Wednesday, August 16, 2006


When I applied to college in fall of 1971, we were only allowed to apply to 3 places (plus a school in CUNY such as Queens College and I believe also one school in SUNY, though I opted out of both of those options). We were a big public high school in Queens, NY (my graduating class had almost 1200 students) and so perhaps that restriction was a consequence of school size. Maybe it was an across the board restriction in NYC public schools; I'm not sure. In any event, my choices were Amherst College, Harvard, and MIT. All of these are excellent schools, and on the sole criterion of excellence alone, the choice may make sense. But in other respects they are quite different places and one might ask why not choose places that are more alike. For example, if MIT made sense as a choice, then why not alternatives like CalTech (I thought of that but too far from home) or Carnegie Mellon or RPI, which might be viewed as more in the same genre as MIT. There are two answers to that, one based on academics, the other the real answer. At that time I was thinking of becoming a physicist and I had spent the previous summer at Hampshire College (in the same town as Amherst College) where there was an NSF program in Math for high ability high school students. So academically I knew (or at least I thought I knew) that I wanted to do theory things in that area. I did not want to be an engineer, which I viewed as a very different type of animal. Also I had a strong social science interest and wanted to be able to pursue that as a sidebar to the physics/math if I didn't get completely wrapped up in that. MIT certainly had a lot of engineering, but it had the other stuff too. At the time, I believe I thought RPI was just for engineering and I put no effort whatsoever into learning otherwise and similarly for Carnegie. There was also the prestige thing where in terms of those College Guides, which had an undo influence on my thinking at the time, the choices I made were all very near the top. The real reason is quite different. I've always been schizophrenic about earnestly wanting to trying new things, on the one hand, but about being deathly afraid of being alone, on the other. When I tried something new, I wanted to do that with someone I knew already, so I didn't have to deal with that awkward feeling of being alone. It's kind of an odd crutch, because once I would gather my personal sense of balance I'd feel constrained by needing to conform with the preferences of these others, not always seeing their wants as mine, and more than once having the experience of changing my choice because of that conflict. But in that sense I was a slow learner, because I repeated the "same mistake" several times. (When I ultimately transferred away from MIT, I chose Cornell in large part because my younger brother was there and I knew other people there too.) It wasn't till I went to graduate school at Northwestern where I really totally flew away from the nest and started with my classmates there on a clean slate. When you apply to college you can't really know who else from your high school would end up there, but I did know that many kids from my high school wanted to go to college in the Boston area (and many did). So the choice to apply to Harvard and MIT was, in some sense, one of straight conforming with the crowd. And as it turned out, my roommates at MIT were people I knew ahead of time, one a friend from the Hampshire College program, the other a student from the high school where my mother taught. So that was the big driver. Amherst might not seem to fit in terms of this explanation, but it turns out we had family friends who lived there, a buddy of my dad from his college days and a professor at UMass, and I had known people who went to Amherst who had been counselors at the summer camp I attended. My academic profile from high school fit MIT --- math nerd. The match with Harvard was a little harder to rationalize. My verbal SAT scores weren't quite high enough (it is amazing to me know how much we put ourselves into little boxes as a consequence of that test, there is more harm than good that results, but I for one certainly did put myself into a box) and while I could shine in a classroom setting I didn't have effective stage presence for other settings. So I believe I was somewhat intimidated by the process. Harvard required having a face to face interview and I did that at the Harvard Club in Manhattan --- very posh. Applying for college is a strange activity in terms of giving oneself personal definition --- be true to yourself or say what you think others want to hear and at the time it seems like a very important choice to make so there seems to be a lot hanging in the balance on how you play those cards.

I believed then (and only have modified my views a little on this score since) that since it was necessary to talk about one’s own accomplishments, taking a modest stance was the appropriate tone to adopt; in the main boasting rubbed people the wrong way. But at the time, I occasionally would be modest at the cost of being accurate and that would happen most often when I felt in an uncomfortable situation where I didn't have a sense of trust with whom I was talking. I still recall describing myself as a plodder at this Harvard interview. Certainly, that's not a very flattering description. But, worse, it's completely wrong; it's not me. Harvard also required in its application (I wonder if they still do this) for me to provide a list of 10 books I had read and I believe also to provide brief annotations on each as to why I thought they were important in my intellectual development. I believe that many kids applying to college feel implicitly that they are prostituting themselves writing "the essay(s)" and otherwise misrepresenting themselves as students or at a minimum not personally connecting with the application process. This particular exercise on listing the books felt exactly that way to me, perhaps because I had never done it before, perhaps because apart from the required book reports at school I don't believe I talked about my reading with anyone. I had a couple of friends in high school where we had intellectual discussions and to some extent that must have relied on what we were reading, but I don't believe we talked about the books directly. So my reading was part of my personal experience but it didn't become part of my repertoire in the way that I could perform things I learned from my Math Team experience, which were much easier to recall.

I didn’t get into Harvard, nor did I get into Amherst. This was probably for the best; I needed to push through on the nerd thing to see how far it would take me, yet I’ve been scratching my head about some of this for the last month or so. After I got to Cornell it took a while and I stumbled into it rather than sought it out, but then I did find what I was looking for in terms intellectual/social community that was free flowing and fun and completely unrelated to my courses. However, the interaction was all via talking, long conversations often over food or drink and at places where there was music. The talking was great and I’m very thankful for that experience. But there was essentially no interaction via writing. My sense of need to write as a way to express myself is comparatively recent. And what I’m scratching myself in the head about now is whether that need was there way back when --- with no form to nurture it so it didn’t take root.

I don’t know. I am conscious of my move to learning technology changing my perspective on a lot of things and it is quite possible that I simply didn’t have the perspective when I was in college to take writing seriously. I don’t recall feeling impelled to write and write and write, though I believe I did have the pangs every once in a while. This is one I don’t think I’ll ever really know and certainly its easy enough to create revisionist history in your own head to fit the current mood, so I need to be careful about overdoing on this point.

Regardless, I’m fairly clear on the consequence. Things I’ve read that were outside my professional domain as an economist, while on occasion quite engrossing, might very well have had only an ephemeral effect on me or if a more profound perhaps only in a subliminal way where the reading contributed to my general sense of knowledge but not where I could later readily map that back to the source.

I find now with my blogging that I’m better able to tie what I read (and the movies I watch too) into something that I believe can stick with me. Of course it helps that learning has now become an object of study and so I have a heuristic to fit things I learn about into in such a way that the sticking with me is more likely.

This is all a shaggy dog story to respond to Barbara Ganley in her latest post about books (see the link above in the subject line). I will try to write about reading and things I’ve read in the next several posts, but I can’t do it with the list and the categories that she borrowed from the book meme on Chris Sessums blogs. They are both obviously quite fluid in talking about the books they’ve read and so I suspect this book meme offers them a simple way to organize their ideas. But I’m afraid that doesn’t work for me. So when I do write about my own book reading, I’ll take a different approach, though at the moment I’m still not sure what that will be.

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