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The Facebook: Another Product of a Broken System
When schools select for overly competitive applicants, it should be no surprise when some cut corners.

May 7, 2008
Also published on The Huffington Post

It's all too obvious that the college admissions process is more competitive now than ever. Whether it is derived from one of the Korean preparatory schools recently profiled in The New York Times or Horace Mann, the magic formula for a degree stamped "Harvard" is an extremely valuable commodity, regardless of location. I went through the process in 2000, when high school seniors had it easy, relatively speaking. Then, the pool of frighteningly accomplished Harvard College applicants numbered almost 20,000. This past year, there were more than 27,000. A number of factors may account for the steady rise—the elimination of Early Action decisions at Harvard, United States population demographics, and (until recently) the increasing accessibility of financial aid—but no matter which you might think is predominantly responsible, one thing is clear: the perceived value of four years at Harvard is higher than ever before.

Perhaps it was the invocation of the Muppets in my essay that caused the guardians of Byerly Hall to be sufficiently charmed to grant me admission. I'll never really know. (I am by no means suggesting that "Muppet" is a magic keyword that will cause one's college of choice to grant automatic admission!) My acceptance came as a shock because there were many students in my high school class who were equally, if not more, qualified to attend. With them in mind, looking back on those painful years of incessant studying and trekking to extra-curricular activities, I have a sad admission of my own to make: speaking for myself, on the whole I'm not sure that Harvard, and the torture leading up to it, was worth it.

I will readily admit that for the first two weeks before coursework began, I had a great time. I met more extraordinary people at Harvard than I have anywhere else, and I'm fortunate to still call many of the same people my friends today. Yet for the remaining three years that I remained before deciding to graduate early, I often used my friends as sounding boards to vent complaint after complaint about my educational venue.

To be fair, I was warned. My father, a member of the class of 1975 (but hardly a major donor and not that Greenspan), warned me that I might not like a liberal arts school and even tried to dissuade me from applying to his alma mater. Yet I remained convinced that despite my fascination with computers, I did want a liberal arts education. With many different interests, I would have been miserable in an undergraduate "business" setting that focused on one topic to the exclusion of others. This decision doomed me to a fate I could scarcely begin to imagine, for although Harvard encourages undergraduates to study a wide array of perspectives, it insists—fairly adamantly, it turns out—that they study only the "correct" ones.

Since childhood I had been fascinated by the way technology transformed society. I read the industry magazine Byte long before I read Shakespeare in high school. Yet to Harvard, technology and entrepreneurship were anything but worthy of serious academic focus; they were heretical. My proposed special concentration in the intersection between "technology and its impact on society" could not be classified purely as economics or computer science. Each Dean reacted to my proposal with the same look: how could one even think such unclassifiable thoughts!

At Harvard College in 2002, quite simply, one couldn't. Instead, I turned to my company, writing software that would help Harvard students manage the myriad complexities of daily life, from pasta quality to course evaluations. There was even a component that united the thirteen paper and electronic face books scattered across campus. I called it "The Facebook."

Despite the lack of a threat to anyone or anything, as the fall of 2003 approached I felt as though I were trapped in a spy novel. Making my web site almost led to "disciplinary action" against myself and my friends by the infamous Administrative Board. I compiled evidence that one Harvard staff member was ordered to break in to figure out how it worked. Harvard's legal apparatus was launched against what I perceived to be completely imaginary violations of intellectual property law with the blame placed squarely on my shoulders. Administrators who had no reason to know my name and who I had met years prior in passing suddenly called out, "Why hello, Aaron," when I walked by. Some Harvard administrators may have monitored my e-mail in an attempt to stay one step ahead of what they incorrectly perceived to be a looming computer security hazard.

It was about this time that I began wondering what our educational system really prepared us to do. Was it to be scholars and academics? Every effort I had made at Harvard to study what truly interested me had been thwarted, with no explanation given. Was it to be captains of industry? I saw my peers putting on suits daily to be recruited by investment banks, but none trying to build real businesses. Was it to achieve our own personal goals? Many of my friends exclaimed wistfully that they would be "successful" once they had a list of combined degrees from Harvard's graduate schools.

All around me I saw indications that many of the top young minds in the world were being trained, in essence, to study, but not to think. At best, they were strongly encouraged to build a good re?sume? and save the thinking for later. This mentality still exists at Harvard and elsewhere in higher education.

