It's difficult to ignore the hypocrisy of our elite institutions which, on the one hand, like to be seen publically lamenting the hyper-competitiveness among roughly 20 of the nation's "top" Universities and the way that it disfigures the lives of young persons, even as they crow over and advertise their high rankings in U.S News and World Report and publicize the crushing number of student applications (applicant numbers and rankings, of course, are intimately linked, and thus the two create a mutually reinforcing, self-fulfilling cycle).
Another of today's articles only further attests to the staggering absurdity of our current college admissions game: students are now "branding" themselves - a term we used to use for differentiating cattle herds and is now used to describe slick and often superficial ways that advertisers and marketers distinguish nearly identical products. This same term is now embraced by both institutions of higher learning and their potential students in the effort to differentiate themselves - and may have just as much substance as the marketing techniques to which they refer.
The article states:
Branding is a buzzword among corporations, and colleges, too, are desperate to distinguish themselves. And so the philosophy — some might call it an affliction — has filtered down to those applying to the most selective colleges.
Yet it would be wrong to blame either the students or their counselors for what is a sickness of the zeitgeist aggravated by the mushrooming number of applicants and misguided notions that only 20 colleges are worth attending. The herd of applicants [PD: see!] is so teeming that students really do find it difficult to distinguish themselves from others who have scored in the SAT stratosphere and spent summers in Guatemala working with the poor. Hannah Lindsell, a sophomore at Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School on the West Side of Manhattan, offered an eloquent articulation of the problem.
“People sometimes worry that they’re being packaged, but at the end of the day you’re just a sheet of paper,” she said. “If you’re not packaged to a degree, you’re all over the place. It’s important to be focused. Having someone like a coach helps you decide where the focus is going to be."
[One such coach said]:
“Just as it would be ridiculous to expect a company like Volvo to stop marketing itself as the premier safety car, it would be ridiculous to expect applicants applying to extremely competitive schools to not use branding to stand apart from the competition,” she said.
If our elite colleges were really concerned about the damage that their incitement to hyper-competitiveness was wreaking, and if they really wanted to dampen pernicious incentives that now encourage 17-year olds (or their parents) to spend $4,000 and up to win the meritocratic sweepstakes and turns students into little achievement machines with narrow careerist mindsets, they would have to do more than wring their hands and sing lamentations of woe. Yet, most administrators shrug their shoulders and attribute the madness to the broader culture without reflecting either on the way that their own universities have contributed to the creation of that culture or could serve as an agent of change in altering it.
So, speaking now as a social scientist - indeed, for this exercise you may call me Dr. Pat, as I hereby invoke my expertise and highly valuable advanced degrees that clearly brand me as hyper smart and worthy of your attention and deference - I offer two concrete suggestions to reverse the malicious effects fostered by the hyper-competiveness of our university system. Of course, I will be applying for a grant from the NIH and NSF to test the hypotheses that these proposals would have their desired effect. We will only use lab mice to run our tests, guided by the strictest ethical standards and respectful disposal of the innumerable itty-bitty corpses we'll be producing.
1. Reinstitute a serious core curriculum with extensive course requirements in the humanities - particularly philosophy, theology, history, political philosophy, literature and classics - along with less extensive requirements, but requirements nonetheless, in the social sciences and physical sciences; moreover, require the faculty to re-acquaint (or, more likely, acquaint) themselves with the reasons for a core curriculum (familiarity with Newman's Idea of the University would be helpful) and to demonstrate that they will teach core courses guided by that understanding. If they are not willing to sign on to this basic purpose of the university, make such unwillingness grounds for demotion or dismissal. The President and Trustees will have ultimate say over the proper governance of the University, not individual faculty who tend increasingly only to be concerned with narrow academic specialization and the incentives that reward such narrowness.
2. Since a significant number of courses will be required - and thus students will have no choice about which courses to take - make it clear to faculty and students alike that high academic standards will be expected and grade inflation will cease (this will be possible since students won't be able to shop for the easy classes and the current "market incentive" to dilute grades in order to attract students will cease). Re-introduce the full grade scale, not our constricted grade scale in which a B- is now considered by students to be a failing grade. Be willing to fail students who do not demonstrate competence in understanding or writing.
I am willing to put good money down on two counts:
1. Instituting these two reforms would dampen the huge number of applicants to the University that adopted them;
2. Not a single top 20 university will adopt these measures. Indeed, watch for news of continued diminution of core requirements. For instance, rumors (and, for many, hopes) to this effect abound at Georgetown.