Harvard’s New Admissions Policy – What’s Art Got To Do With It


Water Lily Pond  (1917)  Claude Monet (1840-1926) *       Water Lily Pond - Claude Monet


Harvard University announced in late January of this year a major revision to its admissions policy. It mainly addresses the problem of overwhelming reliance on test scores like SAT and other course grades – resulting in students’ ever escalating efforts to score points and causing great emotional stress. This is in addition to disadvantaging students from less privileged backgrounds who may otherwise have cultural experiences to share in university life. One of the new emphases is showing a “caring for others” in the form of community service – with compassion and empathy. But I see a problem in that.

“Community service” is a manifestation of compassion, not compassion. As Steve Cohen said here in his Op Ed piece (Feb 6, 2016, New York Times): ‘… Encouraging high school kids to make “more meaningful contributions to others” will just provide new ways to game the system’.

University admissions policies should reach farther back to effect behavioral change from an early age.

If we think longer term for a minute: Morality, ethics, passion and compassion do not sprout in middle school, even less in college, when students face the reality of making a career choice and the prostect of making a living. These traits start at birth and where rich and poor are equal. Inequality starts when school begins because in our education system, “If it is not text and not a number it is not considered knowledge” lamented Thomas Lentz, former director of the Harvard Museums.

Alpha-numeric knowledge is linear – A to Z, Zero to Infinity. And from what we now know in neurobiology, it is processed consciously in certain parts of the brain; but it can become unconscious and automatic with practice. It is linear and vertical in that you must start with A to get to Z, arithmetic to calculus. What is non-alpha-numeric knowledge? It is knowledge transmitted horizontally by information contained in images – with multiple entry points and accessible equally to kindergartners and university professors. Images are received in our eyes and perceived in the brain, where the information is broadcast widely to different areas: the unconscious and the conscious; the immediate muscle-response and the delayed-analysis; the ego-centric and the allo-centric (things as each relates to me vs. to one another). Good art, via largely images, teaches us to see things from multiple points of view in addition to our own. Good art teaches us to think in others’ places.

If art is where one gets non-alpha-numeric knowledge, then the well-to-do may have a slight advantage only because they have more leisure time – but not by much.  The general public’s lack of interest in the deeper meaning of contemporary art is nothing if not appalling. Art is still trivial pastime to many. For example, It is not well known that artists since Monet and Cézanne have been studying our vision for over one hundred years. Picasso’s invention of Cubism was not an isolated act of genius – he was inspired by Cézanne’s multiple-perspective, odd-looking (and much derided at the time) paintings. He made Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, MoMA), a precursor to Cubism, one year after Cézanne’s death.**  And the late Ellsworth Kelly’s colorful, simple geometric forms continued Monet’s examination of our visual perception: color, form and how they affect each other in our eyes and brain. In 2014, a year before his passing at 92, Kelly selected pieces for  Monet / Kelly (11/23/2014 – 2/15/2015) at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Mass.; showing his drawings (1948-2005) from Belle Île – off France’s Brittany coast – alongside Monet’s 1886-1887 paintings of the same area. Many of his geometric forms were abstracted from his nature drawings. He said: ‘If you look with your mind turned off, everything becomes abstract.’ All these artists’ works speak more than a thousand words – they speak of the history of our cultural heritage, our search for what we are; and running alongside what was happening in science at the time.

Monet’s impressionism was influenced by the French chemist Chevreul’s 1839 book on the optics of color. Sigmund Freud, who acknowledged his debt to Darwin’s evolution theory, in turn developed his theory of the unconscious – we share much with other animals.  The Surrealist artists were inspired by Freud’s theory. And from the Surrealist dreams of the unconscious, Jackson Pollock turned to express himself in his semi-unconscious action paintings – foretelling our understanding today that the body is the unconscious mind. The Conceptual Art that came of age in the 1990s continues the search, where artists question language as well as image. Modern art has steadily moved up the continuum towards our higher analytic brain functions. But ultimately it has to originate in our unconscious: the amorphous and malleable part of our body-brain that is receptive to the non-linearity of images. Emotion is only a part of it.

There is good evidence to support the idea that over 98% of our body-brain is unconscious. Consciousness as defined by awareness is but a tiny moment of what we are. William James, the Harvard psychologist and philosopher, speculated over a century ago that human consciousness was ‘a process, not a thing’. More recently, the late Nobel biologist Francis Crick speculated that consciousness was ‘enhanced by visual attention’ – and recent research by Robert Desimone at MIT proved both of them right. Desimone’s experiments show that consciousness is the process of attending to one thing in the visual field, ignoring others. The eyes are truly windows to our being.

Fully 30% of neurons in our cerebral cortex are involved in processing information from our eyes (vs. 8% for touch, 3% for hearing). The eyes developed as an outcrop of the brain and thus retain extensive connections to it. Darwin worried for a long time over the complexity and sophistication of our vision as a possible refutation of his theory – could only God have made our eyes? ***

Considering the uniqueness and importance of the eyes in our whole consciousness, and no doubt in learning, has our education system paid special attention to visual literacy? The answer is no. Splashing paint in one art class is not enough – we need to examine good works of art; to learn the context, the historical continuity, the ‘why’.

But university admissions policies can change that. They can encourage early involvement with visual art and its history starting with primary school. The results may not be obvious perhaps for ten or twenty years or more – but it will turn uncaring students into more compassionate people, or at least capable of seeing things from wider perspectives; not to mention producing students who are self-aware and can make intelligent choices about their careers when they reach college. One way to do this is to conduct part of schools’ curriculum in museums – which are often underused except during blockbuster exhibitions – but with rich scholarly resources. The director of Tate gallery in London, Nicholas Serota said last December: “In recent years, we have become more open to collaboration with university colleagues, though the easy flow of staff between academe and museum life is still an ideal.” Such ‘flow of staff’ could start as early as primary school.

Helen Vendler, who served on Harvard’s admissions committee, wondered how T.S. Eliot would fare were he to apply to Harvard today [I can’t imagine him doing community service]:

‘We hear from all sides about “leadership,” “service,” “scientific passion,” and various other desirable qualities that bring about change in the world…The truth is that many future poets, novelists, and screenwriters are not likely to be straight-A students… [They] prize creativity, originality, and intensity above academic performance; they value introspection above extroversion, insight above rote learning.’…’Do we ask students who have won prizes in art whether they ever go to museums?’

Harvard itself has been a leader in integrating its own school curriculum with art which I wrote about here  in 2012. By emphasizing this integration in early schooling through its admissions policy, it can not only affect change in our education system, it could open the door to many more creative means of learning.

*    This painting has strangely much more oranges and muddy browns than Monet’s well known shimmering blues. It is because by 1917 Monet’s cataracts were so severe that he could no longer see the blues in the spectrum. Notice the two blue spots on the water by the red lilies – they look unnaturally intense. That’s because Monet had tried to use color tubes from memory, without instant feedback from his eyes. He returned to his famous impressionist signature works after eye surgery in 1922. Art depends on artists’ eyes! See my report here from 2011.

**   Cézanne was not Picasso’s only cubist influence. The British artist Catherine Story who has studied silent films, asserted that “Picasso and Braque saw some of the first moving images in Paris, and it’s clear that cinema played a part in the development of cubism.” There may be many other possible readings of Cubism – that’s the undogmatic nature of art.

***  See Paul Falkowski’s Life’s Engines: How Microbes Made Earth Habitable (2015), p. 138.



2016 3 10   Harvard Medical School goes to museums. Student doctors and nurses discuss their responses to works of art in various museums. See Museum Studies here in the Winter 2016 issue of Harvard Medicine Magazine.

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