Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Pointy Students

I get depressed as I write letters of recommendation for students applying to Rhodes and Marshall Scholarships. In trying to sell an extraordinary package, I realize my academic contribution to the economic polarization of American society. James Atlas spelled it out succinctly in his Sunday New York Times opinion piece called “Super People.” Indeed, the academic arena is devoted to the cultivation of a new class of individuals that are groomed from young age to achieve in all the registers that spell out success. Since collegiate success is the surest indicator for economic mobility, whatever humanistic endeavor we accomplish in the classroom translates into hyped market value. Our academic goals have long transitioned from the Enlightenment notion of Bildung to the instrumental notion of Academic Excellence. The former was intended to construct a full human being with the very critical faculties necessary for citizenship in the nation-state. The latter is intended to teach students how to excel above the socio-economic mean, how to accumulate and replicate power. Whether measured by SAT scores or peer-reviewed publications, academic excellence cannot be dissociated from what actually is going on in American society and its reflection in college admissions. Quantifiable relative value works in the marketplace and, for that very reason, we use it in our classrooms.

Civic service and other explorations into the human condition (the subject of the humanities, after all) become creators of surplus value in a pool of already perfect people. Extraordinary experiences are strategically acquired by the Super People to boost their perceived value. So how will a Super Person stand out in their college or graduate school application? They need to have a spike in their profile, choreographed by an extraordinary value-free "humanistic" experience like building refugee centers in Bosnia or volunteering at day care centers in Guatemala. Admissions officers have a special word for these people, they are “pointy.”

Like most liberal arts colleges, Franklin & Marshall specializes in the cultivation of “pointy” individuals who will excel in post-graduate arenas. We, the educators, have been very disingenuous in maintaining the Bildung myth, while inflating the market with seemingly value-free collegiate experiences. We all aspire to cultivate full individuals with humanistic depth and breadth. But we should all realize that our actual role in the dynamics of American society is the fabrication of spiky profiles, a strangely subverted ideal. There is nothing that I love more than creating Pointy students, but it depresses me to think that Pointiness is the single most operative capitalist value in the marketplace of the liberal arts college.


Matthew Milliner said...

Very instructive. As someone once said, there is only one undergraduate major in academia today: Upward mobility.

johanna said...

I really dig this post, K. Wondering if (hoping?) the law of diminishing returns extends to pointiness.

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Kostis Kourelis

Philadelphia, PA, United States