Abraham H. Lass, Principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, Brooklyn, NY
Eugene S. Wilson, former Dean of Admissions, Amherst College
January 25, 1978 at the Amherst College Alumni House
Participating in the panel discussion were:
Edward B. Wall
Frederic P. Fitts
Christine K. Galloway
Robert F. Grose
George C. Ellis III
Gregory A. Ott ‘80
Beverly A. Morgan
Kevin H. Lam ‘79
Louise R. Wilson
[This transcript was produced at the time of the recording and may have some errors or omissions]
LASS: I’m delighted to be here. This is about my eighth or ninth term; I should get an honorary diploma. I’m not going to talk too abstractly about this. Instead of talking generally, I’d like to talk about this place and how I got here in the first place. I’m a Brooklyn boy and when I got up here, there were hardly any Brooklyn boys. I understand there are a great many more now, which I think is something that will improve the institutional program.
I was principal in 1950. In 1952 the school where I was principal sent its best kid-- I was assured by everybody that we can produce nothing better at this school, and therefore, if it was our “best,” someone decided that our best should be good enough for Amherst. So we sent the kid up here and he was rejected. I was a young principal and was full of all things including chutzpah, if you know what that means. Gall, simply unvarnished gall.
I sat down and I wrote Wilson a letter and I addressed him as Dear Dr. Wilson-- I wasn’t taking any chances that I might be writing to a man who had a doctorate and would not be recognized. And in essence I said, “I don’t care whether you take this kid or not; it’s no skin off my nose or anybody else’s. This kid’s going to land in some very good college, it’ll be your loss, but what we’d like to know is, if OUR best is not good enough for you, then we’re not going to send you any more. This is not a threat, it’s a simple statement that will enable us to do business together.” And by return mail I got a letter-- I just remember the opening sentence: “I am not a Doctor.” (Should have added, I’m really a patient.)
That was about 1952 and Bill and I have just celebrated our 25th anniversary. I’m sure that there is no principal in this country that has enjoyed this kind of continuous relationship for 25 years. Then my daughter came up here to Smith, we stayed at Bill’s house and my late wife and I were frequent visitors here and I have a very personal feeling about this place. When I am reincarnated-- as I am assured by my many friends who are in various movements that it’s coming to me that I will be reincarnated-- I have asked for a special request that when they reincarnate me that they send me here to go to College.
I don’t want you to feel that I am omniscient; I’m not; or that I have THE word, which I do not. Whatever I’m about to say-- and I will be finished in 20 minutes no matter where I am, so if you’ll keep time, it doesn’t make any difference because after 20 minutes you’re lost anyhow. And hardly anybody listens, they just wait until you’re finished so they can ask the question they came to get an answer to.
I’d like to tell you about what I think has happened in these last 25 years that I’ve been associated with the colleges in this program. I will say nothing about crime, violence, smoking marijuana, or vandalism-- any of the things that are in the minds of most people associated with the New York City schools.
WILSON: Nothing about sex?
LASS: I’m coming to that. I’m going to devote special attention to that. You don’t think I’d leave that out do you? It’s just that pot and the other things are less interesting, I think, at least to me. I can’t speak for everybody. I’d rather leave those subjects out, though when the question and answer period comes, if you find it at all relevant, I will respond to it. But I will be talking mainly about the kinds of kids who are going to college-- this, and other places, as I see them now, and as I’ve seen them over the last twenty-five years. And where I think things have happened that need not and should not have happened.
One of the first things, is, I think, and I am looking at this 41-year perspective-- for 41 years I spent my life in high schools. If I know nothing about anything, I think I know something about some teen-agers. That’s a very carefully hedged statement, but I know enough to know that you don’t always know the answers and this happens to be the period, I think, the most interesting period of the human being’s total span. More happens physiologically, chemically, emotionally, intellectually, in those four years-- from 14 to 18-- than at any other time. College is almost a let-down, almost an anti-climax if you have four exciting years in high school, I think. At any rate I stuck with this group because I like them and I think I understand them better than I did my own kids. So I will be talking about them. And this generation, it seems to me, and again this does not apply to all, but I think figures would bear out the fact that, certainly my experience is the first generation that has systematically set about destroying themselves. Namely, there is more venereal disease, more unwanted teen-age pregnancies, more dope-smoking, more cop outs, more going into communes, more of everything that, when I first began, you did not associate with very large numbers. And also there are more emotionally sick kids than I can remember when I first entered the teaching profession. And this is pretty much borne out, I think, nationwide.
I remember talking to some kid, a kid of ours who went to Harvard, by mistake, he should have come to Amherst, but he went to Harvard. And he was boasting to me that they have a very fully equipped psychiatric service. I said, “That’s one school I’d stay out of.” He said, “Why?” I said, “Because the more psychiatrists you have the more sick kids you have, isn’t that right?” So this is one place I would avoid, religiously. I don’t know what the situation here is, Ed, but it’s pretty bad at Harvard and M.I.T.
In other words, the more highly pressured the school, the more likely the kids are to crack up when they get there. Because in order to get there, they work twice as hard as the average kid does, and they’re under twice as much pressure, and when they finally arrive on campus, the professors take up where the high school and the parents left off; and they feel they have a holy mission to tame these kids and to put them in their place and the first thing they do is to give them an “F” routinely on the first composition. This is to teach you that you are not at Abraham Lincoln any more, you are here at Amherst. And it’s a great shock to these kids who have never gotten anything lower than an A or B-minus.
I think you will be getting more of these kids. I think there’s a pretty close relationship between the highly pressured kid and the kid who breaks up or breaks down in college, at least the first year, anyhow. I would be especially, if I were in your place, I would be especially alert for these early signs, and they’re likely to grow more, because I’m a depression baby, I started to teach in the depression, 1931, and I cannot recall any time when there were so many disturbed, inadequate kids and, in a sense, also, disoriented. And systematically and somewhat cynically determined to destroy themselves. And of course their parents together with them. So much for that self-destructive generation.
I want to tell you about some of the things that I think have happened in the general climate of the schools. I can’t put my finger on who is responsible for it, I don’t think any one individual is, a sort of series of concomitant forces that have produced a sort of stereotype, and that the kids have taken up, because they wanted to believe a great deal of it. Namely, the school is a place to be avoided. Edgar Friedenberg and Alfred Holt and Cozall and all the others picture the school as a vast concentration camp in which the kids are imprisoned and watched over by a series of half-educated wardens, starting with the principal who is the chief warden. The notion that school is a place where you can have a good time or where you could learn something is foreign to this particular point of view. I think more kids believe that school is a joyless, mindless place than ever did before.
I think they also are prepared or they’re not prepared for the truth about learning. The human animal does not take to learning very kindly. I don’t know whether you know that. But it is not natural to subject yourself to the kind of disciplined avoidance that you MUST undergo if you’re going to learn. Learning is a somewhat monastic experience. You learn it’s you and the book, or you and the teacher. They’ve been taught to believe, beginning with Sesame Street-- I have a five-and-one-half-year-old granddaughter, though she’s going on eighteen, who was fed Sesame Street and who is now in school, and I said, “How did you like it today, honey?” And she said, “It was boring.” Boring! at five and a half! “Well, it wasn’t interesting.” “What do you mean by not interesting?” Well of course there was no exam, no changes, nothing, it was just the slow process of beginning to absorb the world through the printed page or through finger painting or whatever, and she’s not prepared for some of the difficulties that she’s going to meet in the process of simply learning. Learning in the eyes of the present romantics is a series, supposed to be a series, of wildly orgiastic experiences, and unless this happens every day to you, you’re not learning.
And you go tell them that orgasms are not essentially educational and thea you’re straight or square or whatever it is. But I never quite got into that. But this, I think, is a deeply rooted belief. If it hurts, or if it’s painful, or if you have to postpone immediate gratification, it’s no good. And I think you’re going to be getting more of those kids.
You’re also going to be getting kids who look upon the school and the school people as adversaries instead of helpers on the road to learning. The courts have so held, and in most schools now, kids are talking about their rights and not about their responsibilities and obligations. They will all become Philadelphia lawyers. The American Civil Liberties Union and the courts have long been behind them, and I’m not going to tell you that there are no injustices committed against students. The world is full of injustices and we’re all guilty of them at one time-- and so are the kids-- but my own experience with teachers is that basically they are just a group of fairly ordinary people trying to do an absolutely overwhelming job-- mainly not succeeding and mainly not appreciated. The picture of the teacher as warden, as sadist, pervert, or whatever else judging from what the kids write on the walls, you know-- which is a very educational experience I must tell you, just to digress for the moment that the girls’ Johns are worse than the boys’. I don’t know the sociological significance of this...
WILSON: How do you know it at all?
LASS: I knew you were coming to that, I was sure you would ask me. When you are principal of a school, the school is your total responsibility-- literally and figuratively the buck stops here. The teacher hits a kid, it’s your fault. The kids smoke pot in the stairwells, it’s your fault. Everything comes back to you. So you’d better be aware if you’re the principal of a large city high school such as I was with 5,000 kids, that’s about four times the size of this College isn’t it? And we were all housed in one building, and as they used to say they ran the whole “ga-mutt” from genius to the moron to the helpless to kids who could do better than the teachers, some of them considerably brighter than their teachers, which in some instances was not too difficult to be, considering the standards under which teachers are now admitted into the profession. Some teachers are almost-- this is strictly in the family isn’t it?-- some teachers, you haven’t met them yet, but you will, because they are produced in the colleges, they are semi-literate. They have not read. They have not written. They’re not aware of anything and some of them don’t even know the basic techniques of teaching things like reading or writing.
Let me talk about writing now. You promised you would ask some questions so I’m not going to try to cover this whole business except to tell you that generally, I think, I don’t think, l KNOW, that this generation now coming of age, the greening of American society, the fruits of which will soon be landing here and other college campuses, and I would, if I were in Admissions be very very, at least try to be very conscious-- this is a different generation, it’s not the generation of the ‘sixties. They are slightly more conservative but they’re considerably more alienated and drawn in on themselves-- much more so than they ever have been. I want to say something about writing because it’s my favorite subject, the one that I don’t do so well. The kids today do not write well for a very obvious reason: they are not taught to write. And writing is a skill. It’s like taking out an appendix. You don’t have to be too smart but somebody has to show you how to do it. And writing is a skill. I’m not talking about writing the great American novel or the great epic poem; I’m talking about simple everyday writing. It’s a skill that has to be developed, it has to be taught, and it does not develop overnight. It’s a very ,very slow maturation. The fact is that there are some disciplines in which precocity manifests itself very early. There are the math geniuses and science geniuses for a very obvious reason; you do not require any human experience to be a great mathematician. I hope none of you are mathematicians, it’s not a reflection. But you can get, just like musical geniuses-- Jascha Heifetz was playing at 4 or 5, and of course, you know, Mozart of course was composing at about five or six. I don’t know why, I was thinking of the story of this father who was bawling his kid out, he says, “You know what?” He says, “When Mozart was your age, he’d been dead four years.” It didn’t prove anything. So there’s a kind of walking away from this essential problem.
