Harvard, Happiness, and Social Class

Continuing on the theme of the significance of rising standards for admission to elite schools, I found much to admire in this essay from a journalist from an “unworldly blue collar” home who was admitted to Harvard 35 years ago. He marvels at the multiple accomplishments of the kids he now interviews as part of the admissions processes to Harvard, even while he understands that many of these students won’t be admitted, in spite of all that they’ve accomplished.

Yet I’m conflicted when I read about how he’s eventually come to terms with shifts in the admissions landscape:

I came to understand that my own focus on Harvard was a matter of not sophistication but narrowness. I grew up in an unworldly blue-collar environment. Getting perfect grades and attending an elite college was one of the few ways up I could see.

My four have been raised in an upper-middle-class world. They look around and see lots of avenues to success. My wife’s two brothers struggled as students at mainstream colleges and both have made wonderful full lives, one as a salesman, the other as a builder. Each found his own best path. Each knows excellence.

Here, it seems, is the essential question of class.

I completely accept that there are many paths to personal happiness and many routes to individual excellence.

Yet there are, of course, fundamental differences between finding happiness within the options that are available to you and having many choices about where one might seek happiness.

As long as institutions like Harvard are growing less accessible to kids who can’t afford the frenetic resume building now required for admissions, and as long as Harvard remains a vital route to political and economic power, the questions of admissions go beyond whether one’s own child might find personal happiness there, or whether attaining excellence as a builder will, in the end, provide personal fulfillment.

Unless, of course, the children of the elite are asking the same questions.

It seems, however, that most are not.

As long as the kids who do eventually graduate from Harvard are going to wield power over other people’s kids, and as long as the grand narrative of the culture is that those Harvard kids deserve that power because they are essentially better people than kids who went to college elsewhere (and certainly, better than those who didn’t go to college at all), admissions is a social problem, not just a problem of misguided individual choices.

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