Prof to Harvard: Drop the Balm!

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Consider this idea of the Harvard philosopher and television ambassador Michael Sandel as summarized in the (London) Times Higher Education. (I have not been able to get Sandel's new book itself yet and will correct this post if it turns out I am misinterpreting the original.)

Adopting the philosopher John Rawls' argument that a person does not merit success merely because he or she was lucky enough to be born with gifts that are in demand, Professor Sandel says a "philosophically frank" university should tell those it rejects that "we don't regard you as less deserving than those who were admitted" and that "it is not your fault that when you came along society happened not to need the qualities you had to offer."

This is supposed to "lessen the sting" (as the article quotes Sandel's book) of rejection--telling unsuccessful candidates that "society," with the Harvard admissions staff as omniscient arbiters, doesn't need "the qualities" you are offering. But look at the qualities that the Harvard Admissions office lists in its FAQ:

There is no formula for gaining admission to Harvard. Academic accomplishment in high school is important, but the Admissions Committee also considers many other criteria, such as community involvement, leadership and distinction in extracurricular activities, and work experience. We rely on teachers, counselors, headmasters and alumni/ae to share information with us about an applicant's strength of character, his or her ability to overcome adversity and other personal qualities - all of which play a part in the Admissions Committee's decisions.

In other words, Professor Sandel's allegedly consoling message would imply, academic brilliance, work ethic, athletic prowess, musical talent, community spirit, leadership, and resilience aren't everything! It isn't your fault that you are relatively lacking in one or more of them. We're sure you're good at something.

Sandel's proposed words to the winners, as quoted by the Times Higher, are as transparently flattering as the ding letter is implicitly devastating.

"You are to be congratulated, not in the sense that you deserve credit for having the qualities that led to your admission--you do not--but only in the sense that the winner of a lottery is to be congratulated. You are lucky to have come along with the right traits at the right moment."

In other words, don't be proud just because you are a naturally superior person, but you are also exactly what society needs at the moment--you lucky dog.

Seriously, don't use a great philosopher's concepts to sugar-coat a bitter pill. I propose a different message that could be adapted by other leading colleges and that could go to admits and rejects alike.

We have done our best. But remember, we not only admitted but honored, during the Third Reich, Hitler's piano man Putzi Hanfstaengl We rejected Warren Buffett and accepted the future Unabomber. Our short-lived independent alumni magazine 02138 delighted the national press a few years ago with highlights of our mistakes, and archive.org has saved a copy of the original, or at least its first page. Even if the seven percent of candidates we accepted are on average five times as likely to be as outstanding as the 93 percent we rejected--not likely because most applicants are self-selected as qualified for Harvard academic work--the latter as a group will have twice as many notable people as the former by their sheer numbers. So whether we accepted or rejected you, let our decision motivate you to work harder at learning and prove us right in the first case or wrong in the second.

Rejection, like other arts, is best learned young. To overcome it, begin by calling it by its rightful name.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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