This year, I began working as a college counselor, advising bright and talented students on the value of a liberal arts education and the concept of fit, as well as more mundane matters such as crafting essays that answer the question and making sure that an application is filled out correctly. My students willingly do homework, take tests, join clubs, and volunteer in order to craft themselves into highly desirable candidates. They are, no question, great students. Yet as the semester has progressed, I have found myself angry, frustrated, and screaming at my husband because the telephone is ringing.
Why the pissy attitude?
At first, I attributed all this unpleasentness to stress, comforting myself with wishful thoughts that after the first rush of applications, I would calm down, teachers would submit recommendations in a timely manner, and students would follow instructions. The question, as I first saw it, was procedural; all we had to do was figure out how to cooperate and everything else would fall into place. Nevertheless, despite major adjustments, minor tweaks, and a general policy of bribing and bullying students as necessary, my irritation only increased.
Several days ago, a student came to me and said, “I want to apply early decision.”
I asked, “What school are you thinking about?”
He replied, “What school do you think I have the best chance of getting in?”
I rolled my eyes and repeated, “Where do you want to go?”
“Recently, the University of X has admitted many Chinese students. Do you think I have a chance?”
“Why do you want to go there?”
“I want a good study environment and it has a high ranking.”
“But what’s special about this University?”
He stared at me. I rephrased, “How will you answer the application question – Why do you want to attend University of X?”
He reassured me, “That’s an easy question to answer. Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll have something to say.”
Another college application standoff. I wanted to convince him to choose a college that fit him, he wanted me to get him into the highest ranking college possible.
This student typifies how my students have approached looking at US colleges and universities. They look at college rankings with an eye to how famous a school is in China and then compare the requirements for attending that university with what they have thus far achieved. They apply to a range of colleges based on these criteria – how highly ranked, how famous, how likely am I to get in? This is a highly rational approach to selecting a college and it has bothered me no end.
Only in retrospect have I unpacked my frustration in how my students have approached US college applications. I believe, unthinkingly, that which college a student attends is a choice. I maintain that the proper way of making a choice entails reflecting on one’s values, passions, and intellectual stregths. In this sense, academic achievements are necessary but insufficient to make a choice. The deciding factor is how a student wants to live. Moreover, it is the responsibility of the student to understand who she is and choose accordingly. This is a crude definition of “fit” – the idea that schools have different strengths, allowing students to flourish in different ways.
My understanding of “choosing a college” is based on a larger American valuation of choice in general. To my mind, a “good” person makes choices, a “bad” person opportunistically maximizes options. I value choice because it is where I express my commitments, ethics, and personality. I believe that society should be structured in such a way as to provide fair and equal opportunities to make choices. Indeed, I understand “freedom” to be defined through choice, experiencing the absence of choice as not only emotionally intolerable, but also unjustly oppressive. Moreover, I interpret other people’s actions with respect to my valuation of choice. I understand critical moments in a life to be defined by the choices that an individual has made – the choice of friends, the choice of where to go to college (or not), the choice of a spouse (or not), the choice of jobs… At each moment, I see that the self must express itself by making choices. A not B, C rather than D.
Here’s the cross-cultural rub: My Chinese students don’t operate out of the same valuation of choice. Instead, they value contexts of possibility. They understand that if they attend a certain high school, they will have the possibility to meet a particular set of friends, attend a given set of colleges, and find a related job. At each moment, they see that one’s options are context dependent. Consequently, they work to make ensure that at any moment they have as many options as possible. Indeed, they see the greatness and expansiveness of the self in terms of endless possibility.
Clearly, choice and opportunity as organizing principles have different consequences, both good and bad. On the upside, those of us who value choice making, craft highly defined selves. We also tend to see ourselves as shaping the world. [Good morning, America!] Those of us who value an array of options, craft highly fluid selves. We also tend to see ourselves as adapting to an already formed world. [Hello, China!] On the downside, Americans who value choice making, often miss opportunities to live and experience the world otherwise because our selves are so firmly fixed through definitions of what “I” should choose. Likewise, Chinese who maximize opportunities, often live passively and without passion, taking what is offered as if it were an unchangeable fate.
可想而知 – as can be well imagined – when I, a muddled and American teacher meet up with bright but Chinese students to discuss the future, we often talk at cross purposes. Fortunately, we become vexed when the misunderstandings become too obvious to ignore. In turn, this irritation allows us to re-think how different points of departure might nevertheless lead to common ground.
Another highly speculative post from the depths of Shenzhen. What do you think?