The ramifications of our crumbling educational standards are serious, and they have been hidden in plain sight—headlines—for years. Plagiarism now comes from Harvard students (Kaavya Viswanathan) and faculty (Charles Ogletree) alike, though no one particularly cares. Both remain at Harvard. Wall Street is collapsing a bit more with each passing day despite its inhabitants being studded with Ivy League diplomas. Not to be outdone, the extremely well-educated American intelligence community built up evidence for an entire war on faulty assumptions—and it's not even the first time. My own encounter with educated indifference—the theft of the Facebook by one of my classmates—took me four years and three hundred pages of writing to sort out. Who taught these people that the ends justified the means? The answer is probably no one person in particular, but I can think of a certain decisive process that takes place at a formative time in life that just might encourage such behavior.

It's not news that turning learning into a battle for test scores and accolades might have disastrous consequences, but it is easy to forget. Still, the link is there. Teach children to compete, as we are doing now, and compete they will, no matter the cost. Teach children to actually think, and who knows what will happen. Competition won't disappear, and there will always be misguided students and corrupt leaders, but with more independent minds there will be more people to stand up to them and to set us on a path toward innovation and progress. Maybe then we can fix the problems, beyond education, that need solving now.

Aaron Greenspan is the CEO of Think Computer Corporation and author of Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era. He is the creator of the FaceCash mobile payment system, ThinkLink business management system, and PlainSite legal transparency project.

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1

Cameron (www.magicvalleymormon.blogspot.com)
May 16, 2008 at 5:07 PM DT

From the Bloomberg article you linked to:

"Just 12 percent of Harvard undergraduates receive Pell Grants, a form of aid for households with income below about $40,000. More than 40 percent of U.S. families are in that category, according to the Census Bureau."

"The school also faces the threat of legislation to force it to spend more of its $34.9 billion endowment on student aid."

So Harvard has far fewer poor students than the average school, and charges $47k a year for tuition despite the fact that, according to Beck, it could give away tuition to every single student enrolled. Recently they've started outreach programs to try and lure more disadvantaged students, but apparently have done so largely in response to threats from the government.

But I don't think Harvard was really Beck's target here. He simply showed the hypocrisy of legislative clamor for "windfall profit" taxes of oil companies while ignoring the same thing happening in other industries - particularly that of higher education.

The logic for the oil company tax is that they just make too much money while us little people are paying ever higher gasoline prices.

Well, that logic works for Harvard too; and a host of other universities around the country as well. Don't we always hear about the high cost of education? I'm sure it will be mentioned more than once between now and November. Using the "windfall profits" theory, why should I have to pay ever increasing tuition prices when my college is sitting on billions of dollars?

Even more classic is Harvard's response to the tax threat. "You'd be taxing success...this would put us at a real competitive disadvantage". Why is it that Harvard can play the capitalism card, but Exxon can't?


2

Aaron Greenspan (http://www.aarongreenspan.com)
May 16, 2008 at 6:17 PM DT

Cameron,

I agree that Harvard's spokesperson did a less-than-stellar job at replying, but the reason is that education should be not-for-profit, and accordingly, it should not be taxed.

Harvard has some of the most aggressive financial aid policies in education to the best of my knowledge. You should take a look at this article:

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980CE0D71E38F933A15757C0A96E9C8B63" TARGET="_new">HREF="http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980CE0D71E38F933A15757C0A96E9C8B63">http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980CE0D71E38F933A15757C0A96E9C8B63

The solution as far as Exxon goes is for Congress to close the many, many loopholes that let it avoid paying taxes in the first place.

Basically, Beck is fearmongering, which doesn't help the situation.

Aaron


3

Ray Deliqette
July 15, 2008 at 11:06 PM DT

Why do you care so fervently about Harvard? Do the administrators or faculty there somehow care about you?


4

Ms. Demeanor
July 17, 2008 at 2:52 AM DT

After bouncing around your site, I have a question. At what point in life did you discover that you were smarter than everyone else?


5

Daniel Wright
March 1, 2009 at 8:28 AM ST

Serious interest in speaking with you. Looking to start something that is very familiar to you. I am on the business plan writing stage. this is a timely matter, so please get back to me as soon as possible.


6

Aaron Greenspan (http://www.aarongreenspan.com)
May 9, 2009 at 3:06 PM DT

Ms. Demeanor,

I don't think I'm smarter than everyone else.

Aaron

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