The Intellectual Field

by Henry Farrell on February 28, 2011

“Laura at 11D”:

bq. There was a stage set for Remnick and Gladwell. … When they came out, Remnick immediately brought up the Gladwell’s social media article from a few weeks ago, where Gladwell wrote that social media only created weak ties and wasn’t sufficient to push a people to form a social movement. He took a lot of heat in the past few weeks, since social media may have played some role in the uprisings in Egypt. Gladwell was pretty hostile to his critics. He scoffed that his critic was some blogger from Huffington Post. Why should we listen to some pajama-wearing blogger, he asked? Some pajama-wearing blogger who lives in Brooklyn, he added for extra laughs.

bq. Well, I’m not sure why we should listen to a journalist who doesn’t like to travel north of 14h Street. Look, it was a very entertaining evening. Those guys were funny and witty and shared lots of amusing stories. But they didn’t know anything about revolutions or social media or Egypt. That’s okay. Journalists don’t have know be experts in their field. But they have to acknowledge that they aren’t experts and they really have an obligation to talk to people who spend their lives studying those subjects. … Why should anyone care what Malcolm Gladwell thinks about Egypt and Facebook, when there are people who have travelled to the Mid East, are fluent in Arabic, and spend most of their waking hours learning about this subject.

“Arthur Goldhammer”:

bq. It must have been more than 30 years ago now that Michel Foucault wrote an article entitled “La mort de l’intellectuel.” Apparently Le Monde didn’t get the message, because it invited four “intellectuals” to comment on the “Arab revolts.” The choice of participants in this forum tells you something about what the word “intellectuel” means today. We hear from Alain Touraine, Alain Badiou, Elisabeth Roudinesco, and André Glucksmann. None is a specialist on the region in turmoil, on the history of revolutions, on Islam, on Arab culture, on the political economy of the rebellious states, on social movements in the Arab world, on previous rebellions against military dictatorships, on relations between the military and civil society, or any of a hundred other topics that might confer authority to speak about one or another aspect of the unfolding wave of rebellion.

bq. in France, to be a specialist is almost a disqualification to speak as an “intellectual.” An intellectual is one who has risen above his or her specialty, if any, to acquire a quasi-priestly authority to pronounce on _n’importe quoi_ — and as often as not, to say _n’importe quoi_ about it. But I wonder if this sort of rootless speculation has any purchase on the French audience today. Perhaps a piece like this in _Le Monde_ is simply a throwback to the day when large numbers of people hungered to know what Sartre or Camus thought about the events of the day.

When I read these posts (nearly back to back – I’ve been away from the internets for a few days), the similarities were striking. The current crop of French intellectuals is rather like Malcolm Gladwell. And (such comparisons being commutative) Malcolm Gladwell is rather like the current crop of French intellectuals. I wonder which would take greater umbrage at the comparison.

Reforming College Admissions

by Harry on February 28, 2011

An interesting piece in the Chronicle by Jerome Lucido is pretty damning of the college admissions system (especially among private very selective colleges, but not just among them). Last month I was at the conference he refers to at the end of the article (in fact I was a keynote speaker, and only at the last minute did I manage to suppress my inclination to channel James Stockdale, given that I basically know nothing about college admissions). I suppose the participants — about 175 people, almost all admissions or financial aid officials from a diverse array of selective schools, including the admissions deans of several Ivies and flagship states — were largely self-selecting, but still I was surprised how much consensus there appeared to be about what the problems are with the admissions system and how they are generated. Here is Lucido’s basic analysis:

College and university leaders—trustees, presidents, chief academic officers—have the unenviable responsibility of ensuring their institutions’ continued financial viability while pursuing increasingly ambitious academic missions. In this pursuit, their strong turn to the competitive marketplace is understandable. But it is also clear that more is happening here. There is an insatiable appetite for prestige and status that accompanies the drive for revenues. What we see now is that marketplace competition has escalated to the point at which it threatens to become the mission rather than to serve the mission. And for what gain?

An institution can achieve short-term market advantage through aggressive marketing, but in due time competitors will match and then surpass that edge. The escalating competition raises institutional costs, invariably resulting in higher tuition and a greater need to admit students whose families can pay full price.

While some institutions can handle the added expense, there are broader costs that no college can handle alone. As numerous scholars have documented, zealous pursuit of institutional interest has come at the expense of social goals and the public trust. Moreover, there is a loss of educational values, a loss that we cannot afford. One effect of our pursuit of rankings and prestige has been to change how students view college. No longer seen as the crucial capstone of an educational journey, a degree is now regarded as a ticket to economic advantage. Students and institutions alike, it seems, are branding themselves in pursuit of positioning.

My daughter having reached high school, and being surrounded by adoring juniors and seniors (don’t ask) I encounter a lot of kids who seem caught up in this world — applying to college seems to dominate an entire year of the life of upper middle class kids here, and, at least from my vantage point, does seem to discourage academic risk-taking, focuses attention unhealthily on grades over learning, and encourages them to partake in the proliferation of meaningless “awards” (my daughter was nominated for a “leadership award” from the American Legion while still in middle school, and was criticized by a friend for spurning the nomination on the grounds that the award would help her college applications (my daughter, as you might guess from previous references, says “I don’t want to go to some fancy east coast school. I want to go to a state college. In the Midwest”). I’ll take up the other part of Lucido’s article, concerning the metrics by which we should judge colleges another time (after I’ve read Richard Shavelson’s book explaining the CLA). The only advice I have if you are going through, or about to go through, this nightmare, is to peruse the Education Conservancy’s site for sane advice, or to read Lloyd Thacker’s collection College Unranked, which contains plenty of sensible advice mainly from admissions deans, to your kids when you tuck them up in bed at night.