No, Staples Students Probably Have Not Read “The Brothers Karamazov”

Leon Botstein is the subject of an intriguing profile in the current New Yorker.

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein

The president of Bard College has instituted a new admissions procedure. Described by one faculty member as “a classic Leon gesture” — meaning “idealistic, expeditiously enacted, showmanly, and absolutely earnest in spirit,” it gives high school students a choice.

They can submit test scores, GPAs and teacher recommendations, like applicants to every other school. Or they can write 4 very rigorous essays (10,000 words total) on subjects like Kantian ethics, economic inequality and prion disorders. Bard professors grade them; students with an average of B+ or better are automatically admitted.

It’s audacious. It’s Bard. And it’s not the 1st time Botstein has courted controversy over college admissions.

In 1985 — just a few months before Gene Maeroff of the New York Times named Staples one of the 46 outstanding high schools in the country — Harper’s magazine ran a 2-page spread of an actual transcript. It belonged to a female student at “a typical affluent suburban Connecticut school, regarded as among America’s finest.”

Staples sealThe transcript was accompanied by withering commentary from Botstein — already 10 years into his presidency of Bard. Staples was not mentioned by name, but among the activities listed for the unnamed student – called, perhaps not coincidentally, “S” — was Inklings. Botstein declined to say whether the transcript was from Staples, but he noted disingenuously that Inklings was a common name for school publications.

The transcript was selected at random from applications to Bard submitted over the years, Botstein said. His commentary focused on what he called the lack of thorough preparation high school graduates receive. “High school curriculums aren’t rigorous and focused enough,” Dr. Botstein claimed, citing the student transcript with “only” 2 years of biology, 1 of chemistry and none of physics. In addition, she took “only” one year of US history as a sophomore, and studied modern European history, and India and Southeast Asia, for a half year each.

A Staples' student took Functions, and many other diverse classes at Staples. That was not rigorous enough, though, for Dr. Botstein.

A Staples’ student took Functions, and many other diverse classes at Staples. That was not rigorous enough, though, for Dr. Botstein.

Though the transcript showed a wealth of difficult classes — Advanced Placement English, Creative Writing Seminar, French 5 Speakers, French Advanced Reading, Functions B and Theater 3, along with all those science and social studies classes — Botstein criticized “S” for not filling her day with “4 or 5 demanding courses.”

And although the student received a 600 on the SAT verbal, Botstein said that above-average scores did not indicate an ability to read critically or write clearly. He belittled her score of 60-plus on the Test of Standard Written English – the highest possible – by noting that she received it only once.

He added that although the high school she attended was a member of a regional association, its accreditation was no defense against bad teaching, poor curricula or inadequate facilities.

Botstein postulated that although the student would probably be admitted to one of America’s many reasonably competitive colleges, she would enter with an education deficient in many basic areas.

Based on a Staples student's transcript, Leon Botstein condemned her for (probably) not reading "The Brothers Karamazov" in high school.

Based on a Staples student’s transcript, Leon Botstein condemned her for (probably) not reading “The Brothers Karamazov” in high school.

“It is likely that ‘S’ does not know what is in the Constitution, knows nothing about economics, can tell you little about the theory and practice of capitalism, socialism or communism, cannot grasp the science and technology germane to medicine or defense, has never read The Republic, the Koran or The Brothers Karamazov. It is also reasonable to assume that hers has been a passive education by textbooks, workbooks and multiple-choice tests, in oversize classes and from teachers better versed in pedagogy than in their respective disciplines. And this is one of the country’s best high schools.”

In an interview with the Westport News, he added: “I have enormous respect for (Staples).”

The reaction on campus was primarily eye-rolling and head-shaking. If the state of high school education was so bad, students and staff wondered, why would Botstein have such respect for a school like Staples? And, if students – or, let’s say, presidents — at a highly regarded college such as Bard made leaps of assumption about, let’s say, high school pedagogy and class size based solely on the names of courses on a transcript, what did that say about their own capacity for critical, independent thinking?

Guidance counselors predicted a dip in Staples applications to Bard.

