Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why be Well-Rounded?

The Rhodes Trust recently announced the 32 American winners of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. This award pays for American students to pursue post-graduate studies at Oxford University in the UK.

Biographies of the winners are listed here (follow link to press release). All these young people seem highly accomplished, or at least have a lot of potential. But one thing that struck me, reading the bios, is that the Rhodes Trust is very into the idea of well-rounded students. Think a physicist who plans to try out for the US Olympic ski team, a mathematician who plays volleyball… On one hand, this is good – it shows that brainy people can be brawny, or have wide interests.

On the other… there’s a lot of marketing that goes into marking oneself as Rhodes material, and I’m sure many of these winners have been coached to show some other, resume-worthy activity that the Rhodes committee can seize on. The pursuit of well-roundedness can become pretty zealous at times. What’s wrong with choosing the kid who’s published the most exciting mathematical papers during his undergraduate career, even if he doesn’t play squash or tutor underprivileged youth?

The truth is, we live in an anti-intellectual culture, and even the Rhodes scholarship, given to the brainy, is influenced by this. In an anti-intellectual culture, few groups are willing to choose winners based on intellectual or academic merits alone. Look at lists of USA Today’s top college students, for instance. The winners always have a lot of community service, side interests, and are chosen for geographic and ethnic diversity in a way the lists of the top high school basketball players never are. (The Rhodes Trust also guarantees geographic diversity by choosing candidates from different regions).

People can certainly choose recipients of scholarships as they wish. But there’s a problem with the pursuit of well-roundedness. I think of it as the Miss America problem. To be crowned Miss America, you have to compete in multiple areas. You are supposed to look decent, have a performing arts talent, have the ability to speak in front of groups, and have a significant community service interest.

Not surprisingly, it is very rare to find anyone who excels in all these areas and hasn’t gone professional (as a model, as a singer or dancer, etc.). So you get mediocre talent performances, forced answers to the questions on the TV program, and candidates who aren’t all that attractive, to boot. No wonder TV ratings dropped, vs., say, Miss USA, which is solely a looks-based contest. In other words, their candidates aren't well-rounded.

Something for the Rhodes people to keep in mind.


Victoria said...

But when they only have a limited amount of people to choose by making well-roundness a factor helps them discern who to choose.

Anonymous said...

Firstly the criteria are stipulated in Rhodes' will, they are not just chosen at random and secondly since we can't define intelligence absolutely the will assumes (or the assumption is implied) that well roundedness is considered an act/form of intelligence. Being a brilliant mathematician with no social (if you like) intelligence will confine that individual to the lab/desk. This person is less likely to become a future leader which is the explicit purpose of the scholarships. Well roundedness is supposed to imply that, that person will be willing to use their abilities to their fullest potential – sporting ability has relatively recently become interpreted as a general zest for life. The scholarships are not meant to choose the greatest person as defined in some abstract form but rather to choose people who are likely to contribute significantly to society in a manner which was stipulated by Rhodes.