Thursday, March 10, 2005

Peeking Toms Sent Back To Safety Schools 

While I was out looking for work, the Wall Street Journal reports that

officials from the Harvard Business School said they will reject 119
applicants who used a hacker's instructions to try to find out whether
they had been accepted by the school.

An interesting dilemma, on the surface: does the natural urge towards curiosity, coupled with the illicit capabilities of a renegade hacker, deserve such sanction?

Most young people would certainly argue that the response is way too harsh for this minor transgression -- after all, the students involved aren't the hacker, just the peekers.

But at the risk of setting up a straw man, I think Harvard not only well within their rights to decide that all prospective peekers are prospective no more, but more, that their response is absolutely appropriate in scale and scope.

First, it is sad that it takes the political and academic cache of a Harvard (or, I guess, THE Harvard) to make it clear to a generation of students that just because peeking is technologically easy, it is no less egregious than, say, real world peeking. But it is no less true for Harvard's having said it. In this case, the scenario is absolutely comparable to, upon hearing that someone had jimmied the locks at the Harvard admissions office, rushing into the physical admissions office to spy on one's own files. This is called accessory after the fact in our legal system, I believe (lawyers, anyone?).

Second, I think Harvard had to do that in order to preserve its precarious self-image as the most selective university in the universe. After all, Harvard has far too many equally and highly qualified applicants; realistically, if something like this doesn't tip kids off the scales, then neither should any other of the myriad niggling factors which currently knock applicants off the 10% short list.

But these are mere legalities. Most importantly, I support Harvard's decision exactly because the decision is perceived as over-the-top by most young people. This is a wonderfully valuable thing that Harvard has done -- because it reveals, for a generation of students, just how over-the-top our worship of places like Harvard has become, and how out of touch Harvard is with the moral realities (my own opinion and the law's opinion notwithstanding) of the actual culture of the modern adolescent.

I've said it again and again: Harvard isn't for everybody, or even for most. Its name aside, like any other school, Harvard best matches (and best serves) those students whose minds and hearts best match the way Harvard teaches. Period. It is only the "best" school for those who would most benefit from its particular style of undergrad education. A name is no substitute for a mind.

And yet in my seven years teaching prep school I have known many students who have been raised to expect Harvard, and apply knowing nothing about it, or themselves. Luckily, most of these kids get rejected. Unhappily, however, plenty get accepted and go, thus dooming themselves to someone else's best education.

At Harvard, like at so many other, lesser-known private educational institutions (trust me on this one), brand has taken over, to the point that it interferes with good education or even quality of care. (I'm not speaking out my butt here; I've been to lectures by Harvard professors on exactly this subject, including a notable session at BloggerCon2 last year.)

So hurrah for Harvard for laying bare their acceptance of such superficiality by treating the students who peeked as criminals, not as students in need of care and guidance. Anything that helps students see that the name brand is quite often not worth the educational stakes, while making it clear that Harvard students are selected based on that group's ability to perpetuate name brand cache more than anything else, is a great day in the Ivies, in my book.

posted by boyhowdy | 9:44 PM |

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