Monday, August 15, 2016

Gaming the College Admissions Process

I can’t say that Frank Bruni draws the correct conclusion, but he observes something that is well worth noting.

If you are a high school student or if your children are high school students and they want to get admitted to the best colleges and universities, it is not enough to excel at math and language. It is not enough to have perfect SAT scores or a stellar GPA. It is not even enough to excel at extracurricular activities while holding down an after-school job.

No, siree. Today’s students must demonstrate a superior capacity for empathy. They must have spent some time building mud huts in Africa or cleaning latrines in Central America. They must have demonstrated compassion for the victims of Western capitalism.

Obviously, these are articles of faith in the Church of the Liberal Pieties. Their proponents fail, and they fail miserably, to note that what might really help the disadvantaged third-world peoples are factories and an opportunity to do some honest labor. Charity might provide a short-term fix. But it works primarily to soothe the conscience of wealthy Westerners.

Bruni doesn’t mention it, so I will. The vision of college students handing out toilet paper in Venezuela or harvesting pineapples in the 100 degree heat reminds one in particular of the Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, one of the greatest pogroms in human history.

During those heady and insane times teachers and bureaucrats were often murdered and humiliated. At times they were cannibalized. Those who were allowed to live were sent, by the Red Guards, to the countryside to clean up pig sties and to develop the proper Communist consciousness.

After Mao died, Deng Xiaoping put an end to these horrors by arresting the leaders of the Cultural Revolution, aka the gang of four. The leader of the gang was Mao’s wife. When Deng made his first trip to the United States a few years after taking over, he was told that other Chinese officials had told their American counterparts that shoveling pig excrement was an enlightening consciousness-raising experience. Deng replied: They lied!

In any event, Bruni notes that college admissions essays must recount some level of charitable work with the poor and downtrodden. He explains:

This summer, as last, Dylan Hernandez, 17, noticed a theme on the social media accounts of fellow students at his private Catholic high school in Flint, Mich.

“An awfully large percentage of my friends — skewing towards the affluent — are taking ‘mission trips’ to Central America and Africa,” he wrote to me in a recent email. He knows this from pictures they post on Snapchat and Instagram, typically showing one of them “with some poor brown child aged 2 to 6 on their knee,” he explained. The captions tend to say something along the lines of, “This cutie made it so hard to leave.”

But leave they do, after as little as a week of helping to repair some village’s crumbling school or library, to return to their comfortable homes and quite possibly write a college-application essay about how transformed they are.

Bruni finds that the students who participate in these activities are somewhat cynical. They are going through the motions and do not really, really care about the victims of American capitalism.

In his words:

What he described is something that has long bothered me and other critics of that process: the persistent vogue among secondary-school students for so-called service that’s sometimes about little more than a faraway adventure and a few lines or paragraphs on their applications to selective colleges.

It turns developing-world hardship into a prose-ready opportunity for growth, empathy into an extracurricular activity.

And it reflects a broader gaming of the admissions process that concerns me just as much, because of its potential to create strange habits and values in the students who go through it, telling them that success is a matter of superficial packaging and checking off the right boxes at the right time. That’s true only in some cases, and hardly the recipe for a life well lived.

In the case of drive-by charity work, the checked box can actually be counterproductive, because application readers see right through it.

OK, let’s be clear about this. American parents and their progeny have figured out how to game the system. They understand that college admissions officers, on purely ideological grounds, are trying to dumb down the country, to replace academic excellence with empathy and compassion. So they play along. They make it sound authentic. But they do not really care. And, why should they? If they buy into the politically correct dogmas they are learning in school they are likely to become less functional and less productive in the world.

The real problem is not that some students are gaming the system, but that not enough are.

Worse yet, the ideology that governs college admissions values qualities that are not going to help a student in the real world. Your prospective employers should be concerned with your achievements and accomplishments, academic and even athletic. They should care about whether you have ever held down a job, whether you work hard and conscientiously, not whether you feel the right kinds of empathy. Obviously, the new regime is trying to produce more diversity, but it is also recruiting more cult followers for the Church of the Liberal Pieties.


AesopFan said...

We were gaming the application system in the 1970s- it just had different goal-posts back then.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Much of what is happening in our country reminds me of the 1998 movie "Pleasantville." The movie features the Left's favorite target for scorn: the 1950s. The interesting thing is that the movie begins in black-and-white, and then color is added to show transformation of the characters as they become the "coloreds" (metaphor). What stands for transformation in Pleasantville? As the movie progresses, the central adolescent characters begin to move toward what today we would recognize as doctrines and dogmas of the Church of Liberal Pieties, with racism and free expression being the two most emphasized (especially - gasp! - sex). The adults follow.

