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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

College websites

My daughter is in the process of applying to colleges. I've seen a few of the essay questions that she's had to respond to. They are often thinly disguised, self-congratulatory advertisements for the colleges themselves. For example:

"Bowdoin students and alumni often cite world class faculty and opportunities for intellectual engagement. The college's commitment to the Common Good, and the special quality of life on the coast of Maine as important aspects of the Bowdoin experience. Reflecting on your own interests and experiences, please comment on one of the following:
1. Intellectual engagement
2. The Common Good
3. Connection to place"

(Why is "Common Good" capitalized? Is it a proper name? Does that world class faculty not know how to spell? Or are they just Incredibly Pretentious?)

Many colleges require a supplemental essay explaining why you want to go there. (I suggested my daughter respond, "I'm only applying here because I needed a safety.")

One wonders how much pleasure the admissions officers take in reading those responses. Do they actually allow themselves to believe the applicants mean what they say?

Seeing the questions spurred me to look at various other college websites, and what I saw reinforced my feeling about higher education: it's all about brainwashing, rather than learning how to think clearly.

Many colleges feature a Latin motto stating something like "Honesty, curiosity, truth." (Why is English not good enough for academics?) A more accurate motto might be the Latin for, "Getting shit-faced every Friday and Saturday night." Nah -- that would actually show too much honesty and truthfulness.

Many colleges claim to foster "leadership." No college admits to producing "followers," although by definition any student who swallows the pretentious pap most colleges spew has to be a mindless acolyte.

And how exactly do most colleges teach charisma, that elusive quality needed for real leadership? (Silly me -- I always thought that was a quality that couldn't be taught, least of all by some scruffy charm-free prof.)

All of the colleges seem to value diversity. Not diversity of thought, of course -- just of ethnicity.

They all claim to seek students of high integrity. (I'd love to see what would happen to overall college enrollment if every student who had his parent help him with his essays were expelled.)

They all seem to advertise themselves as "highly selective." (I'll die happy if I see just one which bills itself as "not particularly selective.")

The Colby website -- which is fairly typical -- states that their school is "challenging and uplifting, enlightening and provocative, dynamic and focused." It evidently "fosters intellectual and personal growth, with graduates emerging as conscientious, committed leaders ready to make a profound impact on their world. A Colby education is distinctly inspired."

(Warning: do not go to a college website after just having eaten.)

I found myself a little confused by their last sentence: how can an education be inspired? An education is basically inanimate -- it can't be made to laugh, or brought to tears, any more than it can be inspired. Now a student might be inspired by a school, or by his courses, or by his professors. But his education simply cannot be thusly moved. And what exactly does it mean to be distinctly inspired, as opposed to, say, vaguely inspired? I don't get it. Then again, that's how academics write: unclearly, in ways that don't quite make sense.

Oh, and by the way -- the above paragraph hopes it amused you.

At Brown University, "the Brown community creates a dynamic living and learning environment on a picturesque urban campus in historic Providence, Rhode Island.....Visit us to find out why Brown students are said to be among the happiest in America."

Wow! Welcome to Eden! Who wouldn't want to go to a college where you're practically guaranteed happiness?!

But as wonderful as they all sounded, I couldn't help but feel a little dismayed that all these august institutions felt obliged to advertise themselves this way. It seemed just a trifle..... undignified.

I hoped that at least Harvard, of all places, wouldn't advertise itself the same way. After all, its very name is synonymous with prestige! They don't need to boast! But this is what they said on their admissions page:

"There has never been a more exciting time to be at Harvard. Founded in 1636, America's first college has been transformed in recent years by new initiatives that have greatly enhanced the undergraduate experience. Today's students come from all over the nation and the world to attend an extraordinary institution that combines many aspects of a small residential college with the resources of an unparalleled research university."

Oh well. 

Another common theme is that practically every college feels obliged to point out how its students come from all over the map. I thought, well, at least state schools must be immune from this. This is what the University of Maryland said:

"It's time to think outside the shell. March to your own drum. And grab hold of your destiny. It's time to discover the University of Maryland."

