Valuing academic curiosity

'We are sorry to notify you that after reviewing your application thoroughly, our selection committee is unable to offer you admission. Denying a student admission is truly the most difficult task we face. Unfortunately, we were forced to turn away many candidates with very strong credentials."

To countless high school seniors, these words, sent by the admissions offices of colleges and universities in unprecedented numbers this year, represent an anticlimactic end to four years of diligent study. The pathos of rejection, however, is nothing new. A plethora of newspaper articles have already been published on this subject. But what escapes notice is the injury done to the academic community by the college admissions process.

Since colleges and universities adopted new admissions standards 15 years ago, curricula have dramatically narrowed, highly restrictive political definitions have circumscribed both faculty and students, and career preparation has trumped liberal learning. Meanwhile, college admissions officers boast of increased selectivity.

Preeminent literary critic and scholar Harold Bloom has described the phenomenon effected by the admissions process as "Stalinism without Stalin." According to Mr. Bloom, it redounds to the prevailing sentiments of "intolerance, self-congratulation, smugness, sanctimoniousness, and resentment for the aesthetic" among American college students.

And Bloom is not alone. A large number of academicians look with disdain and suspicion upon a system that stresses the quantitative accomplishments of applicants - GPAs and SAT scores - ad nauseam, but attaches little importance to the academic curiosities and talents of applicants. In his book "Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities," scholar John M. Ellis summarizes the opinion of many academics when he writes that this misplacement of emphasis "amounts to a betrayal of the university." Mr. Ellis and his colleagues are particularly troubled by the modern student's characteristic resentment of the liberal arts.

Eva T.H. Brann, noted scholar and proponent of liberal learning, laments: "Among students there is a perceptible decline of the privately nourished passion for deep and difficult reading; among parents, an anxious preference for career preparation over liberal learning; among officials, an unexamined rage for quantifiable results; among executives, an appetite for bending education toward the training of a workforce."

Perhaps to the chagrin of many admissions officers, statistical data now support the fears of these leading scholars. According to a national telephone survey of 2,593 respondents, most 18- to 24-year-olds deem the pursuit of higher education to be useful only if advantageous to entering the workforce. To these college-age respondents, learning for the sake of edification is a worthless pursuit.

Consequently, since the 1990s, there has been a perilous decline of interest in the humanities - those branches of knowledge that are concerned with the essence of human thought and culture. The humanistic discipline appears to be no match for an increasingly corporate academic culture that emphasizes the development of occupational and professional skills. At the same time, the US college graduation rate has stagnated, in spite of an average rise of 30 percent in other countries. This seems to be a contradiction: Shouldn't the best and the brightest be graduating at a higher rate?

The current configuration of the admissions process is not directed toward cultivating a love of learning in young adults; instead, it is centered on the notion of competition - among applicants seeking admission and among colleges and universities vying for higher US News and World Report rankings. This infatuation with competition promotes a dangerous tendency toward careerism, and is inimical to the pursuit of scholarship.

*Franois Kiper is a classical studies major at George Washington University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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