The mission of Williams is not to be the best in the world.
A comparison is implied in the superlative. We find a painting entrancing, and we call it good, but not “the best.” We reserve “the best” for those who emerge triumphant from a competition: at a sports meet, for example, the best runner is the one who outruns their opponents. The best runner, then, is defined relatively: They are considered the best only in relation to other contestants at that meet.
It is clear why this picture can be agitating for those involved. The runner mentioned above has to go through rigorous training to finish the race faster than any other athletes. Their identity of “the best” is lost once someone else finishes faster, even by a fraction of a second. If all the endeavors of this athlete – all the exhaustion, anxiety and loneliness – were only for “the best,” it would be easily catastrophic. What is the meaning of their struggles, then, now that they have lost the competition?
Say we admit students strictly in accordance with their academic performance. What would Williams be? Surely, “the best” – sitting comfortably at first place in various college rankings, occupying the headlines after every admission season has ended, touting “the hardest school to get into” – in all its glory. But what would Williams be, really? Presumably, a school with a marginally higher average SAT score than Harvard. We would, at that point, completely lose our identity. After an arduous climb in the Forbes college list, all we would earn is some bragging rights, perhaps a tiny bit of self-righteousness: “We are just like Harvard, but better!” And if Harvard were to follow suit, we would find ourselves in a vicious cycle of self-affirmation and denial: Either we win the competition, and claim to be the most elitist of the elite, or we lose, and salvage nothing from our failures.
More poignant, however, is the fact that schools, and their respective identities, cannot compare. We seldom say a painting is “the best, period.” Why would one pit Rembrandt’s paintings against Picasso’s? It is perhaps a human drive to seek concrete and measureable standards among nature – it would be a human flaw, then, to impose arbitrary standards upon the unmeasurable. Imagine the confusion, the vain questions we subject ourselves to, when we subscribe to the philosophy of the best! Are we to say, “Since I am rejected by [some elite school], I am obviously inferior to its students”? Worse, are we so arrogant to believe that we are obviously superior to students in lower-ranked colleges, simply because we are enrolled at Williams and they are not? A person is so much more than an SAT score; they are more than their SATs, APs, GPAs, recommendation letters and extracurricular activities combined – indeed, those criteria point more to underlying social factors than to that person’s intellectual capacity. They are more than their school, their family, the society they came from – they are what a school, a family, a society will be.
It is, finally, not hard to come up with an alternative vision for our college. Confucius came up with it thousands of years ago: The mission of Williams is to educate, indiscriminately. By proclaiming “to educate,” we escape the grim implications of “the best” by shifting the focus from vanity back to its students. Finally, then, students become the true beneficiaries of the institution instead of a mere tool, an inconvenient string of numbers producing a suboptimal average SAT score or a glorified banner for someone to show off. By indiscrimination we look beyond the problems of comparison: We look for curiosity and capacity in addition to intellectual prowess. We should not only look for the smartest: In diversity, we learn from each other and nurture a new culture, a new view of the world. A more courageous version of it might just become the dream of every liberal arts graduate, however utopian it sounds: a liberal arts education, for all and any that are willing.
And yes, it is utopian – one hastens to point out the reality of institutional obstacles and material constraints. One worries, legitimately, what the admissions process would look like if it were truly to seek intellectual curiosity. But in the face of difficulty we should not cower from our progress, reinforce the hurdles or manipulate the numbers of some arbitrary categories of students in favor of “a trade-off.” Our time is much better spent seeking ways to overcome our constraints and to offer, hopefully some day in the future, under the name of Williams or another, a universal education.
Even then, Williams will not be the best – but by then, there will not be a competition, and everyone wins.
Mi Yu ’20 is from Hangzhou, China. He lives in Thompson.