April 28, 2007

MIT admissions dean and adult vs teenage naivete

In a continuing series on the chasm between adolescents and adults, let's look at a perfect example of why adolescents are typically skeptical of the snake oil that adults often try to sell them, and thus why we shouldn't worry so much about their allegedly impressionable minds being corrupted by duplicitous elders. The event also provides more evidence for how a large swath of adults are utterly, hopelessly clueless about teenagers (their own or those of others). This is obviously a bad thing, if for no other reason than that we'll rely on them in the future, so we should try to bridge the divide amiably in order to guide them in a desirable direction, as well as to make their lives easier by sharing with them what wisdom we have picked up.

What's all the hubbub about? It turns out that the Dean of Admissions at MIT, Marilee Jones, not only didn't go to college but lied about having degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (she claimed an SB and SM in biology), Albany Medical College (she claimed a degree in chemistry), and Union College. Furthermore, she had been hiding the truth for nearly three decades! It is fitting that she is a guru of the "less perfectionism" movement in college admissions, which wants parents, guidance counselors, and students to stop stressing out so much about the admissions process and ensure that youngsters have time to lead well-rounded, enjoyable lives. I too would want to de-emphasize being perfect if I were running the admissions office of an elite university but only took a few courses as a part-time, non-degree-seeking student 30 years ago. More coverage from the NYT, Boston Herald, and ABCNews. (Unfortunately the editors must have vetoed the more likely headlines, like "MIT admissions dean: Don't be so perfect -- I'm sure as hell not.")

Now, it's not as if Jones was a professor, lecturer, or anything else that would have required many impressive degrees -- college admissions isn't exactly rocket science, as they say. So I don't mind that she didn't seriously attend college. I can even understand the calculated deceit -- if I signed up for an online dating service, you can bet I'd add an inch or two to my height and wouldn't admit my lie even after 30 years of marriage, unless I finally became cornered.

Instead, what grinds my gears is that she used the megaphone that comes with her office to broadcast the "less perfectionist" message. In fairness, anyone who fell for this bull about letting their kids have more playtime, at a time when admissions are likely more competitive than ever, deserves exactly what they got. I take it for granted that high academic success and having fun are not incompatible, assuming the student is heads-and-shoulders above the average "above-average" student. Clearly, though, the "less perfectionist" movement is geared to the promising but not stellar students, who tend to pack on as many extra-curriculars as possible to sway the wavering opinions of admissions officials. "More playtime" is well and good for those in no danger of being rejected by all of their reach schools, but the target audience here would have been harmed by voluntarily de-fanging themselves in the fight to get into an elite school.

Fortunately, the movement that she leads can't have had an enormous effect, since by their own accounts (see, e.g., some excerpts of Jones' recent talks / writings), the hyper-competitiveness is still a big problem. When you think about it, it's like matronly women encouraging a high school girl to "be herself" and wear the higher-waisted jeans that she may truly want to wear (for whatever reason), but that would result in endless taunting from the popular girls who wear low-rise jeans. Or perhaps a guy who's 5'5, bald, poor, and grouchy lecturing to alpha-males that they shouldn't show off their wealth so much, or their better looks, or whatever gives them a shot at gaining admission to the select club of Boyfriends of Hot Girls (and later, Husbands with Trophy Wives). Any alpha-male gullible enough to swallow this flimflam deserves their single status; presumably, though, few would be so stupid. I imagine something similar must go through the minds of the typical high school student during the application process: "Right, I should be less competitive -- and end up like you, lady." Again, I have nothing against admissions officials; I merely suggest what the typical Harvard applicant must be thinking as he hears Jones' counsel.

So, we conclude that adolescents, far from being impressionable naifs, are instead hardened by the reality that they themselves live: they know from personal experience that following such advice would be suicide. As an aside, another popular hypothesis is that college students adopt some of the loony ideas of their professors during college again because their minds are passive and impressionable. To the contrary, judging them by their actions, they largely don't believe in the platitudes that they mouth. (The ideologues are another story, as they apparently do have faith -- it's hard to convince others when you aren't convinced yourself.) For example, the widespread pattern of "White flight" from dangerous neighborhoods shows just how much White liberals believe that "diversity is strength." As the readers here probably follow Steve Sailer's blog, I assume I don't have to list the other million data-points supporting this conclusion. As another example, though, men in uber-liberal Sweden don't act as if they believe in the radical feminist goals of equalizing all of the parenting chores 50-50.