As an old, and I mean old, English teacher, I can tell you that writing is hard to teach, particularly when you have kids who don’t want to learn and don’t want to be disciplined. The kid has to write and he has to be taught how to write, he has to be motivated, and he has to get these compositions back with some correction and maybe some conference time as well. The fact is, in most of the schools in this country he’s not getting it. He therefore arrives on campus even in a selective school like this, I would bet, would bet dollars to doughnuts (that’s an old bet of the ‘thirties-- we used to bet dollars to doughnuts) that you have a great number of your highly selected freshmen who can’t write their way out of a paper bag. And I will tell you it is not their fault. The fault simply of the high schools. That’s where you learn to write, in the elementary schools.
When we were having lunch, Bill and I and Ed, I expressed the hope (or Bill did) that something in the way of a writing sample would be introduced one day and then you would not have to be dealing with non-verbal, non-writers. But only if the colleges make that, take a really tough stand, because the high schools take their cue from the colleges. When the colleges dropped the writing sample the schools stopped teaching whatever writing they were teaching. When the colleges dropped the foreign language requirement, language has been practically wiped out in the New York City schools. And the requirement for math has resulted in a diminution in the number of kids who are taking math. So it works like a kind of vicious cycle.
It’s possible to go to college now and never once be required to take a course in simple writing. Freshman composition is a dirty word. Therefore, whatever rudimentary skill the college people ever had in teaching freshman English they have lost. And instead the kid gets a wide variety of everything from all kinds of studies, area explorations, independent whatnot, but he never has to write any consecutive piece of work. As a matter of fact, it is my belief, that one of the great conquests of the human mind is the mastery of the English sentence. I consider that greater than the automobile. It is easier to master an automobile than it is to master the English sentence. And there are very few people writing today who have mastered it, except Mr. Wilson arid myself. But we belong to another...
In short, this terribly important skill called writing is falling into a state, as we used to say, of innocuous desuetude. Nobody’s really teaching it. The teachers aren’t correcting enough compositions, and you have no revolt either on the campus or in the high school. Kids are not out demonstrating, “We want more compositions. Teach us to write, please.” They are leaving well enough alone and the teachers are following the path of least resistance. The end product is a semi-literate generation, I would guess.
To open now briefly about my favorite subject-- you can ask me questions later about anything else you want-- I would talk about the drop in scores of the College Entrance Board. I don’t think I have to tell you what’s happened. But what it is a reflection of, we’re not too sure. I was talking to Hargedon-- I mentioned the Admissions Director at Stanford-- and he had posed for an interview for the Stanford student paper very much to the point. And I wrote him a letter and it was a “fan” letter. I’d come across his name fairly frequently and I wrote him a fan letter-- which I think we all ought to do more often-- and I got a lovely letter back in which he said, “Thanks, very much,” and he said, “ I mean every word I said in this article, in this interview. And I make a prediction now: that within the very near future the College Board is going to appoint a Blue Ribbon Commission-- which it did, headed by Willard Wirtz-- and that they are going to labor for a few months and they will bring forth a report. The report will say, ‘It is evident that the College Board scores have dropped significantly, if not disastrously, over the last 10 or 15 years. It is also evident that it’s not the College Board’s fault; it’s not the test-makers’ fault; and it’s not the kid’s fault; and it’s not the teachers’ fault. But the fact is that a major disaster has overtaken American education and this is what’s called the “No Fault” approach.’” Well it’s exactly what happened. A few months after he had written me, the commission was established and the report in due course was delivered and it said exactly what he said. Television’s partly responsible, the Jewish mother is responsible; everybody is responsible, even the kids are responsible, but nobody’s really responsible-- so the recommendation is that we have further studies and deeper research into this multi-faceted problem-- which leaves it exactly at square one.
And I think this is a manifestation of the essential gutlessness, the failure or fear of joining an issue. How wrong can you be? How wrong can you be if you were to say if the teachers marked more compositions and they did more work with the kids that the chances are likely that this might do something? It’s possible. It’s possible that if you go from zero to four-- zero compositions to four compositions-- that there may be some significant improvement. Not too drastic to worry anybody, but that something could happen.
And of course it isn’t going to happen until the colleges agree that we’re not going to take this any more. I personally am one of the few high school principals who am not afraid of the colleges. I share this with William Buckley, who once said, “I would sooner trust the fate of this nation to the first ten names in the Boston telephone book than I would to any ten members on the Harvard faculty.” I’m glad I’m not at Harvard. I’m going to stop at this point and turn you over to my real, my true master.
[Eugene Wilson takes over.]
WILSON: I appreciate very much, Abe, your leaving me ten minutes to give my presentation.
LASS: That’s what you decided on just now.
WILSON: Well I’d rather listen to you than to me so it worked out beautifully from my point of view.
I remember my first visit to Abraham Lincoln High School. It was all set up beautifully. He had a lovely secretary, a lovely dietician, a lovely counselor, and when I walked in and gave my name they all gave me a hug and a kiss and “It’s so wonderful to have you here.” A Big Reception at Abraham Lincoln High School. And then they introduced me to the Master.
LASS: That’s the anticlimax.
WILSON: We went down to get a cup of coffee and as we were walking back along the corridor, here were 4,000 kids between classes pouring along. We’re trying to bounce our way through and all of a sudden Abe says to me, “Excuse me. I’ve got a little problem.” He walks across the aisle and puts his arm around a boy and walks off with him. I go back to his office and pretty soon he joins me and I said, “What happened?” He said, “That boy has got a problem.” I said, “How did you know?” He said, “I could tell, from the way he was walking, from the way he held his head, I just knew he had a problem.” There’s a sensitive principal, in tune with human beings. I could tell you more stories about him, but I’ll let it go at that.
Education was something to do with human beings-- not with marks, not with test scores so much, but people, growing, developing. In 1946 when President Cole asked me if I would take on the job of Admission Officer at Amherst College, I said, “One question: no quotas?” He said, “Naturally, no quotas.” I said, “OK, I’ll take it.”
I’d spent 17 years, 10 years in business, starting out as a stevedore in the Philadelphia waters, going through sales work, advertising, and I’d belonged to the National Vocational Guidance Association, did the placement of students here for seven years at Amherst, belonged to Eastern College Personnel Officers Association, knew all about occupational interests, tests, and IQ’s and so forth. So when I took this job, I not only found it was the most important job, more important even than the President, because here was somebody who guarded the gate and who could shape an institution to some extent. I think, Professor Grose, I’ll admit that the faculty played a part in this, too, but this seemed to me a tremendously important job; and nobody ever entered upon the job more confident than I did-- that I could very easily use all my experience at age 41 and pick the winners. After all, you have all this material in front of you, which I’ll come to in a minute.
When I went into the office I asked the secretary, who’d been there for five or six years, “What studies have you got on the past achievements of students, relation of marks to College Board scores?” “Oh, we don’t have any studies.” “Do you have a cumulative record on the feeder schools-- how the boys have done from the different schools?” “No, we don’t have any cumulative record.” So we settled down and went back five years and made book on the schools that we were hearing from. And very quickly discovered that there was a difference in what marks meant at one school and in another. In Commencement 1946, Alfred Steams, Chairman of the Board of Amherst Trustees and Chairman of the Board at Mercersberg Academy, came in to see me after the Commencement Exercises. I’d known him a long time, and he said, “Bill, we had four students apply from Mercersburg Academy this year and you didn’t take any of them. They all had an average of over 80. What happened? Why not? What’s wrong with Mercersburg?” So I got out the book, and here was the Mercersburg page: No boy who’d had an average under 85 had survived at Amherst. So I told him we more or less had an automatic cutoff point of 85 for Mercersburg. And not only that, but the boy had to have something more than marks.
I said, “Let me show you your own school of Andover. We can take any boy who graduates from Andover because you mark so severely. We can take a boy with a 60 average, which is your passing average at Andover. We know that he’ll do 70 work at Amherst. If we take a boy with a 70 average we’re pretty sure he’ll do 80 average at Amherst.” And this was in the days when teachers marked severely.
This was where we had that New Curriculum-- every freshman had to take calculus and physics, rather hard to get minority students under this arrangement. Every student had to take a foreign language unless he’d passed it previously with tests. Every student had to take a reading and writing course. Every student had to take European History. Twenty-three hours of contact classhour work. This was later lessened as the students each year groaned under the academic load that they were forced to carry. So this is the curriculum that we were accepting students for.
The job as I see it, saw it, was to do everything we could to increase Amherst’s exposure to counselors, principals, and headmasters throughout the country. We did this by joining all the organizations we could, by writing articles and talking occasionally and so forth, trying to keep Amherst’s name in front of the counselors and principals.
Well, it came time to select the first class. We required an interview. I was sure that with my vast experience with human beings I would be the best interviewer-- that I could interview a boy and right away tell whether he was the kind that would succeed and contribute to our community. And the only mistake I made was that I was also made Dean of Freshmen, as well as Director of Admission, and so I had to see every boy who failed a course, as we did away with the faculty counseling system to free the faculty to do their work, and I was Dean of Freshmen. I saw every boy who supposedly had a problem, or I sent him to Bob Grose or somebody else who was more proficient at poking their interiors than I was.
Well, I discovered that my interview reports weren’t very good; that I was swooned, unduly swooned, by young men whose personality was something like my own. They were warm and friendly and outgoing, you know, easy people to talk to. And I thought, Gee, these kids are going to be members of the student council, this guy will be president of the class; I was even stupid enough to write on one boy in the first year, “will be President of the Class.” I think he flunked out in sophomore year.
But, anyway, the interview-- I learned very quickly that I was not an expert in the interview, because to some students it’s a game, to others it’s a frightening adventure. It’s very hard for you as you do the interview to know all the forces that have made this boy or girl before you. And to put them at ease, to get them to talk about things that you want them to talk about, that they know something about, is not easy. I always took the parents in with the student, I’d never see a boy alone unless he came alone, because I wanted to see-- of course at my age and as I got older I could talk to the mother and father, I wanted to see what the interplay was between parents and child, who dominated the scene. I remember asking one boy’s mother and father and the and the boy and I took the little girl, five years old in the back seat there, and gave her a little book to work on, and she was listening all the time. I said to the boy, “That did you do last summer?” He said, “I had a job. I worked very hard last summer.” And the little girl went HAW HAW HAW! I said to the little girl, “Would you move up to the front row please?” And the brother looked at her and said, “Drop dead!” But anyway it loosened things up.
