Helen Vendler’s recent article in Harvard magazine poses a lot of compelling questions. “The critical question for us is not whether we are admitting a large number of future doctors and scientists and lawyers and businessmen (even future philanthropists): we are. The question is whether we can attract as many as possible of the future Emersons and Dickinsons. How would we identify them? What should we ask them in interviews? How would we make them want to come to us?” It is refreshing to see a poetry critic—someone who clearly values the arts and humanities—put her money where her mouth is and ask the practical and thorny questions of how to reflect that value in the actual constitution of the university at the most basic level: admission standards.
No less refreshing is the way she lets these practical considerations lead to even more difficult questions about how these values disclose our convictions about the good of a human life. “Can we preach the doctrine of excellence in an art; the doctrine of intellectual absorption in a single field of study; even the doctrine of unsociability; even the doctrine of indifference to money?…Can we preach a doctrine of vocation in lieu of the doctrine of competitiveness and worldly achievement?” These are the kind of questions that are sometimes easy to dismiss for being naive or idealistic; Austin Allen, while agreeing with Vendler, wonders if “in a country that now graduates over 20,000 MFAs per decade in creative writing alone, cynics might question how many more young people need universities encouraging exclusive cultivation of their delicate creative flowers.”
But the central focus of these considerations perhaps shouldn’t be whether we are doing justice to creative genius. That pertains to the larger concern about how universities can and should prepare students for what comes after. Vendler says that it is important for a university like Harvard to admit artists and students in the humanities because they have an ultimately greater “cultural resonance.” By this she means the wider culture and the immense cultural influences of major figureheads like Homer, Aeschylus, Gandhi, Beethoven, Dickinson, Lincoln, Picasso, Wittgenstein, and Woolf. But how many of the thousands of students admitted for such prowess will mature into such icons? Vendler is to be lauded for “explod[ing] the ideal of the ‘well-rounded’ student,” but isn’t the image of the solitary, quiet artistic genius a conventional ideal as well? It is tempting to juggle mythical categories like this into some kind of impossible cost-benefit analysis (“if we admit this kind of student, then we can fulfill the needs of society in the following ways”). But universities exist primarily to educate their students, not to churn out individuals useful to society (the latter is a product of the former; at least it had better be). Encountering other ways of doing and thinking the world—creative or rational or traditional or what have you—is an essential part of a university education. Is this reason enough to challenge and question the priorities set by admissions standards?