Tag Archives: Columbia University

“Did you get into Harvard?!?”

Every spring, the title question is inevitably posed by wide-eyed, sleep-deprived high school seniors to their peers. The rat race otherwise known as the college admissions process in the United States is nearing its end (too slowly, for some).

In a guest post on Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog in the Washington Post, Liz Willen from The Hechinger Report (shout out to Teachers College, Columbia University!) brilliantly captured the ritualistic process to which rankings-obsessed teens and parents around the country subject themselves year after year:

Listen closely, and the list of rejected valedictorians, team captains and accomplished test-takers will go on and on. You may even hear navel-gazing parents and students who received too many thin envelopes ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?”

Willen’s point, however, is that this whole hubbub we (yes, I’m guilty of it, too) have built up throughout the academic year is completely wrong-headed, in terms of how it portrays higher education and in relation to what higher education actually means.

English: Teacher's College 2004 2004 Christoph...
English: Teacher’s College, 2004. Christopher Matta, free to use for any purpose. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On my regular bus to Teachers College the other day, the quiet space I occupied alone in the back was suddenly overrun by high school seniors speaking much too loudly for a public space. Initially annoyed at having my peace and quiet disturbed, I became intrigued at the banter thrown around from one corner of the bus to another.

Student A: You applied to Harvard?? You know only like 6% get admitted, right?!

Student B: I know…

Student A: That means, if you filled up this bus with 100 people, only 6 people would get in!

Conversations like these are precisely the target of Ms. Willen’s post:

We go wrong by engaging in this wrong-headed, waste-of-time conversation at all, and by comparing our kids’ test scores and GPAs, their merits and drawbacks. Sure, it’s seductive to be drawn into side-by-side comparisons and speculate about the “secret formula” for getting into top schools like Brown University, where 28,919 applicants vied for acceptances that totaled just 2,649.

Even the new movie starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, Admission, has contributed to this cycle of hair-pulling and eye-gouging.

In the new comedy Admission, the Princeton admissions officer played by Tina Fey is repeatedly asked to divulge that formula.

“Just be yourself,” Fey falsely answers. The film illustrates how largely unsuccessful such advice is by showing a parade of accomplished applicants falling through the floor of Princeton’s committee room and into oblivion.

Unfortunately, the movie perpetuates Ivy League angst, promoting the wrong conversation in a country where community colleges enroll more than half of the students in higher education—and where the percentage of Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 with a two- or four-year college degree is just 38.7 percent.

How often have we heard this statement of “just be yourself?” Few colleges I know of actually say that, though. (For more on the waste-of-time conversation that Ms. Willen points out, these three words recently got lots of play after a satirical WSJ op-ed by a high school senior and a subsequently swift response via Gawker.)

College access and affordability issues have long been the focus of my research, and as such, it’s what I’ve written about. But, the real conversation about college admissions that Ms. Willen notes is absolutely a critical dialogue: it’s not about where you go to college; it’s about what you do in college.

While the general perception is that having a degree from an Ivy League school, Stanford, or MIT automatically trumps a degree from most other institutions, the truth is our focus should be on the substance of the degrees and not the degrees themselves.

And until all the guidance, mentorship, and training that we can offer high school students truly helps them and their families embrace substance over style as a key outcome of higher education, we’ll be having this same conversation next spring.

It looks like we have some work to do.

Enhanced by Zemanta

TEDx SIPA revisited

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAz0bOtfVfE]

Last Sunday, I posted a not entirely positive review of TEDx SIPA. At one point, I took issue with a speaker’s depiction of the Peace Corps:

Later, a SIPA student passionately critiqued the Peace Corps model, declaring, “Grateful as I am for my experience in the Peace Corps, I recognize that the developing world cannot just be a training ground for young, idealistic Americans. The problems in communities like the one I lived in are far too serious for that.” And yet he was speaking at a conference created entirely for young, idealistic (and often inexperienced) Americans interested in solving enormous global problems — the type whose very presence at TEDx signalled their personal enthusiasm for the brand of fifteen-minute bursts of inspiration in which the speaker was participating himself. Indeed, his extrapolation of his own disillusionment with his two-year volunteering effort in South Africa into an ardent condemnation of the entire Peace Corps’ allegedly flawed practices was itself a case study in misplaced idealism.

It appears I wasn’t the only one. Today, SIPA’s student-run newspaper The Morningside Post (disclosure: I am its opinion editor) ran a piece by Audrey Huse that zeroed in on the Peace Corps talk’s flaws:

I’m surprised Mr. Kortava finished his two years, and I commend him for it. But it seems he thought he was going to South Africa to singlehandedly halt the HIV epidemic, and such high expectations can lead to disillusion and disappointment. The TEDx event did not seem an appropriate venue to vent his frustrations. The TEDx  platform is intended to present innovative ideas worth spreading. If there was one in Kortava’s talk, I missed it.