At first I was confused -- the second and third sentences are cliches, so why not say "think outside the box" and make it three for three? Then I got it -- think outside the shell -- the Maryland athletic teams are the Terrapins! The website's breathless tone sounds a bit more appropriate for an advertisement for a vacation getaway -- it's time you discovered the wonders of Chesapeake Bay! But at least they didn't feel obliged to point out that their students come from all over the world.

They did, however, feature the following photograph on their admissions page: 

  
Note the white girl, Chinese boy, and black boy all climbing together. This was another frequent feature of the college website photographs: many look as if they could have been used for a United Colors of Benetton ad.

It's a little unrealistic. When I was in college, there was a black table in the main dining hall at which white students never sat. I've been told that students still practice such self-segregation at virtually every college. Heck, even our own First Lady said that in her four years at Princeton she never made a single white friend. But to look at those college ads you'd think we're all just one big happy family.

Not one college has the honesty to show a photograph of its dining halls, with most of the black students sitting at one table and all of the whites sitting at others. How droll it would be to have such a photograph juxtaposed with some platitude about the value of diversity.

I thought there must be at least one college which doesn't advertise itself as a bastion of diversity. How about one of those historically black universities, where white students are too scared to go?

But the very first paragraph of North Carolina Central's admissions page reads, "North Carolina Central University is committed to equality of educational opportunity and does not discriminate against applicants, students, or employees based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, age, or handicap. Moreover, NCCU is open to people of all races and actively seeks to promote racial integration by recruiting and enrolling a culturally and racially diverse student population."

Doth those gentlemen protest too loudly? Repeating something does not make it so.

Many of the pictures you see on the college websites are reminiscent of the photographs on the society page of the Sunday NY Times: an intimate group of people look as if they have just shared a particularly good joke, and are all simply delighted to be at that gathering, at which they're having the time of their lives.

I didn't see a picture of one student who looked bleary-eyed after an Adderall-fueled all-nighter. Not one who looked hungover. Not even one student who looked mildly depressed after perhaps having suffered romantic rejection. They just all looked blissful, as if being at their wonderful school were an unmitigated 24/7 delight.

We've all heard of Stepford Wives; I found myself wondering if there weren't such a thing as Stepford Students.

I also noticed that no college advertised itself as "a great place to spend four years getting drunk on your father's dime." So I checked out a few places with reputations as party schools, to see if there was any hint of that.

The University of California at San Diego features a picture of a big computer with the caption, "SDSC welcomes 'Gordon' computer as research powerhouse." But nothing about keggers or toga night or how you can skip class to spend the day at the beach.

The front page of the University of Alabama website features ways in which Alabama students "touch lives." But no mention of those great tailgate wingdings at the Georgia game.

The home page of the University of Indiana shows a revolving montage of photographs: the Indiana Chief Justice addressing winter commencement, the school's involvement with a supercollider, and their great faculty. Not a word about the legendarily luscious Bloomington coeds.

Disappointing. I guess there are no schools that are actually fun anymore.

Either that, or honesty in academia is dead.

Judging from these websites, I'd have to say the latter. (But I think we already knew that.)

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the entertaining post. I got several good chuckles out of this one.

John Craig said...

Anon --
Then it served its purpose. Thank you.

Brian Fradet said...

John,

That is such a graphic example of the reality of one of the, if not the, biggest scams America has ever had, in my humble opinion. College. There are circumstances where a college sheepskin is required, like in medicine, law, engineering, or architecture, etc, but for all the rest it's nothing but getting parents to part with big money. College is now in a classic, but much worse than others, "bubble"--like housing was, stock market was, gold was in the 70's. Apparently, more student loan money is owed in this country than all credit cards combined. Fact. So, in summary, what college offers is essentially ways to get addicted to drugs and alcohol, learn victimization (college was supposed to give them tools for life), graduate with a mortgage and mostly obsolete general knowledge, if any can be remembered. And none, or pathetic job prospects. Just drink the purple Koolaide like "everyone". Anyway, since I also have a kid, boy, in the same situation I'm gradually teaching him this stuff which he doesn't want to hear. By the way, MIT is giving degrees for doing college online, a revolutionary first and for free, at least that's what I'm told and with the same standards as being there. More later as I'm obviously charged around this issue. Great article, John! Brian

John Craig said...

