In a nation that nominally eschews class distinctions as unbefitting our supposed classlessness, whose elected officials decry any protest over government largesse to the rich as “class warfare,” real Americans–most of whom are suckers, it turns out–spend untold amounts of time, cash and effort obsessing on a tiny number of elite colleges that really, really don’t want the vast majority of them as members.
Never mind, though. For an increasing number of baby boomer parents, it’s never too early to stick kids on the Harvard- or-bust fast track. It starts with Mozart and Shakespeare in the crib, and then it’s off to the $8,000-a-year and up nursery school that admits toddlers on the basis of IQ tests (performance on which is heavily influenced by the educational attainment of the child’s parents). The proper nursery school inexorably leads to the high-powered kindergarten and prep school and eventually to thousands of dollars more in fees for college consultants and standardized testing tutors.
Before a child can say “meritocracy,” he or she is embarking on an overseas adventure to New Guinea that will lead, by design, to that killer college application essay that wows admissions counselors from Harvard, Yale or Princeton for its originality and sense of social and democratic purpose, a tonier version of the Miss America contestant’s “I’m for world peace” speech.
If all the time and effort devoted to this enterprise were about a child’s or young person’s love of learning, creativity and personal development, I for one would be considerably less cynical. But the elite college admissions game–under the near-tyrannical guidance of US News & World Report‘s annual ranking of the nation’s “best” colleges–is all too often about the pursuit of prestige at almost any cost, a game that perpetuates the big lie that one can’t find a decent education at anything less than a Brand Name school.
I was excited to read Jacques Steinberg’s new book about elite college admissions, The Gatekeepers, anticipating a breath of fresh air on the subject from the New York Times education reporter. As he introduces himself and his book, we learn that this son of a Massachusetts anesthesiologist sees himself as a sort of accidental alumnus of the Ivy League, who pleads ignorance as to how he got admitted to Dartmouth in the early 1980s. But he obviously owes a lot to his very assertive mom, a former nurse, who on the family’s exploratory visit to the Dartmouth campus grabbed her son by the collar after an admissions officer’s spiel and strode to the front of the room to magisterially inform the official, “We’re the Steinbergs.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Steinberg strikes me as a lucky man indeed. After joining the Times and becoming a national education correspondent, he attended the 1999 conference of the National Association of College Admission Counseling in Orlando, Florida. While there, he was approached by William Hiss, an administrator at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. Hiss wondered whether Steinberg would like exclusive access to the selective college’s admissions process, noteworthy in that it does not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores. Although Steinberg and his editor, Ethan Bronner, were intrigued by the idea, they declined Hiss’s offer in favor of a less “anomalous” college–i.e., one that continued to rely on gatekeeping tests like the SAT.