After that, if things were at all tense, I’d always start with the mother and say, “Mrs. So-and-So, it’s my custom to always interview the mothers rather than the boy, do you mind if I ask you a question?” “OOOOOH--” Mothers get all scared, you know, but it made the boy relax for a minute while I asked the mother a couple of questions.
Anyway, the interview is a very tricky thing and I think most interviewers feel very confident that they’re good at interviewing. I tried all sorts of things with the interview, trying to probe these inner selfs. I had a tetrahedron made down at the shop and cut it diagonally and when a boy said he wanted to be an engineer or a scientist, I’d say, “Do you know what a tetrahedron is?” “Oh, sure.” “Well here are two pieces that make a tetrahedron, can you put them together so that it makes a tetrahedron?” It was fascinating to see them look at it. Some boys would impulsively grab it and try to fit all the sides and hope he’d hit. Another boy would look at it for a few seconds or more, pick up the two pieces, and put it right together. So you see, he got an A plus, but he probably turned out to be a boy who couldn’t write. He had 3-dimensional visualization, you see, which is one of the dimensions that human beings have, but you don’t know what else he has.
So another time I had three boxes-- file boxes that I bought up at Hastings and I printed one gold, and one silver, and one lead-- the old Merchant of Venice sequence with the boxes-- put a piece of gum in each one and part way through the interview I’d say to the boy, “Now there’s a prize in one of these boxes.” I didn’t tell him it was in all of them. “I’d like, we’re trying a little experiment for the psychology department, do you mind being a part of this?” “Oh no, no. As long as it’s for the Psychology Department. All right, go ahead.” “Well, here’s a gold, silver and lead-- which casket would you choose?” I, in my naiveté thought they’d all take the gold. Only two out of the forty that I did it with took the gold, thirty eight picked the lead. When they’d get through I’d say, “Why did you pick the lead?” “Anybody knows today that the best thing isn’t going to be in the best looking package.” They’d seen so many TV shows they know the big prize is in the lousiest looking package.
Well I don’t know that this ever helped me any, but the interview, I would ask you to re-examine. The key, it seemed to me, to the interview was to try to find out from the student what he’d done last summer, what he’d done in school that excited him most of all, and to get him talking about it, because this would relax him more than anything. And the depth of, the penetration into this subject or activity or whatever is important, I think-- to try to get him to analyze what it is that has excited him. Sometimes I’d say, “What do you do on Sundays? Take last Sunday, take me through last Sunday, start at the time you get up, what did you do all day long?” And the boy would hmmm, and “What was the most fun last Sunday?” Well it was lunch or the superbowl or whatever, you see. Then you try to get him talking-- trying to get him to assess the things he’s doing in terms of priorities so that you can find out if possible, which is difficult, what we offer here that may touch off this interest he has, will spark him to it. Well let’s leave the interview for a minute, and go on to the paper man. (I’m using your next ten minutes, aren’t I?)
LASS: Yes, I noticed that.
What you’re dealing with, most of you, as you read your folders, you’re dealing with a paper person. You have little idea of what the real person’s like. We used to try to penetrate through such questions on the application form as, “Which book that you read in the last twelve months was the most exciting and rewarding to you and why?” Well, I thought this was a very fine way to get some information on a young man. Then I discovered in one case that the father had written it, the father’s secretary had written it, the mother taught English, she had written it. At one school in Newton, a boy for five bucks was writing anything the student wanted him to write, from a biographical sketch to something about books or whatever. You’d just pay him five bucks and tell him what the problem was and he’d write it and the father’s secretary would type it up nicely and it would come in and, boy, we’d be impressed! Forget it! Forget anything they say about themselves unless it involves something they’ve done. Forget what anybody says about them, even if it’s a principal, unless it’s Abe Lass. I finally said to Abe, we’ll take any boy you recommend to us, and it scared the hell out of him. It put him on the spot, but he sent us some lovely boys. And we only did this with about five principals or counselors, whom we really knew well and had been here and knew us. We’d say-- anybody you say take-- we’ll take.
But the paper person, the Counselor’s report, they’re trying to get the boy in; they’re not going to tell you anything-- they don’t know really the inside person quite often. Now sometimes they do, but not often, do they know the inside person. The worst behaving freshmen in the Ivy League and the Little Three were the Deerfield Academy boys, for years, because Frank Boyden kept them so tied up, up there, no freedom at all-- one dance a year, the only time they saw women. And when they got to colleges and suddenly were faced with the freedom, with the freedom to make their own decisions to go as long or as far as they wished, to be anything they wanted to be, they fell apart. And it took a while for them to regain their balance, which they usually did.
One of the things you want to look for, I think, whether it’s the interview or the written report is the variety of experiences the student has been in, how he’s used his summer times, whether he’s gotten out of the gang he’s in, the milieu he’s grown up in-- whether it’s black or white or rich or poor. Has he ever ventured out of that area? If he hasn’t, how’s he going to make out up here. We don’t have as broad a mix as we’d like in terms of race, creed and color.
Test Scores. They’re only important in relation to rank in class and marks. We took our share of boys with 300 and 400 verbals. We’ve had 400 boys do 400 verbals who were Phi Beta Kappa. The reason we took them was because they ranked usually in the top ten or fifteen in their class; and they’d taken the toughest courses offered.
You remember Van Nort, Bob. 327 verbal, 427 math, 525 intermediate math, 3-letter man, president of his class, small high school in Ohio-- so good that Ohio State interviewed him for football. Well, he came to Amherst, he wanted to be a geologist, and at the freshman football game I was talking to Fred Copeland, Director of Admissions at Williams who talked to me about Van Nort and how he’d turned him down and I said, “Why?” “Board scores-- he can’t do the work.” Well, Van Nort did the work without any trouble, went on to graduate work in geology and became a top geologist for the M.A. Hanna Company, and the thing that was the key on it, which it always is with low scores, was that this boy ranked 13th in his class, and nine of the ones ahead of him were women, carried three sports, president of the class and took the toughest courses offered-- the same courses that were taken by two men the year before, who came to Amherst, who ranked five and six in their class and had six and seven hundred scores. So that you know when a young man has a 400 verbal and ranks in the top ten or fifteen in his class, he puts first things first. He’s a plugger but he’s maybe more than that. He’s going to do the job. It’s the best indication of resolution I know.
The studies we did of the ones who flunked out in those first ten years, the average verbal was something like 640, and the math 660. The brightest boy we’ve ever had at Amherst in terms of marks and test scores had a 785 average for the two aptitude scores and three achievement tests. He was Valedictorian from a high school in New Jersey and flunked out during the first semester. I searched for clues all over the place, could find none, and the reason I found out from talking to the men in his dormitory, he was talk-happy, bull-session happy. He’d walk around the corridors every night and if there was a bull session, he’d go in and he’d take over. He had a fantastic memory and all through high school he’d been able to memorize everything and hit the tests whenever they came up and he never had to do any original thinking at all. He never had any long term papers that were due, and he couldn’t hand in any work on time here. And he thought he was brilliant-- and he was, in a way. So, so much for the paper man.
And I have talked almost enough, I think. The counselor's report is, I say, the principal’s report-- forget them. I remember I was on the team that selected the National Merit winners for two different years and I was with the top notch veteran admission officer from one of the great midwestern liberal arts colleges. And we had New York state and we were supposed to pick thirty winners out of something like 400 finalists. And we divided the class in half. I said, you take half and I’ll take half; you pick out 20 and I’ll pick out 20 or 25 and then we’ll go through and see which ones we can agree on. So he was zipping through like this-- and I said, “What are you doing?” “Well,” he said, “Here’s this chart from the counselor which rates everybody on 7 or 9 different qualities-- human characteristics like industry, honesty, obedience, or whatever they were, I don’t remember. And it said superior, above average, average, below average, zilch. And he said, “All I’m picking is the ones that have 9 checks on the lefthand side that are perfect in everything.” “Well,” I said, “What do you know about the person who checked these? What do you know about their ability to know this person or assess them?” “Well, I don’t know, but why are we going to take anybody that might be just above average when we can get somebody who is superior in all these things?” “Well,” I said, “No way. Because these counselors know that there are selectors like you, who are going to take only the ones that are marked. Forget the ratings entirely.” We used to ask this on our school form-- you know honesty, industry, and so forth-- but if any of you have written letters for students, you know how you present the good side.
The College Board scores-- one more thing about them-- or marks. Marks are what a teacher gives the student for doing what the teacher wants the student to do. You don’t know what the teacher wants the student to do. So marks are so-so-- but you have to look at them. You have to measure them in regard to the College Board scores and try to place this paper man in some sort of a picture. But again, look for a variety of experience outside the area they’ve been in.
Now some transplants, and the whole admission thing is a transplant operation, you take a young man from Brooklyn Tech and he’s lived in a certain area, maybe he’s been here a year, maybe he’s been here 5 years, I don’t know your background, but can he take the transplant from where he is to Amherst College and what it is today. This is very important.
One other thing that I learned as Dean of Freshmen, following up my mistakes, when you see a transcript in which in sophomore year there is a let-down, the boy has a straight-A record, sophomore year he comes up with B’s and C’s and Junior and Senior years he’s back and he’s number one in his class-- and 700s. Don’t take him. Don’t take him because he’s going to have psychological problems. I’ve never written this up, Bob, but I wish we could, I should do something on this because it proved out several times when we’d take a boy, and going back over why, here was this little tell-tale sign.
Columbia Law School invited me down there to meet their selection committee at one point; I didn’t know anything about selection there but they gave me fifteen cases, gave me the folders that they had when the boys applied and then they were going to tell me what had happened to them. I was supposed to tell them whether they succeeded or not. The boy with the highest legal aptitude test scores had a falling out in sophomore year in college, a sort of collapse, then came back righted himself, had a 778 or 780 something in the legal aptitude test, and I said don’t touch him. He probably dropped out under a psychiatrist, so they turned to the Dean and said what happened to him? “Dropped out at the end of one semester, turned that over to a psychiatrist.” So here was the same pattern on the college level. I don’t know why. It may have been that these are false statistics I’m giving you, but there’s something in that growing-up age of 15, there...
WALL: One of the things we were talking about last night, when you and Martin and I were driving out to the house for dinner, was the business of the four-year high school as opposed to the six-three-three system where there’s a three-year junior high school which terminates in the ninth grade, and I was wondering, Bill, if maybe you didn’t look at this with your sophomore slump example. Would the same thing obtain if a student had gone from a junior high situation in the ninth grade to a 10th grade which is one of those falling off the cliff?
