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Helen Vendler: Great Artists Aren’t Always Model Students

Poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler has published a refreshing article in Harvard magazine, in which she encourages the school to welcome mediocre students who also happen to be great writers. It’s about time someone of her stature exploded the ideal of the “well-rounded” student:

The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students, either in high school or in college. The arts through which they will discover themselves prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning. Such unusual students may be, in the long run, the graduates of whom we will be most proud. Do we have room for the reflective introvert as well as for the future leader? Will we enjoy the student who manages to do respectably but not brilliantly in all her subjects but one—but at that one surpasses all her companions? Will we welcome eagerly the person who has in high school been completely uninterested in public service or sports—but who may be the next Wallace Stevens?

Point well taken: why should we harass talented artists into showing an aptitude for student government or lacrosse? It’s not as though we harass student athletes to become great artists. Vendler isn’t encouraging parochialism, just an allowance for the focus and discipline successful art requires:

It remains for us to identify them when they apply—to make sure they can do well enough to gain a degree, yes, but not to expect them to be well-rounded, or to become leaders. Some people in the arts do of course become leaders (they conduct as well as sing, or establish public-service organizations to increase literacy, or work for the reinstatement of the arts in schools). But one can’t quite picture Baudelaire pursuing public service, or Mozart spending time perfecting his mathematics. We need to be deeply attracted to the one-sided as well as the many-sided.

Of course, there’s a potential downside to this approach. Specializing narrowly in one of the arts places a premium on exceptional success: I’d argue that being a “pretty good” scientist constitutes a more viable and socially beneficial career than being a “pretty good” novelist. And in a country that now graduates over 20,000 MFAs per decade in creative writing alone, cynics might question how many more young people need universities encouraging exclusive cultivation of their delicate creative flowers.

Still, I agree with Vendler’s principle and will be curious to see whether and how Harvard applies it. Discovering brilliant young writers at that level would seem to require the participation of brilliant critics in the college admissions process, and brilliant critics are in short supply. After all, the poetry of Stevens, T. S. Eliot, and many of Vendler’s other heroes initially baffled the literary community. If professional arbiters of taste get these judgment calls wrong more often than not, can we trust harried admissions staffs to get them right? I hope so, and I hope that, if Vendler’s editorial is her way of asking to review some student applications next year, Harvard honors her request.

[Image: Wallace Stevens as a Harvard student. Hat tip to Arts & Letters Daily for the article link.]


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