Last week a young woman got the college admissions world talking with an opinion-editorial she wrote in The Wall Street Journal. There have been countless tweets, retweets and posts about her essay, and many have chimed in with their two cents. I’ve heard praise and outrage about her essay, which you can read here (if you haven’t already).
Late last week a listserv associated with a professional organizations of which I am a member started to fill up with commentary about this young woman’s essay. While some posts were understanding (I won’t say complimentary), many more were quite critical of the author. In fact, I hope the author never sees the exchanges, because some even resorted to what amounted to name-calling and implying that the young woman as “homophobic” and “racist.”
I must admit to being uncomfortable with the exchange on this professional listserv, which is why I am using my personal blog as a forum to discuss this matter.
I know it may not endear me to some of this young woman’s critics, but I think her essay sounds familiar and represents something that permeates the “professional” discourse of college admissions more frequently than we might want to acknowledge.
As I read her essay, I read very clearly that this young woman is critical of practices viewed by others (we in admissions and college counseling) as being conducted with the best of intentions. I think it is this that has gotten under the skin of many; we don’t want our best intentions questioned.
While I don’t defend the examples she used (which some have described as racist and homophobic), she engaged in the sort of critique I see all the time as part of “professional” discourse. These critiques might be veiled, subtle or simply implied, but they are there all the same. The critiques are by those who don’t like something that they consider to be an objectionable practice—a practice that others are using with the best of intentions. I see this all the time. Some examples of topics that generate similar discourse include: the rankings, “crap application” programs, the role of international agents, financial aid gapping, the elimination of class rank, deemphasizing standardized testing, the College Scorecard, affirmative action, for profit college and universities, and many others. What each of these has in common is that someone, somewhere, at some time envisioned a practice or program with the best of intentions, but probably did not explain the intent very effectively to those who criticize a practice they don’t like or don’t understand.
In my view, it’s a mistake to be too critical of this young author without doing a little self-reflection about how we react (sometimes in a public forum, too) to practices we don’t understand (or like). We offer critiques in similar fashion (my guilt on this is my own reaction to the College Scorecard and the outrage that I expressed).
Again, this young author sounds a lot like us when we criticize a practice we don’t fully appreciate or understand.
However, what we do well in these situations is engage in a dialog to develop a better understanding. We don’t resort to name-calling or applying our personal lens of the world without giving a professional colleague the benefit of the doubt that they are doing something with the best of intentions.
I wish we’d offer this young author the same respect even if she has offended.
A final thought on this matter is the larger point of her essay, which I don’t believe was to whine or to satirize or to be mean-spirited or to dismiss privilege or entitlement, but was to convey a perception that admission to the most selective colleges in American is no longer based exclusively on merit. We dismiss this perception at our own peril. To ignore it is dangerous. This perception is perpetuated when we focus so much time on admissions rates, and hear (and provide) quotes about how similarly credentialed all of the applicants are, which is why it is necessary to look for distinctions among them. The process has become increasingly confusing, and misinformed perceptions have become a reality. Let’s be honest about this, these impressions of the process, which many have attributed to the author’s youth, are not limited to this particular high school student, but have been informed by adult perception of the admission process.
You get the picture, don’t you?
As professionals, we should take a moment to reflect on the big picture, rather than the small stuff around which the critiques of this young woman are centered.
This entire incident reminds of the timeless Pogo cartoon entitled “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
W. Kent Barnds a.k.a. @bowtieadmission