WILSON: I don’t know. In most of these cases they’d been in one school for all four years.
WALL: I think it’s a very natural tendency for someone who has been at the top of the heap in ninth grade to take a tumble when they go from the top of the heap to the bottom of the heap, temporarily, that sophomore year.
WILSON: I don’t know whether you young men and women have access to the Dean’s Office folders or not, but if you could go get a list of the ones who’ve failed this first semester, a course, go back and look over everything in their folder. This is the way you learn that you don’t know as much as you think you know about human assessment. It’s a brutal way, it’s much better not to look back. But it certainly helps you re-examine what you’re doing. Well those are a few of the things that I thought I might share with you.
WALL: One of the things that I have been concerned about in the last few years in particular is the fact that I feel that there are so few schools left that do have an honest grading system. All of the grades are inflated and rank in class is inflated, Valedictorians and seventeen who were tied for fifth in the class and this kind of thing.
LASS: The college grades are inflated, too. I mean it’s a universal inflation and is a factor that we discussed last night rather briefly, that the marking system is no longer really an assessment system because many teachers, all too many, at the high school level and the college level, are afraid to fail their students. Literally, physically afraid. Now that’s a phenomenon that is very, very recent. When I started to teach, I was not afraid of any kid. I can tell you that by the time I got ready to retire, there were some kids that I would have been afraid to meet on a lonely street. And so, because this generation is so youth dominated, to the professors, all the way down the line or all the way up the line, there is a message of fear, in addition to which there are political overtones to failure which are of rather recent origin. But in schools, for example, where there are a large number of minority students-- now City College-- City University is the best illustration of it, I have a number of friends who teach there, who tell me that they have no intentions of failing any student (not even if you think, not even if I-- I won’t fail anybody) which tells you an awful lot about what’s happening. So that the grades that kids get in high school-- you say they’re inflated-- they are doubly inflated in the colleges, and I think it goes back almost to the Mario-- the Berkeley free speech guy.
WILSON: They were inflated in your time, too, Abe.
LASS: But they weren’t so...
WILSON: No, you know what we used to do with the New York Public Schools if we wanted a grade on English? We’d go back to the ninth grade English grade and there they dared to give them an 85 or an 80; by the senior and junior year it was all 90 or 95, the ones we were looking at.
LASS: Well, of course you know there are two forms in this whole process of getting into college; you first of all start with one of the great works of fiction called the college catalog and I think some of the finest purple prose is to be found within the modest covers and now, of course, they’re all jazzed up with illustrations of the dormitories that you don’t go to-- those are reserved for those who lasted.
So the marks are inflated and the rhetoric that goes with the marks is equally inflated, but if you succumb to that completely, you will have nothing except the interview to fall back on. And of all the measures for assessing people, that is the most treacherous-- because this is where the inexperienced interviewer (or even the experienced), all your unconscious prejudices are at work and you’re not aware of it, obviously; or you get back in one way or another-- I think I would eliminate the interview, frankly, as a really selective device even in the hands of as skillful a practitioner, as skillful an emotional surgeon, as Bill Wilson-- there is something to be said for age, I will tell you. It doesn’t last too long, but if you live long enough you become very sharp for a short period of time. And suddenly the whole accumulated experience of your life is brought to bear on this one kid. Unfortunately they don’t have any sextogenarians like me and Bill in Admissions, so you start with those who are most or least sophisticated and who have (I’m a great believer in animal magnetism) what the kids call the “vibes,” which very often give you a much sounder impression than you can get from scores. You know in the eighteenth century there was a little ditty that went the rounds:
I do not like you Dr. Fell;
The reason why, I cannot tell.
But this I know, and know quite well,
I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.
And when you get that kind of vibe from a kid, you’d better look at him very, very carefully. Most kids, of course, are trained and they’re taught in this elaborate game, the idea is to beat the system, and the system, you are the symbol of the system, and all the devices are all calculated to prevent you from discovering the real kid.
I will tell you, Bill, I used to read, I read every application that went out including the letter that was written for me-- obviously, no principal has time to write all the letters, but any principal who signs an unread document should be fired instanter (as they used to say in Latin). But we are all trapped in the same thing, I think. We all have the same concern. You have a concern to get the best kids possible, otherwise you can’t function. The principal and the school have a similar concern in getting the kid into the best school possible. Now if he tells you all the truth, the chances are very likely that he will not get in. So the whole process begins in duplicity. And it ends in your having to guess, really; it’s a gigantic crap game and it’s the kid with whom you are playing. And you can sit like Bill, and say, “Well, look for that, just you wipe that second, that sophomore year.” Well you know what happened in that sophomore year? It’s not necessarily as telling, now I would agree in principle, but when you see a sharp drop for one year, something happened; if you find out what happened, you may be closer to the truth. But I would not-- at the risk of differing from my respected mentor in this field-- everything of my total ignorance I acquired from Bill Wilson, it took me about twenty years to become as ignorant as I am now.
WILSON: Well there are certain cases with very artistic people, creative people, they do not have the top test scores. They may have uneven records of achievement, not doing well in math and so on. But you’d better be very sure that they are creative and artistic and have done something, because the creative artist whether it’s painting or music (drama I’ll leave out) reveal themselves at an early age, like mathematicians, and you will find uneven records with a very creative artistic person.
QUESTION: I was going to ask about the interview. Dean Wilson, I would like to have your opinion on the interview. I know in looking at my experience in interviews, I know that on Monday afternoon at a 3:30 interview I’m not the same person that I am on Friday afternoon at a 3:30 interview or a Friday morning at a 9 o’clock interview. We can all relate to that. You’re hungry and tired.
WILSON: I never, never got tired of interviewing-- I may have been less effective at the end of the day but I wasn’t aware of it-- because here is a chance to meet somebody to talk to them, to do some probing about their interest and the way they express their talents and so forth. So though we didn’t require the interview, and I say, as Abe has seconded, here, this is a very dangerous instrument because you can let your own personal prejudices, biases enter in and the boy will not always reveal to you the strengths and talents that are there. You don’t ask the right questions, he’s shy, he’s modest, he doesn’t want to say, but it does add a dimension, there’s no question about it, it does add a dimension to the paper man. And in that way it supplements the material and information you have on a prospective candidate.
QUESTION: Do you think that it ought to ever get to the point where an interview is required for fairness for those people who may come across only as paper men?
WILSON: Well many schools used to require it in the Ivy League, this was the way of practicing their quotas and so forth. And they used alumni extensively; where you couldn’t have an interview with the Admission officer or at the college, you would have it with an alumnus or an alumna of the college-- which now, I guess we’ve got to say-- then they’d send in reports. But these were terribly dangerous, too, because the alumnus in the field is in business, he has friends who know he’s a recruiter and so a client comes along and says, “Hey, Joe, you know my son wants to go to Amherst, will you write?” “Sure, be glad to, Harry.” So he writes a glowing letter and he may or may not put a little pencilled slip saying don’t touch this guy with a ten-foot pole but I’ve got to show my letter to the guy that is my customer-- got to show him a copy of the letter, you see. But these are the things that Ed’s had a lot of experience with, working with alumni in this.
WALL: One of the things that, I guess the only thing, that I was able to get by you, in the five years or three years or whatever it was, we were together, was to change the format of the interview card. When I came all we had on the card was name and address, class applying for and that sort of thing.
WILSON: Yes, a real improvement.
WALL: We turned it into a kind of mini-application, of course all the data recorded there is self-reported but kids are pretty hard on themselves, and very seldom do they fudge data, and when they do it sticks out like a sore thumb.
WILSON: That was a big improvement-- to give you something to start with right away.
WALL: You have some idea of the paper person with the material on the card. But we certainly do have a bias in what we do toward the people whom we see in person and toward schools that we visit, and yet at the same time, with the applicant pool now just about doubled from what it was ten years ago, I guess we sort of feel that the more information we can get, the better. By the same token we spend a tremendous amount of time, day in and day out, just interviewing one person after another and it’s all tied up with what we think is the personal touch, the personal approach. But it’s gotten to the point, now, where during peak periods we can’t accommodate everybody on a one-on-one basis, and we move to group sessions some of which are large some of which are small. I was very interested in hearing Abe’s suggestion that we toss it out altogether.
WILSON: Well, I would tell you most sobering to me as Dean of Freshmen when I had to kick a boy out and when he failed a course, I’d get the folder out and see who interviewed him. Wilson! A-plus, says Wilson. Get this guy.
LASS: I think I want to tell you a rather unusual occurrence. I think it was just about when you were getting ready to leave, Bill, and I was getting ready to leave so we could both be very courageous. We didn’t have to live with whatever errors we made. And before I tell you this story, I think that the best thing that you could do is to try to develop as many people as possible-- the kind of relationship that I had for over 20 years here with Bill, and I could call him-- it was essentially, I don’t think it was any great admiration for my intelligence...
WILSON: Yes it was.
LASS: Well it may have been that, but more important, we trusted each other. And that is something which very few principals are able to acquire, which made it possible for me to pick up the phone and talk to Bill almost before the kid filed an application. And there was never any hard sell-- just, “I think”-- and the result of it, I will tell you, paradoxically, Bill said it didn’t quite work out that way, but if I was ready to put my reputation and my integrity behind the kid, he was virtually assured of admission if he had all the other things. The result was that there were fewer kids from our school recommended. When I had achieved this, then any other time we went over every kid with a fine tooth comb. We also discouraged a great number of kids.
But I want to tell you a story which I think is very unusual and it could happen only with this kind of relationship. This may have been about seven or eight years ago. I wrote a very enthusiastic recommendation for a very very able boy, he had all the qualifications and he would have gotten in almost without any pushing. I think Bill was away. He was beating the bushes for other kids. This kid was interviewed and he was rejected. When Bill got back I called him. And I said, “I’d like to know why this kid was rejected.” Again, this is a very superior kid from a highly competitive school and to be number one or two out of a graduating class of 1,500 must be an awfully good-- we must have missed something. Well the interview, the first interviewer said he didn’t like something about this kid, he didn’t know, wasn’t quite sure but he got the wrong vibes and he said no. So Bill said, well one of the younger people interviewed him. Well, I said, “Would you do me a favor, please? I would really like to know, I don’t care whether you take him or not, I really don’t care, I’d like to know where we missed it.” So Bill interviewed and reversed the first interview and accepted him. This was early in May. As soon as the acceptances went out, or shortly thereafter, one of his teachers, his faculty advisor on the school newspaper, came down to me in tears. He’d been a model citizen up to this point, having gotten the acceptance at Amherst it was a Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde, whoever it was, suddenly appeared on the scene and the teacher said to him, “Will you take the galleys down to the printer?” And he said, “Take them yourself, you get paid for it.” And she had not had this in all the time. So upon this declaration of independence, I figured if he’s going to do this here, he’s going to do it at Amherst in another way and I’m not prepared. I didn’t know this before. I called Bill and I told Bill, “I am withdrawing my recommendation on what this tells me.” And Bill said, “What should I do?” I said, “That’s your problem. I’m going to write you and I’m going to tell you that what I sent you was well meant, well intentioned, but I’m prepared to withdraw it now on this further evidence.” And Bill wrestled with the problem for a while and then reversed it and rejected him. I had every politician, every politician in Brooklyn on my back. The family was rather well to do, well connected and I think he applied a year later, didn’t he Bill-- the same boy? Yes, he applied a year later, and Bill said, “Hey, your friend’s here again.” I said, “Show him the door.” Now to me this is a most unusual story of my whole relationship, but it could be possible only if there is a great deal of confidence and trust on both sides. It would have been a mistake.
