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."

But she does not allow that the kind of classroom dynamic that Harward describes might well develop and instantiate some important intellectual virtues: the ability to talk to others, to draw out their ideas, to build an intellectually serious conversation. Burton conceives of these as skills that might well complement the life of the mind, but are not constitutive of it.

In this respect, I believe she is wrong, and misreads the intention of this aspect of American pedagogy—which, I agree, is very American. A future intellectual or professor who cannot build a good discussion on their ideas with colleagues or students, and either does not know how to draw out quieter members of a class or thinks that doing so is unimportant, may find great professional recognition. But achieving scholarly renown is not the sole or sufficient measure of a great mind, and they will lack certain eminently worthwhile intellectual characteristics—such as a sense of fellowship and generosity in spontaneous discourse—that Socrates and Erasmus, among many others, found vital to their pursuit of knowledge. Are these a form of leadership? Insofar as they are, I think it makes perfect sense for any university, taken solely as a house of learning, to want to impart them to its students.

I am as suspicious of the rhetorical fetishization of "leadership" in college admissions literature and university administrative circles as Burton is. The version of leadership deployed in so many brochures is so vague that it is unclear that what they describe is actually recognizable as leadership at all. Real leadership manifests in something more intangible and valuable than a bullet point on a high school student’s résumé.

And I entirely agree that we should question whether we risk missing other virtues, particularly of the "lone wolf" kind that she mentions. The poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler, in an essay for Harvard's admissions website, points out that qualities like creativity and thoughtfulness—so important especially for young artists and thinkers—risk being lost in the search for "leadership material":

Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one—but at that one surpasses all her companions? Will we welcome eagerly the person who has in high school been completely uninterested in public service or sports—but who may be the next Wallace Stevens?

None of these concerns are at odds with the conclusion announced in Burton's headline. But along her way to that conclusion, she mischaracterizes both the intellectual life and the idiosyncrasies of multiple institutions of higher learning. On consideration, her argument merely convinces me that even if American universities’ glib invocations of leadership are lamentable, they are nevertheless right to insist that their students be more than just lone wolves in the classroom.