NB: If you’re in the Vietnamese college admissions loop, I’m sure you can find the letter I reference in this essay. If you’re not in the Vietnamese college prep loop email me and I can send it to you, but I don’t want to publicly shame the author to a casual audience.
My wife recently forwarded me a letter written by a young Harvard student with a curiously hyphenated name. This letter was posted on Facebook and was meant to inspire Vietnamese high school students to join a certain summer program. Some of my own students attended this program in previous years and enjoyed it. The program is sponsored by one of my more ethical competitors and so, in the estimation of people I generally like and respect, doesn’t represent a competitive threat. Burger King would never sponsor McDonald’s, but they might sponsor a neighborhood BBQ. I include this detail because I want it to be clear that I am not speaking from any competitive animus towards this organization or its members.
The letter was maybe a thousand words long and triumphantly detailed this student’s parentally-induced obsession with Harvard, an obsession that resulted in his eventual admission to the University. I say “parentally-induced” because he talks about how, when his parents tried to teach him multisyllabic words at the age of two, the only two-syllable word he wanted to say was “Harvard.”
Two things struck me: the lack of any visible love for, or interest in, ideas, and the evident mania for status. When considering his parent’s early instruction, the multisyllabic words that sprang to our young author’s mind were not: “representation,” “image,” “beauty,” “affection,” “father,” “mother,” etc., but “lawyer,” “attorney,” and “Harvard.” He even spells out the desired pronunciation of Harvard for us: upper-class, Boston Brahmin (or else RP), non-rhotic, ergo, “Hah-vahd.” The emphasis on material and social status is clear. We are treated to a laundry list of achievements, SAT scores, numbers of AP classes taken, extracurriculars participated in, and competitions won. Notably absent: individual preferences, interests, books or poems read, and ideas generally.
It took me a few moments to figure out why the letter left such a bad taste in my mouth. There’s nothing wrong with doing well in school, certainly, and its entirely appropriate to talk about success in a piece of marketing. Eventually it came to me: aside from the shallowness of the values on display, the letter badly misconceives the purpose of education. Means and ends are reversed. He speaks as though life exists for education. However, the role of education, especially the kinds of education on offer at our “best” schools, has always been to enhance and enable a superior kind of life.
There are countless non-monetary purposes that a good liberal education can be put to. Some have to do with regulating our internal states in a world that is often very terrible. Others have to do with obtaining deep and lasting enjoyments that are impossible without education (why would anyone imagine that ecstatic happiness or deep mental satisfaction should be easily attained, any more than large muscles or a large bank account?). In any case, these two goals, the ability to be more useful to your fellow man and the ability to better seek happiness, are self-evidently desirable. It for the sake of these that education exists.
George Orwell, in an essay titled “The Spike” talks about the consequences of not havingsuch an education: “It is a silly piece of cruelty to confine an ignorant man all day with nothing to do; it is like chaining a dog in a barrel. Only an educated man, who has consolations within himself, can endure confinement.Tramps, unlettered types as nearly all of them are, face their poverty with blank, resourceless minds. Fixed for ten hours on a comfortless bench, they know no way of occupying themselves, and if they think at all it is to whimper about hard luck and pine for work. They have not the stuff in them to endure the horrors of idleness. And so, since so much of their lives is spent in doing nothing, they suffer agonies from boredom.”
Harvard and other, similar schools, are only prestigious because it has long been thought that the education you receive at such places would make you exceptionally valuable to your fellow man, help you to experience more joyous joys and allow you to endure severer sadnesses.
In double-hyphen’s letter, however, there is no awareness that Harvard is for something. Instead, everything isforthe sake of Harvard. Why do you learn math? Because mathematics is beautiful? No, so that you can go to Harvard. Why do you play e-sports? Because MOBAs are awesome? No, so that you can go to Harvard. Why do you read The New York Times? So that you can be an informed person? No, so that you can go to Harvard. Why were you born? To live a happy life? No, so that you can go to Harvard.
For this young man, maybe life does exist for education (really for Harvard), rather than education for life. That’s a terrifying possibility and indicates that he has been the victim of a deformed idea of education. Why? Because education itself has no value as an end. It is only valuable as a means to other ends. Someone who does everythingforHarvard is not doing anythingforhappiness, beauty, knowledge, or truth. Such a person has spent their entire life pursuing the wrong thing, namely, the recognition of authority, in the form of grades, test scores, and college acceptances. So, when they get into an ideal position to pursue these ultimate ends, they will do so poorly, if they try to pursue them at all. I can think of few ways to make someone supine and servile more effective than making acceptance to an arbitrary prestige group the highest goal of their life, rather than teaching them to regard membership in that group as a tool useful in the pursuit of more absolute and important values.
This sickness, this inversion, is endemic everywhere educated western people are, not just Vietnam. If my double-hyphenated-friend wants to help himself and the Vietnamese people, he could make a good start by helping them avoid the pretentious sicknesses of the American middle- and upper-classes. Truth, knowledge, beauty, and happiness are self-evidently good. Harvard is not. It is (perhaps, “was”) for the sake of these self-evident goods that the liberal arts exist. Harvard, Chicago and Yale et al. are just collections of buildings with fewer and fewer impressive people. That decline will continue – and not just at elite schools – until smart people, people with big brains and high capacities, people with the kind of raw potential this young man clearly has, reorient themselves towards sane values and renounce the irrational status seeking madness that currently possesses them. Only if they renounce it will they avoid passing it to their children.
I don’t know this person. I hope that the letter I’m referencing is not a good representation of him and that, against expectation, our young author takes some time to engage with ideas in college. I hope that he reads beautiful poems and tells no one. I hope he translates something wonderfully and destroys it, so that it will never be read again, not even by him. I hope he take some time to value beauty and truth for their own sakes and the satisfaction their contemplation can bring. I fear that he will instead mostly spend his time building his resume, seeking visible positions in organizations, and prepping for the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, GRE or whatever tests are preferred by whatever authority he makes his next master. Alternatively, having attained his ultimate value, perhaps he will spend his time seducing others to his views and temperament. Either would be a minor disaster.
I will say this for pseudonymous-double-hyphen: his letter displays an admirable gratitude to his parents, which speaks well of his character and good nature. If my criticisms reach his ears, I hope they are taken in the helpful spirit in which they are offered.