Brian --
Amen, and thank you.

Gilbert Ratchet said...

"Think outside the shell" - but their mascot is the Terrapin? So they are inviting us to think outside the University of Maryland - and go somewhere else?

Such a clashing metaphor has not been seen since the Miami Hurricanes adopted the Ibis as their mascot, a bird "known for its bravery as a hurricane approaches" and "the first bird to appear after a hurricane"

John Craig said...

Gilbert --
Excellent observation.

Anonymous said...

John, Slightly off topic, but since you touched on the college essay: My pet peeve is the way these questions have become a way to entertain the admissions officers. Have you ever read one of the books they sell about sample essays -- "50 Essays From Students Admitted to Harvard" or the like? I think they encourage phoniness, as they expect too much insight from the vast majority of high school students. It's an exercise in creative writing, more than anything else. Maybe a graded paper from a high school English class would be more useful. Julie

John Craig said...

Julie --
Not off topic at all, and makes sense.

I doubt that the admissions people are all that entertained by the essays after having that job for a while, but the option of including an essay from class would be helpful to students. I actually think a lot of these colleges include the essays as a way of preventing students from applying to too many schools as safeties. If you have to make the effort to research and write an essay about why you want to go to that particular college, it's because you're seriously considering it.

Anonymous said...

That's true, John, and a fair way for them to assess true student interest. It's the answers to common application questions that are usually cited in these books.

I once read JFK's statement in support of his application to Harvard. It was very superficial and wouldn't get a second look today. Julie

John Craig said...

Julie --
Someone told me two days ago that most colleges don't put too much weight on the essays anyway. The only ones which make a difference are evidently the ones which are really poorly written or too well written, which makes the admissions people suspicious that the student didn't write it himself, especially if his test scores don't corroborate that sort of writing ability.

JFK was a party boy all the way. He spent his youth drifting, assuming that his more promising older brother Joe was the one his father had pinned his hopes on.

Anonymous said...

A relative who had applied for Early Admission to a school of average competitiveness told me recently that she was called by the school for an "interview" a few weeks after she filed her application. After the interview, they sent her to a room to complete some essay questions. This was completely unexpected, and she felt like her fate hung largely on how well she answered those questions, as the interview was rather fluffy, and she had already interviewed at the school earlier in the process. Fortunately, she was admitted. But I thought it was interesting that the school apparently wanted to see what her writing looked like when she was put on the spot.

John Craig said...

Anon --
That's interesting. I bet that her original essay was very good and they wanted to know whether it was actually her who had written them.

Taylor Smith said...

After reading your post I decided to take a look at my school's website (loyno.edu). It was actually not that bad. The main page has the success stories of professors and students on display at all times. Of course they don't mention our legendary drop out rate, but at least theyre honest about what sucess at loyola really produces, and how important our professors actually are. The admissions page brags about our study abroad program which really is very exceptional. Obviously they don't mention that going to new orleans is sort of like studying abroad to begin with (different lingo, unenforced drinking age, crime and corruption, etc), but that's not entirely their fault. So I suppose my school is not full of shit, as long as your kid doesn't just come here and party.
If there is anyone that hates the 'education' racket it's me. College is definitely too expensive. I don't even want to get into how terrible it is. I completely understand why parents (even those that can afford it) are so upset over it's cost. But aside from the ridiculous cost, college is not a waste.
If your kid goes to college, skips class and parties all semester, he's the waste. And the parents are probably to blame. My roommate did not try in high school and ended up going to community college freshman year, but once he was there he worked really hard and got a 4.0 GPA. He ended up transfering to loyola with a scholarship. College is 100% what you make of it. Even your school is garbage, if you do well you can transfer somewhere better. My school is not particularly great but the opportunities it offers are endless.
If parents want their kids to go to college and act like adults, than they should raise their kids into mature adults before sending them to college. If you shelter your child from partying, and then send him to college, he or she is going to break loose and party. If you've raised them to be entirely dependent, then theyre going to fail on their own. If you give them a huge allowance, their going to get in trouble with it. Parents who dont want to waste their money should teach their kids responsibilty, let them have a reasonable amount of fun in high school, and not fill their pockets with money and expect them to keep out of trouble. The school is not to blame for those mistakes, parents are.

