By now pretty much everything that can be said about the Lin phenomenon has been said. And yet, I have not heard anyone say this: Lin did not "come out of nowhere." By that I don't mean that Harvard is not chopped liver. I mean that Lin was a very talented guy and Harvard couldn't have cared less that he was Asian. Some credit is due here to Frank Sullivan, the Harvard basketball coach who recruited Lin. And Tommy Amaker plainly did a good job coaching Lin, and deserves serious credit too. But more broadly, the reason Harvard is regarded as "nowhere" for these purposes is that Lin was not considered weird at Harvard. Sure he was unusual--Harvard hadn't had any Asian basketball stars that I can remember. But Harvard is so full of people who are unusual packages that he was not identified as extraordinary for being an Asian basketball player.
Lin was a basketball star, and he was Asian. In that sense he was like a star woman mathematician or a gay student who wanted to serve his country in the military or an African American student who wants to be president of the US. The fact that there are not million exemplars of the combination of categories certainly makes the total picture more interesting, but it wouldn't be interesting at all if the individual wasn't a star mathematician or politician or would-be cadet or basketball player.
I have no personal knowledge of Lin's admission to Harvard, but I have been on the admission committee for decades, and I have seen this phenomenon many times before, where a person stands out because of something unusual about the total package, but wouldn't get in without the underlying distinguishing excellence. People looking in from outside accuse Ivy League schools of reverse discrimination against normal people, and demand that the unfairness of the highly subjective, "holistic" admission process, described so well in Harvard's brief in the Bakke case, be replaced by something more objective, based on grades and test scores. But what we actually have is a cross section of the talent pool potential of America and the world, in all the variety that talents come and are needed to make a society.
In 1960, when he stepped down as Dean of Admissions, W. J. Bender wrote a report on Harvard admissions policy and why, to paraphrase Jonathan Zittrain, Harvard should not have one. What he said then would be politically incorrect today in some of its specific language. The exclusive use of the masculine is because Radcliffe admissions was entirely separate, with its own dean and committee and very different philosophy. The numerical standards Bender mentions are seriously dated. And yet the perspective he describes has remained wise for the intervening 52 years. The ghost of Bender over Harvard admissions helps explain Lin--and why he was "just" a great basketball player at Harvard, not a great Asian basketball player. It has resulted in Harvard having a lot "weird," wonderful students who go on to do great things with their lives.
Perhaps, in other words, we will actually be the best college and make the optimum use of our resources if we are reasonably relaxed about it, if we show a little more humility and humanity and catholicity in our search for talent, if we recognize the fundamental human and social importance of other factors than A-getting ability and high academic ambitions, and don't use the faculty exclusively to reproduce themselves. By all means let's have a lot of brilliant students, the first-class academic minds which have always been one of the hallmarks of Harvard. And in the getting of these, let's look particularly for the truly original and independent and imaginative minds, even if they are found in candidates with SAT scores of 550 and a rank in the middle of their school classes. but let's have some other students to help hold the place together, students who are intelligent and curious and interested enough to profit from Harvard, who are intelligent without necessarily being "intellectuals" but whose distinction is primarily other--goodness or loyalty or every or perceptivity or a passionate concern of some sort. …
In other words, my prejudice is for a Harvard College with a certain range and mixture and diversity in its student body--a college with some snobs and some Scandinavian farm boys who skate beautifully and some bright Bronx pre-meds, with some students who care passionately if unwisely (but who knows) about editing the Crimson or beating Yale, or who have an ambition to run a business and make a million, or to get elected to public office, a college in which not all the students have looked on school just as preparation for college, college as preparation for graduate school and graduate school as preparation for they know not what. Won't even our top-one-per-cent be better men and better scholars for being part of such a college?Jeremy Lin did not come out of nowhere. He came out of that way of looking at the world.