On “being the best:” Recognizing the potential and value of all in the community

The recommendations of David Kane ’88 in his op-ed last week (“What does it mean to be the best?: An alum considers the relative importance of admission criteria,” Sept. 20, 2017) not only insult many valued members of the College community, but also rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of the College’s educational mission. The piece’s categorization of the College’s current admissions process as one in which student are labeled as “academic” or “other,” and where those comprising the “other” category are athletes, racial minorities or low-income students, is both misguided and, more crucially, demeaning. We at the Record strongly believe that racial minorities, low-income students and athletes are valued members of this community, and every student is worthy of being here. Our diversity and inclusiveness are a critical part of the work that we do here as a liberal arts institution. In particular, we emphatically denounce Kane’s implication that already-marginalized members of our community, specifically students who are racial minorities, low-income or both, are less deserving of their spots at the College. The suggestion that students identifying as such gained admission to the College on illegitimate grounds discredits all the hard work and talent required for any student to gain admission. Furthermore, the categorization of these identities as mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive is egregiously ignorant.

Beyond its degrading dogma, Kane’s piece misunderstands the College’s mission, centering on the idea that the mission is “to be the best in the world” in the exclusive terms of having the most “academically talented” student body possible while ensuring that students will “thrive at the College more than they would at an alternative institution.” This analysis misses a fundamental point: Academics are far from being the exclusive concern of the College. Indeed, the College’s “Mission and Purposes” emphasizes that the goal of this institution is to “provide the finest possible liberal arts education by nurturing in students academic and civic virtues, and their related traits of character.” The College’s mission is not first and foremost about “being the best” by picking solely the top academic applicants; it is about supporting its students in their endeavors to learn, to challenge themselves and to grow as human beings. Implying that the College’s “success” depends crucially on having a student body with an average SAT score of 750 is grossly misguided.

Additionally, it is well understood that SAT scores are a poor metric of the quality of academic work that will be undertaken when a student comes to the College. To privilege one student’s acceptance over another based solely on their scores is to deny students’ achievements in the classroom as well as outside of it. The College makes a conscious effort to accept students who bring a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, driven by a fundamental belief in the equal potential of all students who attend the College.  Kane’s op-ed is the antithesis of that spirit.

What does it mean to be the best? It means reaching a point where every community member embraces the College’s comprehensive mission wholeheartedly and recognizes the worth of other members in achieving that goal together. If we really want students to “thrive at the College more than they would at an alternative institution,” we need to ensure that students feel supported here rather than demeaned.

  • Not only is Kane’s analysis both shallow and insulting to all members of the Williams community who chose Williams in the belief it was the best college for themselves, his argument is based on the misfuided idea that achieving an absolute standard of institutional “superiority” should be pursued. Those who study history know that the pursuit of “superiority” or “exceptionalism” often comes from a sense of xenophobia, a fear of others who don’t fit into the groups sense of identity and superiors to others. This is an inhemindset