Tag Archives: Bard College

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.

Remembering Jim Fine

Jim Fine — entrepreneur, marketer, indefatigable bon vivant, avid “06880” reader (and frequent commenter) died Sunday of acute myeloid leukemia. He was 66 years old and lived in Weston, following many years in Westport.

Jim was born in Brookline, Massachusetts on November 28, 1945. After a peripatetic and indifferent secondary school career, he found his true home at Bard College, where he was active in dramatic productions with such classmates as Blythe Danner and Chevy Chase.

According to Bard legend Jim helped bring together two students — Walter Becker and Donald Fagen — who became Steely Dan.

Jim Fine

After graduating in 1968, Jim remained relentlessly active in Bard affairs. In recognition of his love for it, and his commitment to its welfare, the welcome/reception area at the new Bard Alumni Center will be named in his honor.

As an ad man Jim worked under the personal guidance of Bill Bernbach at the Doyle Dayne Bernbach agency on such accounts as Shell, Polaroid and Clairol. He later founded and operated Fine Child, Inc., an infant products company that introduced the Maclaren Stroller to the United States.

Jim also served as president of Sassy in Chicago, developing and marketing a wide variety of products for children. He completed his career as president of Just Fine & Dandy in Westport, linking foreign and domestic manufacturers with major retailers like WalMart, Target and Toys R Us.

Yet Jim’s career as a businessman was merely a cover for his true calling: raconteur and life of the party in any room or venue anywhere that would have him, both charming and exasperating strangers and staff in equal measure. It was impossible to share Jim’s table without befriending everyone else in the restaurant that night.

Jim Fine and Nina Skaya

In 2006 and ’07 he took his show abroad, roaming Italy for a year with his beloved wife, Nina Skaya.

Jim was a news junkie and vocal Democrat, with several letters to the editor published in the New York Times. Yet he was always welcomed imaginatively reasoned arguments from any political or religious persuasion — provided there was proper grammar and diction.

Jim is survived by his partner of 13 years and wife, Nina Skaya, and 3 children from his previous marriage — Samantha, Joshua and Alexandra Fine — and a granddaughter, Jane.

A memorial gathering will be held at the Westport Public Library this Sunday, (December 18, 10:30 a.m.). Contributions in his memory may be sent to the Jim Fine Fund, c/o Bard College Alumni Office, Annandale-on-Hudson, NY 12504.