The Truth About Being Bright

A SF University High School friend of mine, Elena Butler, recently made the NY Times‘ Op-ed section in response to John Tierney’s lastest article entitled, “Telling the Truth About Harvard.” While both the article and Elena’s response have been “archived” by the Times, I was interested in particular the question of the trade-off of attentive professors and bright students. Elena writes, “I would never sacrifice some of the world’s brightest students for more attentive professors.”

First, I go to a school where this trade-off does not really exist. Middlebury has its share of the world’s brightest students but perhaps a few less than Harvard. Regardless, I feel incredibly priviledged to have the best of both worlds. The reality of this trade-off doesn’t ring true to me but it does for many in higher education. After all, the idea of higher education is to educate as many students as possible while maintaining a high quality of education. How is this accomplished? Lectures have long been the way to educate a lot students. The lecture is essentially an individual experience (the teacher communicates directly with each student). It is not a communal experience. In this case, great professors are those that are brilliant and effective communicators. One’s classmates have little effect on a student’s individual experience. Individual professorial attention also is not on the radar in large lecture hall type classes. The opposite is a discussion style which strives to educate through a communal experience. Great professors, in this case, are those who ask the right questions and provoke students to further understanding themselves. One’s classmates have a huge impact on a student’s learning. Professorial attention is high (perhaps too high: “To:, Subject: Why It’s All About Me“) because of the smaller class sizes needed for such discussions.

Most schools are stuck choosing a single style and sticking with it, trying to perfect it. Institutions like Harvard have a hard time straddling the issue, though. And that is where one can find the attentive professor versus bright students trade-off. In a lecture class, would you take an attentive professor or bright students? In a discussion class, would you take an attentive professor or bright students?
Outside the classroom, you can learn from a professor and other students. Which is more valuable: a personal relationship with a brilliant, supportive professor? or a personal relationshop with several brilliant, supportive students?

I tend toward the professor because I know I shut down intellectually if there is not a basis of connection with the teacher in the classroom. Maybe it means I can’t hack it when it comes to the fierce student competition but really I don’t care how brilliant my classmates are if I can’t first learn from the teacher. I also expect a certain extra weight that comes with experience. While I don’t attend Harvard, I know that a lot of what students put out there in academic and non-academic settings is total B.S. that only appears intellectually stimulating. I care not to be in a competition of who can B.S. better.

Interestingly enough, I have gone to schools that strive towards the values of discussion learning where brilliant classmates are valued highly. In China, I taught these values, of the ability to learn from peers, day after day to students who are firmly engrained with the value of the traditional teacher. So, in many ways, I also believe there is validity in the brightness of fellow students.

Ultimately, these two camps are not exclusive as I may have stated above, and so it is not an excuse for a school of any size to sacrafice attentive teachers for brilliant students or vice versa. I challenge schools to find ways to attract the best and brightest while providing attentive professors. Creative solutions to fit individual school’s size and personality is what is what is necessary.


2 thoughts on “The Truth About Being Bright”

  1. In the ideal world a school would strive toward both, as I think Harvard is trying to do in its own, shall we say special, way. What I was arguing is that it’s unfair to assume that applicants can’t decide for themselves which characteristics in a school are the most important. It’s really, really tough to find a school that has attentive professors, brilliant students, a convenient urban location, an ocean, medium size, and excellent opera and choral programs (my main criteria). I knew what I was doing when I chose Harvard, so I wasn’t very happy when Tierney referred to Harvard applicants as misled by the reputation of the institution.

    In response to “While I don’t attend Harvard, I know that a lot of what students put out there in academic and non-academic settings is total B.S. that only appears intellectually stimulating.”

    While there have been articles and letters written in support of this statement, there are also articles and letters written that refute it, so I wouldn’t believe take to the stereotype so readily. In any case, the B.S. stuff doesn’t bother me, because I’m not going to be a humanities major. For better or for worse, it’s impossible to B.S. your way through a problem set or lab report.

  2. Applicants can definitely decide for themselves what characteristics are most important to them. They have brains and/or hearts; that’s why they’re going to college.

    But I would say that it is hard for the applicant (even the brightest ones) to sort through all the glossy pamphlets and online rankings in order to see if their most important characteristics exist at a particular school. Sure, it’s easy to look up whether UCSB is on the ocean or what size the school is, but how can you tell if a school has attentive professors? or even an excellent opera and choral programs? Sooner or later, the pamphlets and statistics fail to give an accurate picture of the school. It comes down to a person to person level. Did you see an interesting class while you visited? Was your tour guide friendly?

    I wouldn’t say applicants are necessarily misled by the reputation of a school. I would say, however, reputation is the “fill-in” for all the information unknown to an applicant. Applicants just need to know not to “fill-in” reputation in place of some real investigation into the school. If you’re passionate about sports, do you’re homework. If you want a good music program, do you’re homework. If you’re into underwater basket weaving, do you’re homework. It’s okay for reputation to fill in all the rest of the lesser important characteristics.

    “…it’s impossible to B.S. your way through a problem set or lab report.” Hahah. Agreed. Is that why I’m in humanities, for the most part?

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