More on Colleges
It was a pleasant event, but not, I think, very informative. The problem, which I discussed in an earlier entry, is that all schools, at least all of the liberal arts colleges we are looking at, make essentially the same claims. They are all warm, friendly, non-competitive places, with easily accessible faculty doing cutting edge research, populated by creative, intelligent, tolerant, diverse students.
For the most part the claims are hard to test. Listening to alumni, it's clear that they think well of the school. But the alumni who come to such events are not a random sample and, perhaps more important, most of them have no good basis of comparison. They know what their experience was at that school but not what their experience would have been at one of its competitors.
The event included a movie, produced by students, lauding the school. Two things struck me. One was the effort to show what happy non-conformists the students were. The problem, of course, is that the more the school emphasizes the importance of that, the more one suspects that their sort of nonconformity is what students are conforming to. Judging at least by the schools we saw and, more, by what they said about themselves, the real nonconformist would have been wearing suit and tie and getting his exercise playing tennis instead of ultimate frisbee.
The other thing that struck me in the movie was not, I think, intended by its producers. One of the students, explaining how wonderful the school was, described it as undefinable--"like the square root of two."
The square root of two is quite easily defined--it is that number that, multiplied by itself, equals two. The correct term is "irrational," but I don't think that's how he wanted to describe his college. The actual information conveyed by that segment was that at least one student at that college was both mathematically illiterate and mathematically pretentious, and that nobody making the movie knew enough elementary mathematics, or was paying enough attention, to do a retake with the error corrected. I don't think that was the message that the school intended to give to potential students and their parents.