Jan Smuts, Prime Minister of South Africa during World War II, may not have many fans among today's students, but a word he coined is all the rage on university campuses, including LSU's.
The word is “holistic,” and that is how LSU authorities describe their new admissions policy. Smuts introduced the world to the concept in his 1926 philosophical treatise “Holism and Evolution” and the word has become his most familiar legacy,
Colonial statesmen are in bad odor these days, and some say Smuts helped prepare the way for apartheid, but that word is proving mighty handy.
What for Smuts was a metaphysical term has become somewhat debased as common parlance. Holism, so far as would-be LSU freshmen are concerned, means the whole caboodle. Applicants will be rated on a wide range of criteria, including GPAs, teacher assessments, essays and extracurricular activities. “We're not looking just for good scores (on standardized tests) anymore,” says Jose Aviles, vice president for enrollment.
The policy has aroused heated opposition in Louisiana, which Aviles says he doesn't “get at all.” While Aviles obviously won't agree with the objections, they are easy enough to understand.
State Sen. Conrad Appel, former chairman of the Senate Education Committee, has spelled them out. He foresees “a sea of potential candidates for matriculation into LSU.” If the university is moving closer to open enrollment, “the overall quality of the student population will decline and the prestige of the university will suffer,” Appel avers. That is an alarming prospect.
The latest U.S. News and World Report survey ranks LSU at 140 among American schools, public and private, and 10th in the SEC. LSU President F. King Alexander says, “We are pleased to be recognized as the only Louisiana public university ranked in the top tier” — Tulane placed 44th — but there is clearly no room for complacency.
Forbes, Washington Monthly and The Wall Street Journal have all gotten into the college ratings game, reaching varying conclusions, but LSU is never within hailing distance of the tops seats of learning.
Indeed, how could it be? State funding for education is always the first to be cut in our recurring budget crises, and LSU is so far from an elitist institution that 76 percent of applicants are admitted. But the school is much fussier than it used to be. There was a time when the somewhat modest achievement of a diploma from a Louisiana high school was enough to win a place. The inevitable result was that more than half were flunking out until then-Chancellor Jim Wharton in 1985 set a minimum ACT score for admission.
Modern education experts think the use of test scores as a rigid criterion is old hat, so when Aviles arrived here last year and commenced to de-emphasize them, he was falling in line with what has become standard practice in the groves of American academe.
The holistic approach is supposed to identify students with potential and abilities that a single exam would never reveal. “We want a student who gets up every morning and works as hard as he or she can,” Aviles says. That is a noble goal, and LSU in recent years seems to have lost its reputation as a party school, but there is probably no admissions policy that can guarantee a sense of responsibility among a bunch of 18-year-olds.
No one seems to dispute that the holistic approach is fairer to the deserving children from humble backgrounds, but the unsettled question is whether it waters down standards. Clearly, it does at the front end but a motivated student can go on to leave low tests scores behind.
A reliance on grades and essays also makes admissions policy more subjective, which will enable the wealthy and well-connected to game the system for the benefit of their dumb kids, critics warn.
While it would be foolish the discount the possibility of corruption in Louisiana, it's either take that risk or remain stuck in the past.
Email James Gill at Gill1047@bellsouth.net.