Eventually I had the job of finding another college for him because he was at this point-- it was June, and he had no place to go-- and Amherst was the only school that he wanted to go to and that was out. They burned me in effigy on Manhattan Beach for a whole week, I was told.
QUESTION: I have two questions. I hope I can remember them. One for you, Mr. Lass, which is my hesitation about this network concept; it essentially penalizes somebody who does not have a counselor who may not be as articulate in a recommendation or who we don’t know that well. What about somebody from a school even in New York City that we don’t know, who we are essentially discriminating against because we don’t know the counselor.
LASS: Well the only answer that I can think of offhand is the one that Kennedy gave-- life is unfair. And the mere fact that this kid happens to be in my school shouldn’t force me to withhold a recommendation that Bill would accept more readily than he would from another principal simply because you haven’t gotten out to learn what this man-- in other words, ideally, you’re positing the ideal state in which EVERYONE had the same relationship with you that I had with Bill. Ideally that would be so, and I think it’s right. Why should some kid be unfairly treated simply because he wasn’t lucky enough to go to my school? And the answer is, I don’t know why. He should not be, but the fact is that life does this to us.
WILSON: You can see what would happen if we had intimate relations with 500 counselors or principals. We’d soon lose our...
LASS: Well, no you wouldn’t, Bill. There are some you wouldn’t trust any further than you can throw a baby grand piano.
QUESTION: That about the dimension of diversity? Wouldn’t there be a threat of each year getting kids from the very same high schools from similar backgrounds, with similar kinds of experiences, and therefore, missing, and finding a very homogeneous type of student body?
LASS: In practice it just didn’t work out that way. As I told you there were a number of years in which we recommended nobody. We went over every candidate with a fine tooth comb, as I said, and behind our recommendation was my friendship, my esteem, my professional reputation; it wasn’t just an application that I signed. I was putting myself and the school on the line and, therefore, I was about 10 times as cautious. Under ordinary circumstances I wouldn’t have cared, but this was not only for Amherst, but for my good name. As Shakespeare says, “Who steals my purse steals trash; who steals my good name deprives me of that which not enricheth him, and maketh me poor indeed.” I don’t know that that would necessarily interfere with diversity. Because none of the kids which we sent from year to year were the same. As a matter of fact, tonight we’re having dinner with a kid-- kid, I recommended him about somewhere in the late ‘fifties. (Laughter. You wouldn’t know about that would you? There was a time called late ‘fifties. Laughter) He lives here and he’s going to be at Bill’s house to dinner. He’s an ophthalmologist around here some place isn’t he? There is something about the ‘fifties. You know we were talking before about what’s happened in teaching social studies-- nobody teaches history any more and therefore the kids have no chronological sequence. They don’t know when what happened. They get these great big ideas that a sort of Spenglerian view of the Universe. They’re barely literate in social studies and they have to deal with these tremendous concepts; the result is that they learn to parrot generalities. If you ask them a specific question, they’re stuck. The classic story on this is, a teacher asked the kid, “What happened in 1492?” So the kid says, “Is that the same 1492 when Columbus discovered America?” He had one association with 1492; beyond that nothing happened.
WILSON: I want to say a few words about diversity. In the early ‘fifties I spent a day with Victor Reuther of the United Auto Workers trying to work out a plan whereby throughout their whole union they would publicize special scholarships for Amherst College and so forth. We never were able to work something out that was satisfactory to them and us, and besides, he said, “Most of our kids go to Michigan or go to colleges nearby. They don’t want a liberal arts education.” I said, “I know, but occasionally comes along one that would like one.” Well, we didn’t get very far with that. But in getting to know sons of laboring men, blue collar workers if you want to call them that, I was always disappointed in the diversity they brought to our community, because they wanted so much to be like “Amherst men,” they wanted to fit into what they thought, and the poorer the young man’s background, the more he wanted to not be different, so that your radicals on campus and the men who were different came from Park Avenue, came from Scarsdale. They’d had everything and they were ready to be different. The Blacks were the ones in the ‘sixties who dared the challenges, who dared to speak out; but the diversity, it seems to me, the kind of diversity that you can get here, is a diversity of talents and interests, so that you don’t have everybody wanting to be a pre-med, you don’t have everybody wanting to be a lawyer, you have a mixture of social science, scientists, humanitarians, and so forth with a variety of summer experiences, a variety of extracurricular experiences. And this diversity will make an interesting campus. We always picked about half the class on the basis of intellectual power; we turned down 300 that had 700 scores because they offered nothing in the way of an extra dimension. Marks and test scores, yes, but nothing on the side. Then the bottom half of the class would be picked for people with a special talent, who would add something to the community and who would not drop dead because they’re in the bottom half of the class. They said they’d be happy to be here under any circumstances.
QUESTION: The second question is-- if there’s tension for me between the question of looking at the admissions process as what can Amherst do for a student versus what can a student do for Amherst, and my question to you, Dean Wilson, is what do you consider-- it’s very broad-- but what is a successful student?
WILSON: I usually get tired of the college presidents who would say we are preparing the leaders of tomorrow, because nobody knows how to pick a leader. No, really, each man has to define success in his own terms. There’s no formula for all people. But I knew that if we picked students whose prime characteristics were curiosity or imagination, and industry or resolution, these are the key qualities. You get a boy who’s curious, he’s going to learn wherever you put him down. He would eat us up; he would drink us dry. If you can find out he’s curious and if he has the resolution and you find this out by how much he’s carried through on the interests that most consumed him. If he goes all out for everything he goes into, then he’s got some motivation or resolution, the word I like a little better; nothing’s going to stop him. So if you can find out the degree of curiosity of the student and the degree of resolution, you don’t have to worry about what Amherst’s going to give him; he will soak the place up.
QUESTION: The trouble is, I haven’t quite figured out how to pass that, because I’ve heard this afternoon, the interview-- you have to be skeptical of all these kinds of personal things entering into it, the paper man, the grade inflation, you don’t listen to the counselor-- where am I?
WILSON: Don’t pay any attention to College Board scores.
QUESTION: I don’t understand. Unless I know the person, unless I know I have a Mr. Lass sitting in front of me and I know him and have developed a twenty-five year relationship with him, Where am I? How do I...
LASS: I understand your dilemma and both Bill and I-- I was going to say enjoyed a reputation among our colleagues for telling it straight. There are very few people in this profession of ours who talk straight. It may surprise you, but Bill and I were exceptions to that rule: And it’s a pretty traumatizing thought that we who pretended to be nothing else except people who were honestly talking their minds. We were not about to throw down the establishment, but in some quarters we were looked upon as quite radical. Bill was not almost single handed but was the major moving force in the introduction of the writing sample, which was abandoned some time. He was looked upon in some quarters as a kind of secret agent, crypto-communist, a subverter of all the great values. I think we have told you whatever we have to say on this particular subject honestly and straightforwardly; we could have given you a snow job, but considering how much there is out there we decided not to add to it.
QUESTION: Well we’ve all had enough experience, too, that I think we have a sense of what you’re saying.
LASS: Well at least what I’m trying to say, and Bill would probably say the same thing, is that you cannot afford not to be skeptical of all the blunt and imperfect instruments that you have at your disposal. You cannot really afford not to be. Hemingway once said (I don’t know if I dare; are you allowed to use four-letter words here?) No, you don’t have to translate this one; it was Hemingway who said-- talking about newspaper men or novelists I’ve forgotten which, so I can hide behind Hemingway-- he said, “Every good writer, journalist, or whatever it was, must have a built-in crap detector.” They sound a little vulgar, a little crude; the fact is that you develop a very sensitive crap-detector if you know that you are in a very, very sensitive area. And if you don’t get to feeling smug about your intuitions-- Bill found that out very early-- and there was no man who was more respected for his integrity in the field than Bill Wilson. But we all learned, if you enter into this with the feeling that you have the answer, and that that check-list gives it to you, or the principal gives it to you, or that your own intuitions work, and that you ask the right question and press the right button, you’ll get the complete view of the inside of this man. If you become wedded to those essentially mythical beliefs, then I think you’re in real trouble. Obviously, if you take this advice literally, you will go out of business tomorrow: you will trust nobody, you will accept no students, we’ll all go on sabbatical first, and then there’ll be severance pay and that’ll be the end of the institution. So you really haven’t very much choice except to constantly examine these very feeble and very blunt and very imprecise instruments. There’s nothing more treacherous than the interview I have discovered. Also, nothing more treacherous than these test scores. There may be any one of fifteen different reasons for a kid’s scoring low. There are some people-- I’ve heard Admission Offices say, “High board scores? They’re the low board scores, the relatively low-board scores. High grades? Well-- the reverse: low grades, high board scores-- don’t take him. It means he’s a very smart loafer.” I don’t think that’s what it means. I think if you find too great a disparity between the scores and the average, you should be alert. Something may have gone amiss someplace. But they generally match up pretty well. But when you run into the exceptions, I think you just very simply have to regard yourself as a special type of human being who finds himself athwart the ambitions of families and kids who want something, they want this place. And you have an obligation to the faculty, because no matter what you do, you’re going to be wrong-- there’ll be too many medical students, not enough medical students; too many kids taking physics, not enough; some read too well, some not enough; they can’t write. It’s all your fault. So you might just as well do the best you can with what you have and I think if you approach yourself and these instruments with a degree of maybe skepticism, yes, but a realistic realistic appraisal of the fact that you’re not as smart as you think you are, and that sitting in that room alone, you are the one who controls the destiny of this kid to a degree and if that gives you a little humility and starts you thinking about yourself, I think it’s all to the good. The most dangerous people in the profession are those who believe they have “the word”, “the answer,” and if Bill and I have shaken you up a little bit and made you feel that maybe you don’t have the answer, then that’s probably closer to the truth at present. When you reach Bill’s age and mine, something I don’t wish upon you so quickly, you will become much better at sizing up people and as the crap-detector works, the older you get the better it works.