-Taylor

John Craig said...

Taylor --
Just took a look at yours, and you're right, it's not bad at all. Actually, about half the websites I visited were mostly just news sites for the colleges. A lot of the big state schools where that way, not pretentious at all. It tended to be the smaller, private East Coast colleges which felt obliged to advertise themselves in these high-flown terms which made them sound ridiculous. And of course I chose the most ridiculous ones to mock.

I basically agree with everything you said (except for the way you spelled "its cost"). College is why you make of it. Personally, I think you could get 99% of the academic benefit just from reading the assigned books.

And I particularly agree with you that all of my screw ups in life have ben my parents' fault.

John Craig said...

Been, not ben.

Guess I can't criticize your spelling.

Anonymous said...

John,
The Common Good is a philosophical concept and should be capitalized. Education (from the latin:a leading out) is dynamic.It is the leading out of the person to understanding, to moral virtues not only academic knowledge. Latin was the academic language for hundreds of years and considered along with Greek as fundamental to education. So not surprising that Latin is common in college mottos. My first degree from college is in Latin..but the university was founded in 1453!

John Craig said...

Anon --
You sound very well educated.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree with you on the pictures of mixed race students. It's the same in the UK - almost every maths exam paper will have many foreign-sounding names in the questions, usually phrased something like this: "Sarah, Andrew and Mahmood have £20. They go to the shop and buy..." Of course, everyone knows Sarah, Andrew and Mahmood wouldn't really be going to the shop together; they'd each be spending time with their own kind.

It's similar with gender: when I was thinking of applying to university I was looking through a prospectus for the engineering department at one institution and every single picture in it was of a woman. Yet, when I went to visit, there were barely any women in sight and the lecturers were all male. Another engineering department's graduation photo didn't have a single woman in the picture, despite its prospectus advertising the course as being very gender diverse.

Before I start sounding like a complete bigot, let me state that I have nothing against people from different races mixing, exam papers including the occasional foreign name and university departments championing diversity. My only problem is when they distort reality in the process of doing so. Sure, include a picture of a woman engineer into your prospectus, but don't make it sound as if women constitute 50% of the students!

Gethin.

John Craig said...

Gethin --
You're absolutely right. These websites are nothing but propaganda. I suppose advertisements should be expected to paint a falsely rosy picture, but the propaganda is of such a politically correct and blatantly false nature that it just comes across as pathetic. The example you give of the gender diversity in the engineering departments is typical.

The fact that ou wold feel obliged in your last paragraph to point out that you are not a bigot is also telling. These days all one has to do is point out the truth of a situation to be accused of "bigotry," or "racism," two terms which have long since morphed from meaning "discriminating against an individual on the basis of his race" to "pointing out an obvious fact."

Steven said...

I really dislike any of those kinds of things that require you to bullshit.

I remember an interview I was in.

'why do you want to work at M&S?' (M&S is an upmarket UK department store and supermarket).

They expected me to have some special reason for wanting to work for them? I wanted to say:

"I'm 17. I want money for beer. I would happily work at Iceland if they would give me a job. I think M&S would be kind of a nice place to work but I really don't give much of a shit about it. Did I mention I'm 17?"

It seems like job interviews are designed to elicit bullshit.


An interviewer once asked me what qualities I have that would make me good at working in some shop. I said I have fingers so I can press the buttons on the till (which you Americans may call a cash register). They laughed and later offered me a job.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Ha, funny story. And yes, you're right, job interviews are all about bs. It's ridiculous that they would expect a 17-year-old to give some polished answer about how M&S is superior to Iceland. It sounds as if they, like all those college admissions officers, are basically just fishing for compliments.