Harvard, admit poets!

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Poet John Ashbery at his home in Hudson, NY.
The New York Times
Poet John Ashbery at his home in Hudson, NY.

Well-roundedness has become nearly a fetish among college admissions officers, and thus for parents trying to help their kids get into top schools. Think of the ideal applicant to an Ivy League college, her resume a landscape of achievement: athletics, public service, A’s in subjects from English to math.

Helen Vendler is troubled by this. Vendler, who has taught English at Harvard for 30 years and is known as one of the country’s leading poetry critics, thinks today’s admissions system discriminates against promising young people with monotonic interests—and especially against young artists. “We need to be deeply attracted to the one-sided as well as the many-sided,” she writes in an essay in the most recent issue of Harvard Magazine.

Vendler considers the roster of extraordinary writers who have matriculated in Cambridge over the years—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Adrienne Rich—and wonders: How many of them would have passed today’s well-roundedness test? Tomorrow’s great artists, Vendler argues, might look terrible to a dean of admissions: They’re likely to be introverted, prone to getting C’s in chemistry, lopsided in their interests. Vendler urges Harvard—and all universities—to shake up the definition of a promising young man or woman.


For admissions officers, Vendler’s idea poses a challenge. Privileging well-roundedness is in a sense a way of spreading bets on each admitted student: Among their many competencies, at least one will likely pan out. But with Vendler’s “one-sided” artists, if that promising 17-year-old turns out not to be the next Ashbery after all, Harvard may find that it has forsaken a future Wall Street titan or US senator in order to admit—shudder—a drifter.

Where ‘Mary’ went

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For the last few years University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen has maintained a small obsession with the name Mary. And for good reason, too. As he explains in a recent post at The Atlantic, “in the recorded history of names,” no name has suffered a more complete fall from grace.

From 1800-1961, Mary was the dominant girl’s name in America: number one every year but six (and in those years it was number two, to Linda). But as the 1960s got underway, Mary went into free fall, and it still hasn’t hit the ground. Last year it came in at number 112, its worst showing on record.

“The fall of Mary,” as Cohen has termed it on his blog Family Inequality, owes in part to a general trend away from naming conformity. Two hundred years ago there was currency in giving one’s child a common name; today, the last thing parents want is for their dynamically original little son to be one of five Oscars in his kindergarten class. Consistent with this hypothesis, Cohen notes that in 1961 there were 47,655 Marys born in America. In 2011, however, the top name, Sophia, appeared on only 21,695 birth certificates.

Cohen writes that while a comeback for Mary is unlikely, there is hope for the name in the even more astonishing story of Emma: number three in 1880, down below number 450 in the 1970s, and all the way back to number one in 2008.

Drones vs. poachers


The use of unmanned drones in military action has triggered some deep ethical debates, but there’s one place that drones seem like unalloyed good news: Soon drone airplanes will be circling the skies to protect South African rhinoceroses from poachers.

iStockphoto/Globe Staff Photo illustration

The planes are one of several antipoaching technologies now at the disposal of the World Wildlife Fund thanks to a $5 million grant given in the inaugural round of the Google Global Impact Awards. They’ll be unarmed and much smaller than their infamous war-on-terror cousins, and will be equipped with thermal imaging technology that will allow game rangers to identify and track poachers in Asia and Africa who target rhinos, elephants, and tigers.

As the demand for rhino horn has increased, mostly driven by the Asian medicine market, rangers have found themselves outgunned by increasingly sophisticated poaching syndicates, which use helicopters, silenced rifles, and night vision goggles to stalk their prey. These drones won’t even the fight, but they may at least give poachers a reason to think twice next time they line up a shot.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer who lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.