by nature or nurture, to become an oily, schmoozing, and eager-to-please Yes Man, then is not such behavior an "authentic" relection of his character?

Two quotations also come to mind.

The literary critic Leslie Fielder once wrote (I'm paraphrasing) that the difficulty in writing a successful academic novel lies in the impossiblity of portraying sufficiently its simultaneously banal and surreal nature.

Anyone who's ever worked in a university would have reasons to agree.

The second quotation comes from the film "The Browning Version," in which the aging, beleaguered Classics instructor, Andrew Crocker-Harris, wearily asks, "And how can we hope to mould civilized human beings, when we no longer believe in civilization?"

I believe the above question really lies at the heart of all these academic antics about authenticity, and so forth.

BTW, any typos in my comment have been retained in the interests of spontenaity.