Sunday, February 19, 2012

"Weird" Harvard Students

I am sitting here watching the Knicks and Mavs play. The Mavs have just gone on a run with Lin on the bench. Without Lin, the Knicks have stopped moving the ball--they seem to be just bringing it down the court and heaving it up from the outside, mostly missing.

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.


  1. One of the semester's I TAed Formal Lang Theory at Harvard there were TWO medieval history majors taking it. Students that had unusual combinations of talents! Yeah Harvard!

  2. What I love about Harvard is that a classmate and former colleague who worked on many of the protocols that run the Internet, majored in Medieval European History. That person might be one of the examples Prof. Gasarch is referring to. Another friend worked on DHCP, which runs on all our routers, but he [R.I.P.] was better known for being the best American rower in his lifetime. Another rowing friend climbed Mt. Everest, after he became a neurosurgeon. He had always enjoyed mountain climbing, but he is rather humble and didn't share that info until someone pointed out to us he'd just climbed the highest peak.

  3. First guy Geoff mentions is Craig Partridge, for those who don't know (check his CV). My wife taught him in her freshman seminar on St. Patrick before I got to know him over in CS.

    And one of the starters on Harvard's 23-3 men's basketball team is a computer science major! How many of those are there in the Ivy League, much less the NCAA?

  4. I heard on MORNING JOE today the following (I am paraphrasing
    and puting in parenthetical remarks)

    People didn't realize how good Lin was NOT because of his height
    (6'3'') not even becaues of his race (Chinese) but because
    he was from Harvard.

    While I think height and race had SOMETHING to do with him being overlooked, YES, there is that Harvard Factor. And its large.
    Usually its positive, but not in this case.

  5. I don't understand this post at all.

    People say that Lin "came out of nowhere" because he played basketball at Harvard (and was previously a third-string bench player for the Knicks); it has nothing to do with the fact that he is Asian. Two points: (1) One would expect a star basketball player to go to a school with a high-profile basketball program, not an Ivy League school and (2) It's not like Lin was considered a superstar player in college, either. (In fact, there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about a week ago interviewing several former Ivy League basketball players who defended Lin successfully, and have since become "minor celebrities" in the law firms, consulting firms, etc. where they now work.)

    What does the Harvard admissions policy have to do with any of this?

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