QUESTION: O.K., I understand that and in fact I feel that way. I feel as if I’m not sure, I’m not in tune, I’m not truly capable of picking the right people or whatever,
LASS: Don’t tell anybody that.
QUESTION: I doubt myself on that, at that path, many times but what then bothers me is the absoluteness of selective admissions and then how these people who get accepted, then assume that they are, you know, THE one and only because they have been chosen for admission to Amherst College. And so they don’t understand the humility on the part of the Admission Office in choosing them in the first place.
LASS: Let me make a suggestion to you, that with every admission that you make, there go a simple letter-- “Dear Whatever, Dear George: As a result of one of the most cockeyed procedures that this country has developed, administered by a group of reasonably honest but fairly incompetent young people, you have been selected for Amherst College. Do not interpret this to mean anything other than that life is a gigantic crap game and you won on that first roll.” (Laughter) That’s a radical way to put it.
QUESTION: The relationship that you talk about,the relationship that you have with Dean Wilson and the relationship that Ed has with many of the counselors out there, all things that we are trying to develop, and I think to a certain extent, in our first year, we are. I know that I can talk to some counselors of the schools that I visited and be honest with them, but I think that what happens now is we have so many people applying that a counselor will call me and want the odds-- and he’ll say O.K. this kid is thirtieth in his class, but believe me, he is above and beyond that and you want to empathise with that, you want to sympathise with that; and I think what happens, though, if we all did that, we would have a class right now. We have all accepted people that we wanted to accept or taken the word of a counselor whom we feel we have a good relationship with, we could all go home until September, because we just have that many kids. I guess if I can express Chris’s feeling, what happens to the kid from an area that you don’t visit this year?
LASS: He goes to Harvard.
QUESTION: Ok, I guess it’s this-- your John Kennedy statement-- life isn’t fair-- certainly is true, but I think what bothers me most about that is, that you realize that that’s unfair. And to accept that as being unfair.
LASS: You don’t accept it, you have no choice about it. You have-- what's the size of your entering class? [Answer: 375] Let’s assume you have 600 kids who in your estimation look good. They all look alike, let us say. Some way you’re going to have to cut it off and you have no choice about it unless you build some additional facilities, get additional staff at which time you will be bankrupt.
WILSON: You’re not dooming them to Hades, you know, when you turn them down. Over the years, time and again I’d meet at the oddest places parents of sons that I had turned down personally (you see, I was always the one who did it personally, though I carefully said always the Committee on Admission), so I was the one who had turned them down and they would say, you know, “What do you suppose happened to my son?” And I’d usually say, “Well, didn’t he win a Woodrow Wilson?” And they’d say “How did you know?” I’d say, “Because to my knowledge, we’ve never turned down anyone who didn’t win a Rhodes Scholar, a Woodrow Wilson, or a Fulbright, or something else.” And these boys do go on. I remember a boy who came on with tears in his eyes in September, who we’d rejected, he was on the way to Harvard with his mother. He came in the office and begged us to take him in even at this late date because he didn’t want to go to Harvard. Well I gave him a beautiful sales talk on Harvard and how much more it had than Amherst and wished him well and he went off with tears in his eyes. But I followed him up a year later. I wrote him a letter, and I guess it was in June after he’d finished his work at Harvard for the first year, and said we’re going to have a vacancy in the sophomore year and are you still interested in Amherst? He wrote back and said I can’t get over what a great place Harvard is, forget Amherst, I have no more interest in it. So you know you’re not dooming them to eternal damnation when you turn them down. They’re going to-- every college offers the same thing: an opportunity to make what you can of it. Harvard has 5,000,000 books; we only have 500,000 and this one boy from a high school said to me when he’d just been to Harvard, “How many books do you have in your library?” Well at that time I said we had about 350 and he said do you know that Harvard has 5,000,000 and I said, “Oh, thank you very much for that information. How many do you plan to read?” [Laughter] In one year? And I pinned him down and he said, “two hundred.” So I said, “That are you going to do with the other 4,999,800?”
QUESTION: I don’t know, it scares me. I’ve had two experiences like this happen to me. I’ve had two students make this comment this week. And it scares me as to how sophisticated they are and I don’t know why they were on it with me, I don’t know...
LASS: You bring out the best in them.
QUESTION: No, I’m not well...
LASS: You can finish that sentence
QUESTION: I’m humble-- or I’m humbled. But they said, “My counselor told me before I came to interview at Amherst, the thing Amherst College wants to hear from you is that you want Amherst. And if you communicate nothing else in that interview, you should communicate that.”
LASS: That’s bad guidance.
WILSON: Many colleges do try to find out all they can in the interview about the real choice you have. We never have paid too much attention to that, but when something came out-- you know, they used to have to list their choices on the College Board tests and at that time we’d take only the first choice because we’d have five or six hundred per class of 250. Then they did away with the choice and then it became a guessing game. There are certain times when it is important when you take a reject from Harvard or Yale that you’d like to know that he is rejected because he’s going to spend his time on weekends down with his old buddies, particularly if he comes from Andover or Exeter.
QUESTION: O.K., this kid may be honest and tell you that INDEED Amherst is one of many possibilities and indeed there are other places that are more attractive, but how many times does a person tell me that and I take it for what it’s worth? And in reality, they’re playing this game with me that, you know, they’ve simply been prompted by their very astute counselors to come in and sling a line of bull that is, you know...
LASS: This is partly an interpretation of Early Decision. Amherst indeed takes those that sign up early.
GROSE: Could you comment on that Bill? Didn’t the Early Decision program get implemented under your administration?
WILSON: Yes, and the Ivy League fought it because they didn’t want us doing this...
WALL: Harvard, Yale and Princeton still are.
WILSON: Yes, they fought it all the way, but what they would do, they’d go to these feeder schools of theirs, and they would send three men to Exeter for three days and interview 150 of the 200 boys or 110 or something, and then they’d give them A, B, C ratings. And you’d know that the A’s were probably the only ones that were going to get in, which was a form of early decision, though they wouldn’t admit it. And then later on they’d sift them down-- does he really want to come here or does he want to go to Yale or whatnot?
WALL: Bill, one of the things that I know you know has happened: we had 557 Early Decision applications this year and we took 196 of them-- that’s more than half the class.
WILSON: It gives me the shivers to think of it. The wrong ones. (Laughter)
WALL: And we could have taken that many more and one of the things that I have been considering seriously doing next year-- maybe it’s kind of a maverick reaction on my part-- I know that one of the descriptions of you in the past was that word-- as an experiment for a couple of years, as we open up to what is now called equal access admission, no quotas by sex, which we have been under for the last three years I’ve been seriously...
[gap in recording]
LASS: . . .a decency and integrity is extremely difficult. I think so; it’s much more difficult than being the principal of a high school, I can tell you. I had no problems-- I was it-- I was Numero Uno. I got all the blame, I got all the kudoes, didn’t have to worry about what anybody thought about what I would do. You have to worry about what your president’s going to do, what Ed Wall’s going to say, and everybody, and the parents and the kids. I’m glad I’m not an admissions officer, but I would think that the essential problem is at root a moral problem, namely: you have to live with yourself. And as soon as you lose the sensitivity that you now have, the realization that you are making so many wrong decisions, you are doing so many things that are so many injustices to so many kids, and you can’t help yourself-- there isn’t anything you can do about it except, as Mark Twain said, “Do what you think is right. This will please some people, it will amaze the rest.” It will leave you, at any rate, feeling relatively unsullied.
WILSON: To answer your question, Ed. Under today’s conditions, I don’t know how much this is a game with kids who are a little uncertain, or who really want Amherst for a good reason or not, and if you have some question about what it’s producing, you’re going to have these same people under your original assessment anyway, and you might not take the same 195 under the total group approach. I don’t know.
WALL: Well, do you think it’s worth a try, do you think we can risk it?
WILSON: I don’t think you’re going to be hurt by it. You’re going to have a little trouble figuring out numbers to accept that first year; you could be well over or well under, but we were well over-- never under-- but we were well over a couple of times when we had that sophisticated equipment, you know, that we used to predict our class. But I wouldn’t hesitate to try it out.
WALL: You don’t think it’s a harebrained idea.
WILSON: No. Do you often have students who bring you a transcript with them, and asking what you think?
Medley of Voices: Yes. No. Send literature in advance. Well I’d say 1 in 10 actually. More in the summer than any time else.
WILSON: In June, after the junior year-- well this is a perfect time for you, in spite of Dr. Lass’s advice, to be honest with the student and you look at his transcript and you’ve already found out about his activities and interests during the interview, and you say, “Now according to marks and test scores, in my opinion you’re qualified for any college in the United States. You’re capable of doing the work. As far as applying to Amherst goes, there’s quite a similarity between your record and test scores and hundreds of others who are going to be applying. So whether you will get in or not will depend on something you’ve done on the side, some activity, some use of summertime experience, or something else, and I can’t tell at this point how different you will be from those with whom you’re competing. All I can say is you’ve got a great record and you’re well qualified for any college in the country including Amherst, but I can’t tell you whether you’ll get in or not.” But at least you give them the feeling that, well, I’m qualified for any college in the country, you’ve given them something to take home that’s a plus. And it also casts a seed of doubt about Amherst, which quite often you want to do and it may discourage them in a very quiet way from applying. Of course you don’t do that with the first violinist in the Chicago Youth Symphony or something like that.
WALL: I always felt you were much tougher on, but also to be blunt, more unfair to the children of alumni when they were applying; and one of the most difficult parts of my job, we have, I think, a pretty good reputation in the field...
WILSON: You have an excellent reputation, I think actually...
WALL: and in counselling we have, in dealing with alumni children. On the other hand, to be perfectly straight on this whole issue, most of the alumni children we admit to this college-- and I admit a lot of them and turn a lot of them down right on the spot-- are admitted if we’re looking for a scale-tipper or an extra dimension. The extra dimension is that FACT: that they are children of alumni, and very few of these youngsters would be admitted to the college were it not for that connection. Also, another difficult thing to deal with is that many of those who would be admitted without that connection, in other words many of the best ones, do not seem to come to the College. I feel this is a tremendous albatross and these folks, here, are very critical of me and rightly so; on the other hand they don’t have to take all the crap.
WILSON: That’s right.
WALL: And so, this is really a...
WILSON: This is one of your larger...
