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