What's So Bad About Encouraging Students to Be Leaders?

What a recent Atlantic essay misunderstands about the difference between American and British universities—and the nature of the life of the mind
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Tara Isabella Burton’s recent Atlantic essay “Why Are American Colleges Obsessed with ‘Leadership’?” initially appears to make an appealing, convincing point: that American colleges—or at least their admissions departments—are detrimentally obsessed with a hollow notion of “leadership.” I expected to agree with it entirely, based on the headline alone.

But in arriving at her point, I was surprised that Burton—an alumna of Oxford who is currently working on her doctorate there—draws a picture of Oxford and American higher education that is at odds with the institutions that I know. And from that picture, she deduces a short-sighted vision of the nature of the life of the mind. At Oxford, she claims:

the ideal student is not a leader but a lone wolf... What is valued is not the contribution I make “to the world” at large, nor even the contribution I make to the life of the campus or to my fellow students. Rather, it’s the quality of the work I do on the course (which is to say, the level of my marks).

In America, on the other hand, students are “expected to go further: to take an active role in the classroom.” Burton quotes Emmi Harward, director of college counseling at The Bishop's School in La Jolla, California, who says that students are rewarded for "contributing ideas that sparked discussion or encouraging a quieter member of the class to offer up their thoughts."

As an American now studying at Oxford, I agree with her characterization of this particular way in which Oxford's educational philosophy seems to differ from most American universities. Oxford’s values certainly are different. (Though using Oxford to illustrate differences among universities is a bit like using a platypus to demonstrate differences among animals; Burton’s points might well be made about Oxford and Cambridge in contrast to the rest of the universities in the U.K.) The small size of the tutorial system means that a student never has to learn how to interact in a seminar environment if she chooses not to. And it’s true that Oxford’s constituent colleges and the dons who teach in them are, on average, more concerned with students’ marks than professors at many selective American institutions. American professors often seem just as content to have students who get average grades but also captain the football team, direct a play, or edit a literary magazine.

This difference has to do with the structure of testing in Oxbridge in contrast to Ivy League. At Oxford and Cambridge, professors are responsible for preparing you for exams that external examiners assess. In the Ivy League—as at most American schools—the professor who teaches you is the same one who grades you. Their respective incentives are different.

That said, I wonder whether Oxford's approach is more purely intellectual than, say, Harvard's. That is what Burton contends—that "the implicit message behind the rhetoric of leadership in the American college admissions is that intellectualism alone is not enough, even for an academic institution. Simply learning for learning's sake is not enough." 

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Spencer Lenfield is a writer based in Oxford, England.

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