WALL: ...and as a non-alumnus
WILSON: ...one of your knottiest problems being a non-alumnus. You’re bound to be stupid, you see.
WALL: By definition.
WILSON: But I always had the out that none of my four children could get into Amherst, so don’t cry on my shoulder. Two of them were girls so they couldn’t have gotten in anyway, but the two boys weren’t qualified academically, and I wouldn’t have traded either of them for any boy I admitted to Amherst. But I was so fond of them and so appreciative of the talents that they did have, which weren’t exactly scholastic. So this stopped the alumnus from crying on my shoulder very quickly when I said, “Well my kids couldn’t get in. What do you want to talk about?” But Ed doesn’t have that nice thing to fall back on and this is your toughest job. I never felt that just being the son of an alumnus was enough by itself; but when a man has worked hard for you as an alumni recruiter, when he’s run his Class fund, when he’s done so much for the College, that might be enough to tip the scales-- for the son of an alumnus. We do it with faculty sons, which they forget sometimes.
WALL: We try to include them in the bundle, that’s a political gesture on my part.
WILSON: Faculty sons and alumni sons are treated the same way.
GROSE: But you also, of course, have increased the number of faculty, excuse me, alumni children with which you deal by 100% when the College has gone up only 10%. I mean these are going to be the worst years to get adjusted to this because there’s more alumni children with which to deal.
WILSON: Then I would get rough action from an alumnus, it was usually some man very prominent in business whose son we turned down, and he’d play this line: if you don’t take sons of alumni you’re not going to increase the wealth of this institution and so forth and so on. I would then say to him, “Well now, what is your policy in your company on hiring the sons of executives?” Most companies won’t hire them, you see. “Well, what do you mean, no matter how well qualified the son is, you won’t hire him?” “Oh no we can’t run into this nepotism, you know; we can’t have that.”
GROSE: It’s only for you!
WILSON: And this sometimes gave him a different perspective on our position but not very often did it do so.
WALL: The best feedback that we’ve had-- I’m sure this is human also-- are the people whom we have discouraged, said no to, and guided them in a different direction.
WILSON: I’ve heard excellent reports about the counselling.
WALL: ... but what I’m worried about is because I don’t have the knowledge of the fathers, the grandfathers, the institution that you have. We do consult in a regular way with Callahan, who’s the Director of Development...
WILSON: Who knows more than the Alumni Secretary who’s so new that he doesn’t know anybody.
WALL: .. .and Al Guest, who was the former Alumni Secretary, and the new Alumni Secretary, and they give us information. Now only in borderline situations do I allow information to influence me, but at the same time I think that’s unfair so I go the other way and say that just because the father went here, and the student is well qualified, that student deserves a chance. What I worry about is the swelling of numbers and how to keep that down-- it’s most frustrating when you see...
WILSON: That’s your toughest job, but you’ve got to have something tough...
LASS: Remember Joe E. Lewis, the old nightclub entertainer-- that’s before your time-- he’s this gravelly-voiced nightclub entertainer? He used to say, “Money,” he says, “Money ain’t everything. But it sure quiets the nerves.” And if I had a choice about the things to worry about, I mean if I really had this choice, I would take the troubles of affluence as against those of poverty. And that’s what you’re suffering from. You have too many alumni who want to get their kids into this school, and who with each kid there goes some sort of contribution to the school, I’m sure-- actual or implied-- and I think it’s great to have that kind of trouble-- it really is.
WALL: Of course it’s not all-- what worries me, Abe, is
LASS: You worry about the wrong things.
WALL the alumnus who went here, who was loyal, who hasn’t done very much for the College, who hasn’t given very much to the College in terms of service or money; I think back to an alumnus who teaches school, and not in a particularly strong school district down around the Providence area, and we have admitted both of his kids. They’ve done all right; they haven’t been spectacular but they weren’t particularly spectacular. Now I just feel (now maybe I’m wrong about this), but I feel that that alumnus has just as much claim on us for his kids as someone who is a big hitter and who’s been extra loyal if both of the kids are perfectly well qualified. I think both...
LASS: I don’t see how you can possibly make any decision about numbers that great, no matter where you cut them off. No matter what the factors are that you consider, you’re going to come up with 300 “ins” and 300 “outs” and there is no solution to that problem; and things that cannot be solved, let’s stop worrying about. There are enough solvable problems I think in college admissions that you can do something about, and the rules of this game are simply that without the alumni, this college and other colleges would soon fall apart. For you to take any other position would seem to me to be running against the survival of the fittest. You survive and you prosper, very largely, don’t you, on alumni contributions of one kind or another, and I think it’s a great tribute, I’d feel very happy if every alumnus was knocking on the door of my institution to get his kids in. At the same time at one time or another you have to say, “I’m sorry.” That is that wonderful line-- Sorry, being in love means having to say I’m sorry.
VOICES: Never heard that before!!
LASS: Or never having to say I’m sorry. So you’re not in love, and so you don’t love everybody, and everybody doesn’t love you. And that’s the way life is.
WALL: O.K. that’s a pressure point that I feel-- another pressure point. There are two others that are really very much on our minds and it involves numbers: one is the situation in athletics and the other is the situation in terms of minorities. And I feel very committed, strongly committed to both of those, to the alumni situation and when you take three areas like that and a very little class and you pay attention to those three areas as we do...
LASS: You’re shortening your life.
WALL: Would you comment on the athletic situation and the minority situation as you can see it?
WILSON: Well, the athletics, it seems to me, is always very similar to achievement in any other activity. The happy student, the student who’s productive as a rule, is a student who is doing something he enjoys and is doing it well. Whether that side issue be in making kites, playing in the orchestra, or singing in a singing group, acting in the theater, or playing on the sports field. When I took over as Dean of Freshmen the administration had a rule that if you flunked a course you were taken out of sports. Well, the worst thing you can do to a student, if he’s good in an activity, is to take him out of the thing that he’s enjoyed as a sideline and tell him he can’t do that anymore-- tell him that he can’t do that anymore, because then you’re ripping one of the heartstrings out of him. Now the students, the really top scholars, don’t need any divertisement-- any side issue-- books are their world-- ideas, numbers, symbols-- these are the things they love. Leave them alone. They’ll do it. They don’t want anything else. But you have very, very few scholars coming to Amherst. Very, very few scholars. So you have men who have good minds, good students, but their whole world isn’t numbers, words, ideas, symbols. So I think these priorities are terribly important. Now when we had our tight curriculum, we didn’t get many minority groups because they couldn’t do calculus and physics unless they’d been to Exeter, and if they were they might as well be white. They didn’t bring a black voice——you know what I mean.
What’s this? Cider?
WILSON: No thank you. Abe, you want any? Keep you awake.
LASS: They think you’re falling asleep. (LAUGHTER) More persiflage re coffee.
WILSON: So these are priorities I think you’ve got to continue to recognize as important, or give up intercollegiate sports, which is something many faculty would like to have you do, and a few alumni.
QUESTION: A question for Mr. Lass. In your experience with a great many students, do you think it’s a wise thing for a high school student to be accepted early, whether it’s for an Early Decision program or whether it’s an acceptance by interview or acceptance on the spot? I think I’ve lost a student who might have applied by accepting her and I think I lost one by not accepting, had I accepted him I think he would be coming here in January. I’m torn as to whether it’s the right thing or the wrong thing.
LASS: It’s six of one and a half dozen of the other. I happen to be-- all my life I’ve been on the kid’s side and I’m on the side of the majority-- but really I’m on the kid’s side in this because the one who catches all the uncertainty and all the tension is the kid. Sometimes it spills over onto the parent, ... but somebody once said that the basic equipment of being a good teacher was a good memory. If you can remember, when I went to college of course things were quite different then; I went to college in 1925 and my mother had never even been to elementary school, so there was no problem at home, and the city colleges were open to poor boys. I said to my mother at the end of my senior year, or beginning of my senior year in high school, “Ma, I’d like”-- she didn’t ask me what I was going to do, the assumption was that I would make the choice-- she was in no position to make it-- I said, “Ma, I’d like to go to college.” She said, “Who’s stopping you?” Nobody had any nervous breakdowns. I just said I wanted to go to college. She said, “O.K., so go to college.” So I went to college. It was that simple at that time. Now today, particularly when everybody’s trying to get through that same narrow hole, it’s rough, it’s murderous on the kid, much more so than on anybody else. And therefore, my own feeling would be that you’re going to lose a kid one way or another-- you just demonstrated this-- I was about to say it wouldn’t make any difference what you did, you’re going to lose some if you have Early Admission or Early Decision and you’re going to lose some if you don’t. You will come up with approximately the same size of class anyhow. I would do the merciful thing, and Bill, being the great humanitarian that he was and being on the side of the kid basically, was I think motivated in that direction. Anything to cut down the amount of anxiety. The bright kid today who is headed for the overcrowded admissions processes in a few of the colleges is under such tension, even though he may not reveal it; it’s very real. You don’t see it, you don’t see it because you’re at the receiving end, but if you are allied at the high school end, if any kind of what the kids call “rappaport” with the kids, if you maintain any kind of relationship with kids other than a paper one, you get the feeling very quickly. What you want to do, what you should want to do, is to terminate this agony as soon as possible. And therefore, I would say, the thing-- my criterion would be, is this good for the kid?-- the institution will survive almost any procedure. Is it good for the kid? I would then do it, because you will then get kids who at least will have six months or so of being able to breathe normally. Sure, it may result in some kids letting up a bit, but I see no answer...
QUESTION: But what about the other fifty percent that will not get in because you’ve accepted a whole group early and their agony is prolonged for no good reason, because they’re not going to get admitted? Is that fair?
LASS: Always that, “It’s not fair!!”
QUESTION: I know it. I know this whole process is not fair, but I really feel an obligation to make it as fair as you possibly can.
LASS: My original answer was I would drop Early Decision for that reason. At least then in your own view you would be allowing the same unequal chances to be distributed unequally. (Laughter and voices)
QUESTION: Because I’m not sure the decision-- O.K., if that decision that I make based upon an interview that I’m perhaps skeptical of, papers that I have at hand, perhaps an unjustified recommendation from a counselor, you know, is that fair? Because in my choosing the student for a wrong reason...
LASS: Well let’s put it this way. If you do Early Decision, you’re going to feel bad about the kids who are excluded. But you should feel very good about the kids whom you accept, shouldn’t you? Because you have terminated the agony at an early point for them
WILSON: And you should feel good about the ones you reject.
LASS: Yes, but you’re not satisfied with that. So what you’re going to do is you’re going to distribute this agony evenly in these 600 kids, and then you’re going to penalize the ones whom you would have accepted by imposing upon them an unnecessary agony which you could have terminated by accepting.