12 responses to “No, Staples Students Probably Have Not Read “The Brothers Karamazov”

  1. Bruce Fernie - SHS 1970

    Leo Botstein has always been ahead of the curve, he takes no prisoners and he develops some pretty amazing graduates at Bard. Sometimes the outrageous comment will be made to bring attention to the actual message. I doubt there are many that wouldn’t agree the current method of college admissions is truly in need of review and creative change.

    Staples is and always has been an extraordinary school with extraordinary students but there is always time and reason to have discussions on how it can be better. If anyone ever has the chance to hear Leo in person I highly recommend it.

    I am a very proud father that has a 17 year old daughter who is now a first year student at Bard.

  2. Would be interesting to get Gus Young’s take on a Staples education. He is in my opinion the best teacher at the school and himself a Bard grad.

  3. Chevy Chase is a grad !

    Wonder if he read da brothers ?


  4. At heart, Leon is an idealistic visionary with a proclivity for tantrums. You say tomato, I say forward-thinking and passionate thought leader with a touch of a temper. Like all men and all institutions, he is flawed.

    In fact, it was a conversation about Staples’s flaws that likely secured my spot at Bard. The dean of admissions (who also comes off as somewhat adversarial) tried to trip me up by pointing out that I had said both that I loved my high school, but also that it had a rampant cheating culture. I replied, “I said I loved Staples, not that it was perfect. I’ve certainly loved imperfect people. I can likewise love an imperfect institution.” She was on my side after that.

  5. I am all for thinking about new and different approaches to the college admission process since there are so many qualified applicants today–and I can appreciate how tough it can be to decide between them.

    But, doesn’t the essay-only avenue raise its own potential problems? With the increased involvement of many parents today in the application process, how could the Bard admissions office know whether someone’s mom or dad had significant input in the writing and/or editing of the essays? At least we know (or hope!) that a student’s parent isn’t in the classroom taking the SAT for his or her kid. (And I don’t believe that test scores should be the be-all and end-all.)

    But I just wonder to what extent college essays are truly independently written by many kids today. And if Staples recently had a “rampant cheating culture” as Emily asserts above, doesn’t the essay-only approach potentially reward cheaters even more in the college admissions process?

  6. Lawrence J. Zlatkin

    Boy, this came out of nowhere! No doubt Staples and Leon Botstein have changed considerably since 1985.

    My son Daniel is a Staples graduate from 2011 and a product of Westport schools. He chose Bard over many other US News supposedly better ranked schools because of the joint degree program at their Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory is another one of Botstein’s projects, of which their are many at Bard, which makes it a rather unique place.

    I would encourage Staples applicants to strongly consider Bard– it is a college with fierce intellectual debate and a strong emphasis on the common core of science and Western Civilization– something lost on many other college campuses. Class sizes are small and professors are totally accessible. They are mentors in a very personal way.

    Bard has outreach programs across the spectrum. Daniel participated in a leadership program this part summer teaching music to children in the barrios and favellas of Cali, Colombia– all at his direction– and with the able participation and leadership of his younger sister, Rebecca, another Staples student– class of 2015.

    The Conservatory has a prisoner enrichment program. My son has gone on tours of China and Eastern Europe, and each Conservatory student is required to take a traditional and full liberal arts curriculum, alongside music performance and theory.

    The list goes on and is worthy of every Staples student’s strong consideration.

  7. Eric William Buchroeder SHS '70

    I think that any college willing to offer an applicant the opportunity to contribute original essay material, in essence writing their thesis on the front end rather than the back end and be critiqued on it just may be worth $40+K a year. How much is the app fee? When I was a senior at Staples I had never heard of Bard until as I recall several of the most gifted classmates of mine talked about enrolling there. My SHS ’70 classmate Bruce is a no BS kind of guy and if its good enough for his daughter that’s all I’d need to know. The rampant cheating culture will not end in Westport until the tax code is simplified.

  8. Maybe American students should think outside of the American elitist system, and consider colleges elsewhere in the world.
    Same education/experience for fewer dollars.

  9. p.s. perfect scores do not make a “smart” person.

  10. Bard is ranked 45th among liberal arts colleges. It accepts about 37% of all who apply.

    Swarthmore is ranked number 3 and accepts about 14% of those who apply.

    Botstein sounds like a crank.