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Why Harvard should welcome the C student in chemistry

(This essay is excerpted from an essay in Harvard Magazine. The full piece appears here:

Anyone who has seen application folders knows the talents of potential undergraduates, as well as the difficulties overcome by many of them. And anyone who teaches undergraduates, as I have done for over 50 years, knows the delight of encountering them. Each of us has responded warmly to many sorts of undergraduates: I've encountered the top Eagle Scout in the U.S., a violinist who is now part of a young professional quartet, a student who backpacked solo through Tierra del Fuego, and other memorable writers, pre-meds, theater devotees, Harvard Lampoon contributors on their way to Hollywood, and more. They have come from both private and public schools and from foreign countries.

We hear from all sides about "leadership," "service," "scientific passion," and various other desirable qualities that bring about change in the world. The fields that receive the most media attention (economics, biology, technology, political theory, psychology) occupy the public mind more than fields – perhaps more influential in the long run – in the humanities: poetry, philosophy, foreign languages, drama. W.H. Auden famously said – after seeing the Spanish Civil War – that "poetry makes nothing happen." And it doesn't, when the "something" desired is the end of hostilities, a government coup, an airlift, or an election victory. But those "somethings" are narrowly conceived.

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The cultural resonance of the characters of Greek epic and tragedy – Achilles, Oedipus, Antigone – and the crises of consciousness they embody – have been felt long after the culture that gave them birth has disappeared. Gandhi's philosophical conception of nonviolent resistance has penetrated far beyond his own country and beyond his own century. Books are still considering Lincoln's speeches – the Gettysburg Address, the Second Inaugural – long after the events that prompted them vanished into the past. Nobody would remember the siege of Troy if Homer had not sung it, nor would our idea of women's rights have taken the shape it has without Woolf's claim for a room of her own.

Universities are the principal educators, now, of men and women alike, and they produce the makers of culture. Makers of culture last longer in public memory than members of parliament, representatives, and senators; they modify the mind of their century more, in general, than elected officials. They make the reputation of a country. Michelangelo outlasts the Medici and the popes in our idea of Italy; and, as one French poet said, "le buste/ Survit à la cité": art outlives the cities that produced it.

In the future, will the United States be remembered with admiration? Will we be thanked for our stock market and its investors? For our wars and their consequences? For our depletion of natural resources? For our failure at criminal rehabilitation? Certainly not. Future cultures will be grateful to us for many aspects of scientific discovery, and for our progress (such as it has been) toward more humane laws. But science, the law, and even ethics are fields in motion, constantly surpassing themselves. To future generations our medicine will seem primitive, our laws backward, even our ethical convictions narrow.

Most art, past or present, does not have the stamina to endure; but many of Harvard's students – Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost and Adrienne Rich among them – have produced a level of art above the transient. The critical question for us is not whether we are admitting a large number of future doctors and scientists and lawyers and businessmen (even future philanthropists): We are. The question is whether we can attract as many as possible of the future Emersons and Dickinsons. How would we identify them? What should we ask them in interviews? How would we make them want to come to us?

The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud.

Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one – but at that one surpasses all her companions? Will we welcome eagerly the person who has in high school been completely uninterested in public service or sports – but who may be the next Wallace Stevens? Can we preach the doctrine of excellence in an art; the doctrine of intellectual absorption in a single field of study; even the doctrine of unsociability; even the doctrine of indifference to money? (Wittgenstein, who was rich, gave all his money away as a distraction; Emily Dickinson, who was rich, appears not to have spent money, personally, on anything except an occasional dress, and paper and ink.)

There are also other questions we need to ask ourselves: Do we chiefly value students who resemble us in talent and personality and choice of interests? Do we remind ourselves to ask, before conversing with a student with artistic or creative interests, what sort of questions will reveal the next T.S. Eliot? Do we ask students who have done well in English which aspects of the English language or a foreign language they have enjoyed learning about, or what books they have read that most touched them? Do we ask students who have won prizes in art whether they ever go to museums? Do we ask in which medium they have felt themselves freest? Do we inquire whether students have artists (writers, composers, sculptors) in their families?

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Will we believe a teacher's recommendation saying, "This student is the most gifted writer I have ever taught," when the student exhibits, on his transcript, Cs in chemistry and mathematics, and has absolutely no high-school record of group activity? Can we see ourselves admitting such a student (which may entail not admitting someone else, who may have been a valedictorian)?

Some people in the arts do of course become leaders (they conduct as well as sing, or establish public-service organizations to increase literacy, or work for the reinstatement of the arts in schools). But one can't quite picture Baudelaire pursuing public service, or Mozart spending time perfecting his mathematics. We need to be deeply attracted to the one-sided as well as the many-sided. Some day the world will be glad we were hospitable to future artists.

Helen Vendler is a poetry critic, author and professor at Harvard University who served on the university's undergraduate admissions committee.

Higher Learning looks at the trends, experiments and debates behind the education headlines.

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