WILSON: And the ones that you turned down on Early Decision, you’re doing them a real favor because you have said to them...
QUESTION: But you don’t turn anybody down.
WILSON: No, but you say you can’t get in now and you are alerting them to the fact that they may not get in later on and you’ve given them some advice and counsel so that they will re-examine whatever interest they had in Amherst and they will begin to look at other places far ahead if you just sent out an April 15th notice and all of a sudden it hits them at once. These people have had another four months to think about where they’re going.
WALL: One of the things we used to do, but just don’t have time to do because of the volume of the numbers now, is to send out large numbers of early rejection letters. And we haven’t been able to do that for about five years.
LASS: You know the truth is that if you were to send these acceptances to the kids, and make no mistake about those who are left, those who don’t get-- I mean you can write the most beautiful consoling and smoothest piece of public relations prose that you want to, you have sent these kids whom you have not accepted for Early Decision a message. And you have sent it to them early enough for them to get on their horse and forget about Amherst, which maybe they ought to do anyhow. You have told them that. Now they may keep you in mind or they may not, but I think it’s probably more humane and fairer to them that you let them know that we don’t consider you top notch material. Of course you will be regarded equally in the second time around with everybody else and you know what their answer to that is, the Bronx cheer.
WALL: We’ve been a little more blunt, we were very blunt; we sent more letters that actually used the word “unlikely” this year to the Early Decision.
LASS: The only problem there is that most kids don’t know the meaning of the word “unlikely.”
QUESTION: The problem, though, as I see it-- I’d really like to know how many spaces we have left in regular admission, because we’ve accepted 195 Early Decision candidates and God knows how many more that have been accepted on the spot. I was accepted on the spot, based on a letter from my perhaps oldest Green Dean here, and a number of California kids I know were accepted that way, just on the basis of two words and trying to recruit California kids. When it comes right down to it-- well for example, last year there were some very qualified people from the school who fully expected they had a good chance of getting...
WILSON: There always are...
QUESTION: and there always are from all over the place, and yet when it came right down to it, I don’t think they really had a chance, because there just aren’t any, or practically no, places left after the on-the-spot acceptances, the alumni acceptances, that all go into regular admission.
LASS: You know George Orwell’s Animal Farm? I don’t know if it has much to do here in open admissions or the whole admissions process, but we’re talking about this whole matter of fairness-- there’s this great sentence, somewhere in Animal Farm I’m sure it is-- “Everybody is equal, but some are more equal than others.” And this is approximately the way it comes out. I see no resolution to that dilemma, really.
QUESTION: Well I would hope if there’s not a resolution... I’m sure there’s no solution to it, but I wish we could make strides to...
LASS: The only consolation, it would seem to me if I were in your position, I would at least have the consolation of having confronted honestly the really sticky, basically insoluble problem. The trouble, you begin to have these terrible doubts when you believe rightly or wrongly that there is a better answer and that you don’t have that better answer. I think as soon as you realize that you’re faced with a problem to which there is ultimately no satisfactory solution, then you have to ask, is this the best of possible solutions? There are two imperfect solutions-- is this the more imperfect or the less imperfect? or is it more unequal or less unequal? I don’t think you have the choice of bad and good here. It’s a gray area.
WILSON: The first year that I was in admission work, 40% of those who applied were not qualified. They were using the pre-war standards; this was 1946, the Class of ‘51. Forty percent were not qualified. So what we did was prepare a report to schools to try and help counselors see what our admission problem was, to give them facts and figures so that they could say, when a person with 700s came in and ranked in the top 10% of the class, “I’m thinking of going to Amherst, what are my chances?,” “Well, let’s get out the Amherst report.” The Ivy League had fits when we did this. They said you just can’t reveal these confidential figures on College Board-- this is terrible. In one year we published the racial, the religious breakdown of the class, and oh did that bring a howl! I said, because I think we were 29% Jewish, I said the Ivy League ought to do the same thing. Ugh, with their 8% Jewish they wouldn’t think of doing it. So these reports to schools, Amherst started that practice, and I don’t know, are they still helpful, do you think, to schools?
WALL: Oh yes, it’s all right out there.
WILSON: They give the score and Ed writes a long report to go with the test scores so that the student has no illusions.
GROSE: It’s now the law of the land, it’s under the Consumer Protection material. (Jumble of voices)
LASS: The only difficulty, typographically it’s a monstrosity-- particularly if you are wearing bi-focals as I am now. It’s almost impossible to read it, but then, if you really set it up so that it would be readable, say in sight-conservation type, the way The Times would print it for the elderly, you’d at least be able to read it. It requires tremendous motivation-- no reflection on you, because you didn’t set the type, but it would be more useful if it could be read-- I mean physically read. It is so thick typographically, the page doesn’t read, which reminds me of what Sir Walter Raleigh said about Johnson, Samuel Johnson’s style. He said, “It is characterized by inspissated tenebrosity.” And typographically, typographically it is inspissated, thick and dark and you don’t even know what you’re looking for, you suddenly come into this jumble of type, you get tangled up in it and I would-- I’m not asking for this job, Ed, by the way, but I’m sure that anybody in Graphics 1-- do you have a graphics course here?
VOICES: Negative. Negative. Darned if I know.
WILSON: Coming next year.
LASS: I’m sure that graphically the thing could be made more readable. Actually, if you really get into it and read it, it’s a surprising document. When Bill got the first one out, I was privileged to read it. It’s an astonishing document, then; today it no longer is.
WILSON: Sent it back red-penciled with the grammar and spelling corrected.
LASS: Well every English teacher, if you’re an old English teacher, you never read anything without a pencil. It’s an occupational disease.
GROSE: I want to go back to your earlier observations about the nature of the secondary school student that will be coming to join us, and already has arrived in many ways. The colleges’ responsibilities and opportunities are changing, too. From what you say, we’ve got some interesting problems both about setting future standards, if that is possible. We are a little bit different from many of our fellow colleges in that we still have a very selective enterprise. Many of the rest are taking 80% of their applicants or whatever, a large number. How are they ever going to set standards-- I mean are they going to be-- a very interesting conflict is developing-- saying well, I’m sorry you’re not well enough prepared for us. How do we reverse this setting up standards for the secondary schools in say, English?
LASS: Well, whether you know, whether you recognize it or not, I think we’re moving to at least a two-tiered higher educational system. One-- the Amherst, the Yales, the Harvards and so forth-- which will be the haven of, essentially the economically privileged-- the rich, who will also be bright, hopefully, and without the conscience that rich kids are generally characterized. They will be the products of our society, of the rich society with its whole sense of values, and that’s inevitable as tuition goes up and as the selective process becomes greater, this is going to be a much more stratified college as I see it in the next few years. And the rest of humanity, which is about 95%, are going either to the small, purchasable commodities in collegiate life or to the state universities simply because they cannot survive. If you have three kids, and if you have been reading the books, you know, when you got married, you spaced them adequately, whatever that means, you will suddenly find yourself with three kids in college all at the same time with a bill like about $18,000 a year which means that you couldn’t pay your rent, or you couldn’t eat, or you couldn’t do something. And then they’re all going to graduate school, too. So you’re in hock for something like about a quarter of a million dollars until the kids become half competent physicians, crooked lawyers, and maybe school teachers-- honest school teachers. I don’t see any answer, Bob, really, but I do think that that’s the way it’s moving. Well, I think it’s here. As someone said, the future has already arrived. And I think if you were to do a socio-economic (I like that word, Bill) profile I think you would find that you’re edging up, way way up into the group that can afford, and that those that can afford it are not necessarily the best kids to have. When I went to college, the best kids went to the City University because they were hungry-- literally and figuratively-- and intellectually I can tell you that for the teacher and for the growing student there is nothing like an intellectually hungry atmosphere to be in. It generates a kind of eagerness and a kind of imagination and curiosity. You rub up against those kids, why something important happens to you. And something very important happens to the teachers, too, because any teacher facing a group of us, in the late ‘twenties, really had his hands full because we weren’t going to settle for anything except what we wanted. And it pushed the teachers just as hard as it pushed us. But my guess is that you’re going to get fewer and fewer of that kind of kid in this type of institution unless you buy him, virtually, you will have to buy him, have to buy his way in. I don’t mean that in any offensive way. He cannot come here on his own from a family earning less than $50,000 a year gross. I don’t see how he can. If there are two kids, or three kids, I say just forget about it, unless the father makes a decision about you will go to Amherst and the others will go to LIU at night, community college. Of course no parents are about to do this, but this emphasizes further, I think, and I don’t think it bodes well either for the institution or for our society to develop this highly stratified, two-class, you already have it in the high schools.
WALL: But shouldn’t we continue to try? How far should we stretch our desires to have as much socio-economic diversity as we can? Won’t the money take care of itself, or shouldn’t we try to fight this and get as much diversity of this sort?
LASS: I think it’s a question of money and the money won’t take care of itself. Well, if you want to take on Carter and General Motors, if you want to alter the fabric and the direction of our society, I would say yes, I would be all in favor of fighting it. My granddaughter, according to the Bowery Savings Bank ad, if she ever reaches that point, will cost about $20,000 a year for her to go to college, if this continues the way it is. It is obviously, I won’t be here, and her parents aren’t going to have that kind of money. But I think, socially, it’s a very frightening prospect. I think for the first time in our history we will be perpetuating, just as we have in the inner cities, we will be perpetuating in the inner cities predominantly black and Hispanic and South American and Chicano enclaves surrounded by rings of white. So I think you will be perpetuating a similar kind of stratification in higher education. True, it will be very select, very elitist, because you cannot possibly in this sort of institution, without subverting the traditions and values that it stands for, you cannot admit people who cannot do what they are supposed to do or what the institution stands for. The City University ruined itself, literally, by the premature, wholesale open-admissions program. Now, they are offering free scholarships to those who don’t need it in an effort to attract back into the college those who have steered away from it because the standards have so fallen apart. I think it’s a very very serious social problem. I confess I don’t know the answer to it.
QUESTION: Well what’s even, I think, sadder, is that a lot of private institutions will disappear. I’m not worried about Amherst necessarily, because they’ll always attract that moneyed group of people who can pay the price; but there are hundreds of institutions...
LASS: And very good ones...
QUESTION: and very good ones who will not be here in twenty years simply because they won’t be able to attract the moneyed people; and that’s even sadder.
LASS: But that’s a vast social problem. I know I don’t have the answer to it. I see it, but I don’t have the answer.
WILSON: I’ve got to go. (LOUD CLAPPING) I feel the College is in good hands with this selection committee you have.
Final transcription August, 1978