Granted, Kortava’s is hardly the first critique of the Peace Corps, nor will it be the last. (It’s also not the first time he’s done it himself, either.) But I wasn’t primarily interested in discussing the specific merits of the Peace Corps in my previous post. I was bothered more by Kortava’s overly simplistic take on it, and the way in which that “quick fix” attitude permeated so many of the speeches I heard during the TEDx conference that day.

Anyway, my friend and flatmate Andres Lizcano Rodriguez — who, incidentally, runs a very cool blog of his own — took issue with some of my comments. With his permission, I’ve reproduced portions of his response here:

I think you’re being a big, arrogant ass. Of course there’s a problem in fitting everything into a 17-minute presentation. The fact is, most of the world does not consist of Ivy League grad students, and not everyone can simply digest complicated critiques or fact-based lectures and policy analysis.

I’m not sure those Krugman graphs would be for everyone. I think your critique is in large part a critique of the ascendant pop-intellectual craze, but what is the problem with making intellectuality a popular thing? TEDx conferences will never be intellectual activities, but that isn’t their goal in the first place. (I think…and I hope.) They’re meant to motivate you to start considering something that you might not have known about, or seen in the same way, before. All the “goddamn assholes” that already know all this stuff aren’t representative of the broader population.

(By the way, the Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa makes a similar point to yours — not about TED talks but about culture. He keeps whining about the fact that everybody can be an artist or writer now, and that that has diminished the quality….all because he seems to feel that the intellectual aristocracy is threatened.)

Additionally, I think you’re underestimating the importance of passion and empowerment. Granted, it’s a big US-American cliché — I also despise all this “OMG that was so inspiring” stuff — but it’s not like that everywhere in the world.

You said:

There is a clear line connecting the type of thinking exemplified by TEDx and that of similarly grandiose but ill-informed ventures like the “Kony 2012” campaign. It’s not passion that’s lacking. But passion is dangerous in the hands of an institution that encourages superficial speech-giving and a daylong mutual back-scratch with an adoring audience.

But passion and self-esteem actually lack in many places. In my college in Bogotá — an elite university — we were not told all the time, like we are here, that we would be the future leaders of our country, that we could do everything we wanted, etc. etc. And thus I was often surrounded by many people — who were much smarter and more competent than I was — who didn’t dare to do anything because they didn’t feel they could actually achieve their goals. Most people had never actually considered that they could “dream big.”

Essentially, here are my points:

1. I think you’re misinterpreting the objective of a TED talk and, if interpreted differently, it could actually be of greater value to a broad audience than you’ve given it credit for.

2. I think you’re underestimating the importance of inspiration, empowerment, and passion.

After watching the above video, he summarized:

While we all agree on his points, nothing is being done about them. And I think part of the reason for this is that there are not enough people reminding us of his points. Meanwhile, there are tons of people (such as our own Office of Career Services) telling us all day long (in other formats) that we need to find a job at Goldman Sachs or the World Bank. Maybe it would be more efficient if TED opened offices at the big schools and scared the hell out of people so that they started behaving correctly. The point is that people need to be reminded of these big ideas, even if they already know them.

Enhanced by Zemanta

My problem with TEDx

Battle of the Beards: Paul Krugman eyes his sometime bête noire, Ben Bernanke. TEDx talk at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Friday, February 15, 2013.)

It wasn’t until after all the speeches had ended and everyone was mingling around the makeshift bar outside that I finally made the connection: TEDx is just like church.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about TED, the conference series that emerged into the spotlight rather suddenly several years ago and has become a staple of the socially conscious set ever since. But I distinctly recall feeling mounting skepticism with each new mention of the organization, which was often expressed in near-mythic terms and was almost always unqualifiedly positive.

The first full talk I recall actually watching myself was Dutch General and then-Chief of Defence Peter van Uhm’s TEDx speech in the Netherlands in 2011. I’d been assigned the video for a graduate class in January of last year. The course was on the American military, and the TEDx talk I’d been instructed to watch was titled “Why I Chose the Gun.” Here’s how it started:

Well, ladies and gentlemen, first of all, thank you for giving me an applause before I even started. As the highest military commander of the Netherlands, with troops stationed around the world, I’m really honored to be here today. When I look around this TEDx Amsterdam venue, I see a very special audience: you are the reason why I said yes to the invitation to come here today. When I look around, I see people who want to make a contribution. I see people who want to make a better world — by doing groundbreaking scientific work, by creating impressive works of art, by writing critical articles or inspiring books, by starting up sustainable businesses. And you all have chosen your own instruments to fulfill this mission of creating a better world.

This, as I would soon discover, was as perfect a microcosm of the TED experience (TEDxperience?) as one could find. First, the establishment of his credentials; then, the obligatory salute to the audience; and, finally, the ode to the transcendent ideal of “a better world.” Continue reading My problem with TEDx