What of the Poets and Painters?

3 Dec
Harvard Magazine Screen Shot 2012-12-03 at 10.08.48 AM

Helen Vendler asks the right questions in the alumni magazine.

In the world of college admissions, and of course college-admissions essay writing, we know that everybody seems to value leadership and service and academic achievement and that old chestnut character.  Basically, it’s the same qualifications that earn students an invitation to  membership in the National Honor Society.  (Now, I have run across precious few chapters of that organization that manage to share  these qualities very much with anyone who doesn’t already belong, but that’s a subject to which I will lead you at another time.)

What about talented people (often called creative) who don’t exhibit those particular honorable qualities in any substantial amount?  Biography suggests that at least some of these off-the-radar folks will be good candidates to become our next generation of poets or painters or writers. But, out there surfing the admissions tsunami on a log, how do they get ever a wet toe in the door?

Helen Vendler, the marvelous poetry critic, expresses eloquent  concern about this issue in the new issue of Harvard magazine. An earlier version appeared on the Harvard admissions website, so clearly there is concern in Cambridge that these kinds of talents could be slipping away.

The essay is pitched at the Harvard community, but the issue is universal. From a student’s point of view, you might well find better nurturing at places far less prestigious, where a greater proportion of students are attracted not to a college’s name, but to its values.

If you are one of those kinds of students, this piece will boost your morale.  It may also suggest approaches to take in getting your application noticed.

Here is Vendler laying out the big questions. I encourage you to read the rest. (Click the graphic above.)

The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. 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? 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? (Wittgenstein, who was rich, gave all his money away as a distraction; Emily Dickinson, who was rich, appears not to have spent money, personally, on anything except for an occasional dress, and paper and ink.) Can frugality seem as desirable to our undergraduates as affluence—provided it is a frugality that nonetheless allows them enough leisure to think and write? Can we preach a doctrine of vocation in lieu of the doctrine of competitiveness and worldly achievement?

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