Tomorrow, some of the most important questions many of us face as Yale undergraduates will be answered when U.S. News & World Report releases its issue of “America’s Best Graduate Schools 2009.” Will Harvard Law School upset Yale this year? Will the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine finally admit more than 6.2 percent of its applicants? Most administrators and graduate students will probably give no more than a passing glance to the rankings. But for those of us who are juniors or seniors, a graduate or professional school’s ranking could well determine our own value. We have learned to judge ourselves based on the value of the acceptance letters we look for in the spring.
Our generation has been trained from birth to regard university and professional school admissions as one of life’s ultimate prizes. Essayist Keith Gessen remembered the sense of inner peace he felt when one of his Harvard College friends announced freshman year, “We’re 19 years old and we’ve done the hardest thing there is to do.” Like most prestigious prizes, our admission to Yale was awarded after brutal competition — in our case for good grades, high S.A.T. scores and senior class presidencies. We followed the official and unofficial rules. Joining the right teams was a must. And we made sure our eyes weren’t the only ones to read our admissions essays. So when that thick envelope arrived at our doorstep senior year, we knew we had accomplished “the hardest thing there is to do.” It may have taken us a while to realize the true worth of our prize, but we knew we deserved it.
Of course, thinking of the university as a prize leads to the question, “What have we really won?” A brand name to stick on our resume for the rest of our lives? The network of an elite group of future financiers? Maybe it’s the 33 percent higher incomes than the poor souls who will graduate from Quinnipiac. But is this really the purpose of a government-subsidized, property-tax-exempt public institution with an untaxed $22.5 billion endowment?
Journalist Malcolm Gladwell has written that there are two ways to think about a university: like a modeling agency or like the U.S. Marine Corps. The modeling agency functions like a prize. It doesn’t pretend it can make someone beautiful. It looks for beautiful people. And when it finds them, it awards them with a contract. The U.S. Marine Corps, on the other hand, is a public institution. Like a hospital or a kindergarten, it doesn’t much care what its applicants look like. But it is confident enough in its institutional abilities to create a marine out of anybody who can survive basic training.
The truth is, as much as elite universities may teach us in the classroom, by positioning themselves primarily as prizes they are failing to serve their actual mission. When the university is a prize, it neither challenges our conceited entitlement nor creates graduates who “lead and serve.” Yale’s huge tax break from Connecticut is predicated on its “public function” for the state. But without ever challenging our metaphor of the university as a prize rather than as a public institution, Yale effectually trains us to launder the privilege that made us into good applicants, and to graduate thinking primarily, if not only, of ourselves.
If Yale’s purpose is simply to award beautiful applicants with its elite reputation, it really doesn’t matter what we learn for our four years here or what we think about after we leave. We can continue to evaluate undergraduate schools in U.S. News & World Report based on the quality of the freshmen who enroll rather than the long-term contributions of seniors who graduate. And we can remain uncritical of the idea that we somehow deserved entry into this institution. After all, even if our parents’ wealth and the investments they and taxpayers in our communities made gave us the free time to lead clubs, gave us the money to pay for S.A.T. coaching and gave us the opportunity to attend good schools instead of having to work part-time and take care of siblings, the rules for admission were set long ago and we followed them well.
But if Yale’s purpose is to produce leaders and public citizens (as its mission statement suggests), it needs to rethink not only how it admits students, but what it teaches us while we’re here. Grades, S.A.T. scores and other factors in its admission game may have nothing to do with leadership ability or selfless behavior or our productivity after we graduate.
Indeed, President Levin may want us, upon graduation, to “seek the betterment of life for all with whom we share this small and shrinking planet.” But if the first time we hear that sentiment is on the day before we graduate, how is Yale different from any other beauty school?
Niko Bowie is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Fridays.