I recently came across an article on the Harvard Admissions website, titled "Valuing the Creative & Reflective." Naturally, a guy like me was ecstatic to see this particular title in this particular context. I should have known better.
Helen Vendler, a veteran professor of British and American poetry, writes that Harvard is "eager to harbor the next Homer, the next Kant, or the next Dickinson," and proceeds to enumerate many of the literary titans among the ranks of Harvard alumni. What follows—rather than a piece articulating the actual value of creativity and reflection to a community and, by extension, to society at large—is a treatise on the expansion of an institution’s legacy, the singular importance of longevity of life’s work in the public consciousness, and bolstering national prestige throughout the ages.
Before reading, I should have reminded myself that this is Harvard. What do they have if not a reputation for producing the best of the best of the best? (Hopefully it’s an educational offering to match.) Vendler’s proposition is basically to coopt students’ capacity for creativity and reflection to burnish Harvard’s name in the world. She makes cultivating individuals' talents and sensibilities out to be akin to mixing the perfect cocktail: have your instructors swirl together a few doctrines like "excellence in an art," "unsociability," and "indifference to money," and you, too, might someday add the next generation’s Wallace Stevens to an illustrious list of alumni.
The article even goes so far as to suggest a hierarchy among these various fields of study, as measured by their contents' duration in the memory of the masses: "But science, the law, and even ethics are moving fields, constantly surpassing themselves. To future generations our medicine will seem primitive, our laws backward, even our ethical convictions narrow." I agree that the human experience is central to every endeavor, but what's the use in diminishing other fields to make the humanities number one?
What if, instead, all students were taught to use the practice of reflection to look fully inward—not just the ones showing promise as future thought leaders? There they could connect with intuition (for, as W.H. Auden put it in “The Labyrinth,” “The centre I cannot find / Is known to my unconscious Mind”), come face to face with their most essential self, and bring into focus their own core values. It’s the return to the world with those contents—which are at once unique to the individual in fragrance and flavor, and universal in their reflection of the human experience—that constitutes the basis of any creative act. Then they would learn to layer on the application of the intellect, which is no less important and must be well honed.
The point? Reflection is a wholly internal process; keeping one eye turned outward in the expectation of recognition distorts or kills creativity at the source. How can any young person be expected to find solitude when the rest of the environment is filled with clamoring for accomplishment?
Furthermore, what if, rather than goading teens and twenty somethings ever onward to greatness (or, in its absence, the misery of having lost at the game of life), college students, while learning the skills of self-reflection, were given tools to contextualize the downs as well as the ups of their experience, coming to understand the relativity of both success and failure over the course of a lifetime? Imagine all the various gradients of good that could enter into the world if all students—not just the ones deemed most gifted or artistic—could learn, genuinely, to work firstly in service of the ideals of fulfillment and happiness, both for themselves and for those in the world around them? I'd gladly welcome those college graduates to the working world over those whose aegis is the cult of prestige, whether they're working on Wall Street or handwriting the next great American novel by candlelight in some hovel upstate.
I do appreciate the questions that Professor Vendler raises about the admissions process. Introverts often struggle with groups, and therefore come up short in applicant pools by the metrics of leadership, commitment to team activities, and volunteering in circumstances that might be uncomfortable for even the most outgoing teenagers. Individuals wired to process their experiences in a highly distinctive way very often struggle to keep up with classmates in certain subjects. But places like Harvard, the author suggests, in order to convince the more creative and reflective reflective students to stick with their passions at the expense of remuneration, should "mute our praise for achievement and leadership at least to the extent that we pronounce equal praise for inner happiness, reflectiveness, and creativity." While the sentiment, on the surface, is admirable, how could any observant mind (not to mention one with the potential for legendary brilliance), after having witnessed firsthand the self-aggrandizing culture of Harvard or any other institution riding high on its elite status, perceive that praise as anything other than hollow?
I am not suggesting that there is anything intrinsically wrong with achieving acclaim, fame, or the utmost proficiency as a thinker or artist. Nor is there anything inherently wrong with carrying an institutional reputation for producing thinkers, artists, and other scholars who are historically among the most visible and influential in their fields. What is troubling is the act of throwing the yoke onto creativity/reflection for the sake of greatness, rather than striving—and cultivating the ability and desire in the next generation—for the greatness of fully experiencing the creative/reflective act itself. On the institutional level, it’s self-defeating; and on the individual level, it can be devastating. As Adrienne Rich puts it,
I can't write a poem to manipulate you; it will not succeed. Perhaps you have read such poems and decided you don't care for poetry; something turned you away. I can't write a poem from dishonest motives; it will betray its shoddy provenance, like an ill-made tool, a scissors, a drill, it will not serve its purpose, it will come apart in your hands at the point of stress.
It’s true. As a graduate of another elite university’s creative writing program, I could barely write a word after college. I’ve spent many years now reclaiming and building confidence in my creative agency; in recalibrating the balance between my intellect and intuition; in forming and strengthening my true sense of self by clarifying what I value in myself and in others; and in finding the courage to speak from my heart and my guts. While there were occasional glimmers of these things in the poetry program at Northwestern, they were infrequent and nearly always subordinate to the perfection of technique and the loftiness of thought. The pressure to write great things felt predominantly self-applied, although in retrospect it was certainly part of the ambience on campus.
Can the next generation of gifted artists and thinkers find their way through the elite institutions of higher education and prevent “the matrix of culture [from becoming] impoverished”? The headlines couldn’t be clearer that what we so desperately need are contributors to culture—from every quarter—to counteract the effects of those who seek to destroy it. In the Harvards of the world, students will likely encounter frequently overwhelming rigor, sharp competition, the doctrine of intellectual supremacy. But I don’t see those institutions actually assisting introspective young minds in igniting their brilliance by paying lip service to creativity and reflection. “Art is born out of humiliation,” Auden advised Stephen Spender—a condition rarely borne gracefully by the gifted few.