Landing in in Cambridge at Harvard today for the start of the ‘identity Mashup‘. The experience of east coast norms of ‘elitism’ have been something that I have had to acclimatize to as I come out here to go to events and conferences. It also is something that rubs up against my “west coast” and “Canadian egalitarianism.” Malcome Gladwell a Canadian and author of The Tipping POint and Blink, captures the subtle world view difference in his recent essay in the New Yorker “Getting In” The article is long but I have exerted here if you want to get the gist of his thesis.
Here is the main thesis from the end of the article in case you don’t want to read to the end.
Ã‰lite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an Ã©lite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.
Some quotes from the beginning of the essay…
There was, first of all, that strange initial reluctance to talk about the matter of college at all—a glance downward, a shuffling of the feet, a mumbled mention of Cambridge. “Did you go to Harvard?” I would ask. I had just moved to the United States. I didn’t know the rules. An uncomfortable nod would follow. Don’t define me by my school, they seemed to be saying, which implied that their school actually could define them. And, of course, it did.
What is this “Harvard” of which you Americans speak so reverently?
By the nineteen-sixties, Harvard’s admissions system had evolved into a series of complex algorithms. The school began by lumping all applicants into one of twenty-two dockets, according to their geographical origin. (There was one docket for Exeter and Andover, another for the eight Rocky Mountain states.)
Social scientists distinguish between what are known as treatment effects and selection effects. The Marine Corps, for instance, is largely a treatment-effect institution. It doesn’t have an enormous admissions office grading applicants along four separate dimensions of toughness and intelligence. It’s confident that the experience of undergoing Marine Corps basic training will turn you into a formidable soldier. A modelling agency, by contrast, is a selection-effect institution. You don’t become beautiful by signing up with an agency. You get signed up by an agency because you’re beautiful.
At the heart of the American obsession with the Ivy League is the belief that schools like Harvard provide the social and intellectual equivalent of Marine Corps basic training—that being taught by all those brilliant professors and meeting all those other motivated students and getting a degree with that powerful name on it will confer advantages that no local state university can provide.
The extraordinary emphasis the Ivy League places on admissions policies, though, makes it seem more like a modeling agency than like the Marine Corps, and, sure enough, the studies based on those two apparently equivalent students turn out to be flawed.
You are whom you admit in the Ã©lite-education business, and when Harvard changed whom it admitted, it changed Harvard.
The Ivy League schools justified their emphasis on character and personality, however, by arguing that they were searching for the students who would have the greatest success after college. They were looking for leaders, and leadership, the officials of the Ivy League believed, was not a simple matter of academic brilliance. “Should our goal be to select a student body with the highest possible proportions of high-ranking students, or should it be to select, within a reasonably high range of academic ability, a student body with a certain variety of talents, qualities, attitudes, and backgrounds?
Harvard didn’t want lots of relatively happy and successful graduates. It wanted superstars,
This is, in no small part, what Ivy League admissions directors do. They are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years.
Harvard wants good graduates, and part of their definition of a good graduate is someone who is a generous and loyal alumnus. And if you want generous and loyal alumni you have to reward them. Aren’t the tremendous resources provided to Harvard by its alumni part of the reason so many people want to go to Harvard in the first place? The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in—that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Ã‰lite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience—an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an Ã©lite —and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.
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