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Harvard: Admit more poets!

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  December 12, 2012 11:46 AM

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Well-roundedness has become nearly a fetish among college admissions officers and the parents who set their children before them. Think of the ideal applicant to an Ivy League college, her resume a landscape of achievement: athletics, public service, high marks in the arts, humanities, and sciences, plus a dash of quirk—the mandolin, maybe, or categorical knowledge of legumes in the antebellum South.

Helen Vendler is troubled by this. She thinks it discriminates against promising young people with monotonic interests – and especially against young artists. “We need to be deeply attracted to the one-sided as well as the many-sided,” she writes in an essay in the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine.

Vendler, who has taught English at Harvard for 30 years and is known as one of the country’s leading poetry critics, considers the roster of great artists who have matriculated in Cambridge over the years: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Fairfield Porter, Adrienne Rich. She says the university should count their achievements among its most significant contributions to society, yet she wonders: How many of them would have passed today’s well-roundedness test?

Tomorrow’s great artists, Vendler argues, might look terrible to a dean of admissions: They’re likely to be introverted, prone to getting C’s in chemistry, lopsided in the ways they choose to spend their time. Vendler urges Harvard—and universities generally—to shake up its definition of what constitutes a promising young man or woman. She wants admissions officers to learn to pose questions that give artists a chance to showcase themselves, questions like, she suggests, asking an introverted applicant, “What issues most occupy his mind.” And once Harvard has identified and enrolled artists, she argues the university needs to do a better job supporting their interests and ambitions.

For admissions officers, Vendler’s idea poses a challenge. Privileging well-roundedness is in a sense a way of spreading bets on each admitted student: Among their many competencies, certainly at least one will pan out, and there’s always law school. But with Vendler’s “one-sided” artists the calculus is sharper and the fallout perhaps more complete. If that promising 17-year-old turns out not to be the next John Ashbery after all, Harvard may find that it’s forsaken a future Wall Street titan or U.S. senator in order to admit--shudder--a drifter.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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