The main theme I took from the movie is that people became "colored" when they told the truth -- their own truth, deep in their soul, mostly sensual. We've seen it in a ton of films. The heroes tell the truth, breaking down the social barriers and stigmas that halt subjective truth from being expressed. In Pleasantville, when people began to express themselves and challenge the status quo, some in the town became quite enraged about a nude painting of someone else's wife. There is a ban on "colored" people, which is the metaphorical link to racism.

Few can disagree with the real racism and homogenized culture of the time period depicted. That's not the point. This is poetics, metaphor, art. The scereenwriter's point is the human impact of denial, repression, indoctrination and enforcement. These same things are gaining steam today, but in a different way.

What is interesting is that our country's mainstream elite culture is becoming homogenous and black-and-white in the same way Pleasantville was. The social barriers and stigmas are there, but they're different. Our high schools, colleges and universities are supposed to be about diversity of thought, expanding our thinking. The reverse seems to be increasingly true. It's not that subjective truth is repressed, but that objective truth is repressed. Of course, the idea of objective truth is anathema to liberal arts departments everywhere, and now activists are making demands that science conform to the demands of Leftist ideology and faith. Today, the dogmas of the Church of Liberal pieties beg for vocal expression and agreement to verify homogeneous thought. Soon it will be required. Those who question or resist are ostracized. In Pleasantville, people were going about their lives the same way they always had, not questioning things. Today, we have a monolithic culture in our educational system, particularly among administrators such as those who handle college admissions.

So what Bruni points out is to be expected. Follow the incentives.

We are eventually going to get to a point where this Lefty chic brings us rigid behavior codes, anti-racism oaths and affirmative participation in all kinds of "selfless" things. This will become so pervasive that the "coloreds" will be the people who stand for objective truth, standards, and against the nuttiness of all of this. Those early courageous souls will be separated from the university population. But young people are always rebellious, and the tide will turn. Until then, you can count on the self-proclaimed moral magnificence of our liberal elites to give them the strength to move forward with eradicating all flaws in human character, and replacing them with their idealized human being who has no judgments whatsoever... except those that conform to the doctrine and dogma of the Church of Liberal Pieties, of course.

Call it the new repression. "Vogue," indeed. I await those people who are ready to tell the truth on campus. We need color in the USA. I encourage you to watch "Pleasantville" in this frame. It's very interesting.

sestamibi said...

This what happens in a fully cuntified America, one in which we have to empathize with our enemies (as per Hillary.)

Dennis said...


Speaking of Hillary.

Sadly, if you are a male in this country you better get used to this line of thinking if Hillary becomes president. If you think the loss of due process rights is running rampant in academe because of the Department of Education non edicts just wait until almost anything a male says or does is considered rape, a micro-aggression, hate speech, et al.
There is the cynical part of me that wonders if those men, and women who live them, who vote for Hillary are not into Bondage and the need for a dominatrix to tell them what to do? Welcome to the wide, wide world of feminism.

I do wonder though if American men were at the Olympics as real human beings?

Trigger Warning said...

Gaming applications exists because applications exist. This is not the problem.

If you're curious about what the problem is, investigate the phenomenon of "remedial" college English and math. Woefully unprepared students are given college places, and they are so indoctrinated with self-esteem dogma that they require "safe spaces" to protect themselves from the truth. And that includes truth delivered with an effort to refrain from laughing at their pitiful excuses for work.

It's why I retired from academics. I couldn't stop laughing and I refuse to spend my last years grading math papers for ignoramus who don't even know the order of operations (PEMDAS).

Steven said...

My kids went to private school in Manhattan. At the start of the second semester of their junior year there would be a "college night" for the students and their parents, to kick off the college admissions process. The school would have an admissions officer from a local college come to speak. One year (this would have been 2010), the admissions director from Columbia was the speaker. During the Q&A a parent asked for some general guidance on the "personal statement" that the kids would have to write. He paused and said, "Well, let me just say this. You don' have suffered." The fact that he was black made the answer all the more enjoyable.

Ares Olympus said...

There's good intent, going beyong grades and test scores, and leadership skills and community involvement give some measure while empathy isn't clearly connected but an other directed attention, perhaps the same skills a religious organization looks for.

And if college is now refocusing to bottom line by cost, and liberal arts are becoming extravagances smart students can't afford to for into their career plans. Then getting somne young interested in a bigger picture and less self interested focus is a worthy goal.