The key is that college students aren't clueless but shrewd -- shrewd enough to know which way the wind is blowing in Adultland (as hinted to them by their professors), and shrewd enough to understand how to avoid a social or ideological faux pas that might endanger their comfortable station. Mouthing lefty slogans should therefore be interpreted not as a molding of their impressionable minds but instead as rational insurance against future mob reprisals: they cost very little, since you are not obligated to behave according to the slogan, and when "underprivileged" groups become angry, you can say, "Hey, don't blame me -- I'm a multiculturalist! Go after those backward rednecks instead!" It is appauling that those in power recruit the appeal of such slogans when pushing through their ridiculous programs, such as affirmative action and No Child Left Behind, but again this sorry state of affairs is more the fault of race-baiting hucksterism and forcing people to pledge ideological allegiance -- not due to innocent minds being corrupted by others.

Moreover, the "less perfectionism" movement's message itself demonstrates a colossal misunderstanding of adolescent life. The movement deplores what it sees as too much judging of high schoolers, which it feels must be burdening the poor darlings with an undue amount of stress. In part they have accurately assessed what's going on, but they're missing the other huge piece of the puzzle, which is that youngsters in more recent times are inundated with praise. In fact, an annual survey of college students shows that they have become steadily more narcissistic since the measurement of narcissism levels began 25 years ago. I work with middle and high schoolers, and I notice this a lot. At the same time, only being 26 myself, I can't say that my generation -- including me -- is very modest either. I simply note the high levels of "it's all about me" among youngsters to highlight the disconnect between the facts on the ground and the image of drowning Ophelias being painted by the "less perfectionism" movement.

Much of this resource-depleting confusion could be easily cleared up by just relating to adolescents on their own level. That is, investigate and understand objectively what makes their world spin, while still maintaining a bit of social distance. I have found that stressing social distance too much has the opposite effect -- adolescents then assume that you're just another dopey adult who's "forgotten what it's like to be me," and they write off your input thereafter. It depends on the individual, but for me projecting the persona of "my friend's cool older brother" works best. In order for shaming to be effective, the target must actually care more about your view of them than about whether it's raining on the other side of the world. Thus, when they don't do an assignment, I can give them the "Ah c'mon, you're killin' me" routine, and they'll feel like they've disappointed someone they respect. Obviously people are different, though: some adults will have to find a different "in" than my approach, and some students are incorrigible.

Why does any of this matter? Well, for one thing, youngsters grow up and take control of society. If you want that society to be in good shape by the time you become more dependent on others, you'd better make sure that middle-aged adults had good guidance earlier on. And from the adolescents' point-of-view, they would greatly benefit from the accumulated wisdom of their elders -- I'm far from having one foot in the grave, but in the 10 years since I was a high school sophomore, I've learned plenty. By passing this along to current high schoolers, I save them the waste of time and the greater embarrassment of having to find things out the hard way. This task becomes increasingly difficult as the generational divide grows, since the younger generation is more likely to think that the older one is too "out of touch with the times" to have relevant advice, whether they really do or do not.

So to reiterate, adolescents are far more perceptive than many adults give them credit for. On the one hand, that's a good thing, as it means we don't have to worry much about them following the silly advice of the Marilee Joneses out there or agreeing to meet strangers who have contacted them over the internet. On the other hand, though, they are very attuned to the cluelessness of adults and will exploit such gullibility to their own advantage, usually to shirk some responsiblity or other. When my students are honest, they admit how easily they manage to get their way with the pushover tutors, but that fortunately means that the problem isn't intractable: just stand your ground, while still treating them friendly. And bridging the generation gap in this way would benefit both the younger and older generations without compromising the ability of (legitimate) authority figures to maintain order.


  1. How could her admissions strategy have reduce stress in the first place? You've got more applicants than spots, so some way of rationing them is necessary. And if you do it on a lottery basis, your school would suffer losses in prestige. Her strategy just privileges the people most passionate about extracurriculars, making every kid anxious about whether he volunteered enough hours, started enough groups, etc.

    I figure the more immutable the criteria of admissions system, the less stressful it is for students, because then the failure is less their fault.

    "Hey, don't blame me -- I'm a multiculturalist! Go after those backward rednecks instead!"
    Actually, at Cornell, a drunken white guy called some black guys names and then stabbed one. Nathan Poffenbarger had written for a lefty paper and was active in college dem politics. Then the campus newspaper blamed the conservative paper, saying it created a hostile atmosphere (implicitly referring to an article about race and crime, titled, "The Color of Cornell's crime: Unmasking the Face of Ithacompton").

  2. Personally, I think that even private colleges that get federal funding need to make their selection process public.

    If colleges actually wanted to reduce the stress of application, they would put more emphasis on standardized test scores and less on extracuricular activities and grades. After all, one stresses like hell for days over the SAT, but chronically over schoolwork.

    EC's privilege children of fairly well-off parents who provide them spending money, while penalizing children of lower income or stingier parents who have to work for spending money.

    At minimum, schools should consider time spent working at a real job on a par with volunteer and extra-extracurriculars. Bosses get upset when one pads one's hours. Volunteer organizations tend to expect it.


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