We live on myths in many ways, and one of those ways makes itself particularly known to me now as I slog through the college application process with my son. I don’t mind his taking standardized tests and working hard to get better grades and writing essays on admissions’ applications. Although all of that has engendered much consternation as being unfair or faulty to distinguish the most deserving candidates, I like it better than choosing a student regardless of how well all of those elements stack up. It seems as “fair” as favoring athletes or the children of alumni or big donors. The detrimental part of the college process arises from the untruths that the admissions’ process misguidedly espouses: that the right kind of student is one who will make a great contribution to the arts, science, world peace, and the good of humanity. He or she is one who will occupy the higher echelons of life, be famous, bring renown– in sum know great “success.” In selecting a student, his ability to be exceptional and blaze new trails counts or is purported to count along with the more objective numeric criteria. The go-to word is “passion” — one must be passionate about things in college-land. I don’t think a college admissions counselor can function verbally without that word. This plays into the myth that we all can know some kind of greatness and that such success is the holy grail of life.
I would propose valuing a new set of attributes; a skill set that reflects the reality of life after college and leaves the mythical part behind. Life must be lived day in and day out and thrilling challenges and rewards from the external world happen to very few and are not necessary to a life lived well. Therefore, in the non-mythical structure, prospective college students should demonstrate the ability to adjust to circumstances, particularly when they are less than ideal and fall far beneath ones dreams; they should not have passions so much as the ability to control them. In place of passions and grandiose goals, the successful member of the global community must have patience, forbearance, diligence, and the ability to tolerate ignorance and tedium. Underlying the fortitude to deal with the mundane is the ability to not consider external events as the sole markers of success. Self-satisfaction that comes from learning and creativity, probably during off hours from work; tranquility comes from a moderate life that does not rise or fall with every wind of fortune. It is ironic, given the rhetoric of the admissions’ process rhetoric, that a sound liberal arts college education is the best hope for creating a mind-set that can deal with reality and the vicissitudes of life, including relegating dreams and passions to whatever manageable and proper place one can eke out for them in the bottom drawer. Colleges need only recognize and admit that what they offer is training for life and drop the hype that they need students fitted out for some future and some world that hardly exists even for the very few.