Burke: Alive and Well in College Admissions

In our world, a college education is becoming more and more required.  The media has pointed to the great value in a bachelor’s degree; college graduates, though they do struggle themselves, are employed at a significantly higher rate than those who did not attend college. According to the New York Times, the pay disparity between four-year college graduates and others is on a rise and college educations are more valuable than ever before.  New Republic has chimed in, saying that skeptics arguing against college degrees are always incorrect.  It is also evident that more and more students have noticed the worth in collegiate education: the US Department of Education recorded a 32% expansion in college enrollment between 2001 and 2011.

College admissions are highly competitive, despite the growing need for a bachelor’s degree.

However, although the desire for four year college degrees is increasing, university admissions processes are still, on the whole, quite rigorous.  Students must take standardized tests, write multiple essays, and, in some cases, even interview, and even if their scores lie well above the college’s averages, there is no guarantee in acceptance.  Obviously, this can be explained by top universities’ desire to keep their prestigious status.  As more students apply to their programs, they must become more selective and critical of applicants.  This is reflected in the decreasing acceptance rates of American universities, as noted by Lindsey Cook from US News.  The question is: what does this say about our society as a whole?

In his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke articulates, among other things, the “spirit of the gentleman”.  This idea is that some people are simply better than others, and that people should accept who they are.  Furthermore, Burke argues that the majority of people are merely pigs and, therefore, mankind should not strive for equality.  These thoughts reflect the Great Chain of Being, a concept detailing a strict hierarchy of all things.  God lies at the top, kings lie above peasants, and rocks and hell lie at the bottom.  Finally, Burke is a classical conservative who believes that tradition and custom is the best guide for our actions.

Many versions of the Great Chain of Being exist, but this one ranks each level based on intellect: perfect for our discussion of higher education.

Our system of higher education (specifically the admissions process) reflects many of Burke’s classical conservative ideals.  By using a strict filter on applications to top universities, our colleges show a belief in the spirit of the gentleman: some applicants are simply superior to others, and they should be rewarded with admittance to the most prestigious universities.  Although their reasoning is sound (namely, that only the elite can handle courses at these universities), the admission processes used in modern times perpetuate two of Burke’s philosophies, the “spirit of the gentleman” and fundamental human inequality.

It is also interesting to note the close relationship between Burke’s ideology and Menand’s first theory of higher education.  If you don’t recall, Menand’s first theory is that college is an intellectual sorting mechanism.  We must separate the wheat from the chaff somehow, and higher education is perfectly suited for this task.  It would then be reasonable to expand Menand’s theory, saying college applications are meant to filter the best from the many.  Both Burke and Menand, then, would support our college admissions process.  Furthermore, and more interestingly, Burke’s “spirit of the gentleman” justifies the need for intellectual hierarchy, as in Menand’s first theory of higher education.

College applications have become so competitive that every little action could affect the outcome, although it isn’t quite this severe!

All in all, we can conclude that college admissions promote a sense of superiority.  This is natural and most likely the principle for which we should endeavor; after all, many students simply cannot handle the academic rigor of the world’s top universities.  Nonetheless, I find it interesting to observe the principles of Edmund Burke alive and well in our college admissions process.

-Kyle Butler (#Overachieving Blogger 1)

One thought on “Burke: Alive and Well in College Admissions

  1. Personally, I found your synthesis of Menand’s theories as well as Burke’s work, to form a strong comparison with the modern American education system. College admissions are becoming increasingly selective, and this is partially because of Menand’s theory, that college must sort the intelligent from the not so intelligent people in society. Though Burke also agrees that some students are simply superior to others, I think it is essential that we consider the fact that this is not due to anything but work ethic. The so called “superior” students who get selected to prestigious schools, are only “superior” in terms of motivation and work ethic. Every student in the United States has an equal chance to succeed at whatever institution they want to attend. With financial aid, scholarships, and standardized testing, college is also a fair game now. Burke made it seem as if the superior citizens are born superior, as if it is not a result of human effort. This also provides support for Menand’s theory 1 because those who work hard should be separated from those who do not, and in that sense, college is a great sorting mechanism.Overall, your blog post was very interesting and original in its synthesis, I really enjoyed connecting to it!


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