Friday, December 11, 2009

Against Loren Pope

In a fit of dyspepsia inspired by interviewing Dartmouth applicants, I once wrote a very bad contrarian essay counseling high school students not to worry about fit in choosing colleges. Instead, they should just pick the most selective school that accepts them and then promptly shut up about it. Figuring I had nothing to lose by sending it to Slate, I e-mailed them a draft which I'm sure some eighteen-year-old intern promptly sent to the slush pile.

I thought of my ill-fated column recently when reading this New York Times column by a high school senior about "Taking the Magic of College." She starts out with a few pointed observations about a trend toward colleges promoting themselves as like Hogwarts from the Harry Potter novels. I chuckled. But then, needing something more, she goes on to describe what applicants want that is more important than "magic." And she comes up with the following paragraph:

What really matters to me as I prepare to make my decision? Well, I loved hearing about Williams College’s two-student classes called tutorials, and how Swarthmore lets students weigh in on almost every big decision made by its administration. I was really impressed by Middlebury’s student-driven campaign to save energy on campus. (For the sake of full disclosure, I just might be applying to some of these schools.) I care about diversity and need-blind financial aid — and, of course, the social life. But I don’t care about what percentage of the student body runs around on broomsticks.

So, let us go, then, through certain half-deserted streets, the muttering retreats, to your own Mlle. Archer's red state adolescence. Back to the mid-90s, back to the summer of an enormous piety binge, when I first started researching colleges. As soon I'd dipped a toe into the process, everyone told me that I should care about "fit," about "finding a college that fit my personality," and not about "prestige." Well, okay, it was okay to care about prestige, as long as one was not too open or obvious that that was what one was actually doing. Some high school teacher recommended Loren Pope's Colleges That Change Lives. Somewhere on the Stuff That White People Like blog, there should be an entry on the book Colleges That Change Lives. (There is this, which roughly explains the attitude that one is supposed to have.)

It is a book about how one should not care about chasing names or labels in picking a college. Instead, one should care about intellectualism and schools that build character. I learned that conventionally selective schools -- e.g., Harvard or Yale, where I wanted to go -- were not serious about intellectualism and do not build character. Schools that nobody I knew had ever heard of -- like Antioch, Earlham, and New College, Florida -- were serious about advancing intellectualism and building character. You will notice the nexus between "intellectualism," "character," and what a charitable conservative might call "advocacy of radical left-wing views."* I noticed said nexus in 1998 and was confused because what I thought I was doing was being serious and intellectual, except I was far from left wing.* I did not understand then that, in Brooklyn, it is more embarrassing to have been influenced by Ayn Rand rather than Karl Marx. And, rather than blindly following the anti-intellectual, anti-virtue hordes, Pope counsels good budding intellectuals to go to schools that "fit their personality" and "will be a good fit."

As I said, I did not fully understand this phenomenon then. But I smiled and nodded whenever adults asked me if I had read Colleges That Change Lives and said that I thought that Pope had really, really important things to say about not getting too caught up in the rat race. Yet inwardly, Pope caused me to wrestle with myself more than I would have. Would the "name" schools I liked fit my personality? If I were lucky enough to get the opportunity to surround myself with smart kids, could I walk away from it? Ought I to be so concerned about being around smart kids in the first place? Should I instead be making the same kinds of earnest noises that Ms. Edelson is in her Harry Potter column -- about opportunities to "weigh in on every big decision made by the administration," "student-driven campaigns to save energy on campus," and "diversity?"

I did not go to a university with an especially intellectual reputation. A hefty dose of Pope-inspired guilt notwithstanding, I went to the most selective one that accepted me. I loved it, despite often wondering in the month after acceptance letters went out if it would fit my personality. With all the lofty I know now that "diversity" is often code for "racial bean counting," that "weighing in" on decisions made by the administration means "divestment foolishness." A student-driven campaign to save energy at my alma mater ended with the school's installing special thermostats in all of its recently remodeled dorms with LCD screens adorned with a sad polar bear that frowns if you use too much energy. I am wiser now in the ways of a certain kind of upper-middle-class left-liberal. I understand that their efforts to urge me to choose a college that "fit" meant that I ought to choose a college that would "fit" a person destined to become a certain kind of upper-middle-class left-liberal. That is not entirely bad -- their class has its virtues -- but it would be better if they admitted it directly.

Pope and his ilk often lead high-school students to unfortunate levels of angst. As I said above, I interview for my alma mater. Perhaps a prospective will tell me that she is worried about how “conformist” and “upper middle class” Dartmouth is, because there are “all of these people wearing J. Crew around.” So she is maybe thinking about going to Columbia instead, which might be a better fit for her personality, because people there are more “open,” “aware” and “diverse.” In these situations, I smile and recite bland platitudes about the varied backgrounds from which my friends came. Or, perhaps, mention the LCD screens with the sad polar bears. Meanwhile, I am thinking, “There are teenagers who apply to Ivy League schools to get away from upper middle class white kids who like J. Crew?” and struggling not to claw my own eyeballs out in disbelief.

Bad advice repeats itself; first as earnest if campy advice manuals, then as teen drama plot points. To turn back to my own youth, there was She’s All That (1999), in which Freddie Prinze Jr. spurned my alma mater to “follow his dream” and go to art school. Most of the other teenage girls sitting with me in the theater oohed and ahhed at his independence of mind; I felt more annoyed that none of the writers apparently bothered to conduct the five-minute Google search to learn that Dartmouth had a respectable Studio Art Department. More recently, Gossip Girl offered us Nate Archibald as a putative Gen Y James Dean, who announced grand plans to turn down Yale for Columbia. A rebel without a cause, indeed.

My advice to the affected is simple: stop worrying about "fit." Stop emoting, and stop seeing your choice of college as something that expresses something deep about you. It doesn't, and you sound ridiculous to anyone over the age of 25. Most of all, stop writing columns in national publications about your delicate bourgeois epiphanies about how diversity is really important to you.

*The lone exception to this rule might be UChicago, which Pope allows is serious and intellectual. Even then, I'm not sure most undergrads are there are actually right wing**; they're just slightly less radically left-wing than at most other comparably selective schools.

**Right of where I am today, actually. But that's a story for another day...

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