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Tuesday, March 11, 2014


The next afternoon, it was the Minister of Education who appeared at my hotel to conduct me on a tour of the Invertian National University.  The Minister was a short, fat, energetic man who perspired freely in the warm midday sun.  My mind was still filled with the images of that poor man, dying on the floor of the ER, utterly ignored by Doctors, Or­derlies, and the Minister of Health herself.  I am afraid I was only half listening as the Min­ister of Education poured out statistics on the way to the University.  I did manage to gather that the University had a full complement of departments in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences, as well as small but well‑staffed Law, Medical, Engineering, and Business Schools.  Even before we arrived at the university, I began to feel more at home.
The Central Administration Building was a large, nondescript, functional structure ‑ the sort of building one could see on any of a thousand American campuses.  After parking in a place especially reserved for the Minister's car, we entered and went first to the Stu­dent Admission Office.  The Minister explained that this was the best place to get a feel for how the University operated.
The Admissions Office looked just like any college admissions office in America.  There were wall racks with copies of application forms, class schedules, literature promot­ing one or another of the various degrees offered at the university.  A bulletin board had sprouted with the usual hand‑printed notices of rooms to share, typing services, furniture for sale,  secondhand textbooks.  There were several Admissions Officers waiting to greet prospective students.  All rather familiar and comforting, I thought to myself, especially after the disorienting visit to the hospital.

As I stood there with the Minister and his aide, looking about the large room, the door opened behind us and two young people walked in.  First through the door was a neat­ly dressed young woman whose face and manner bespoke a quite attractive intelligence and self‑confidence.  As she approached the desk of one of the Admissions Officers, I edged closer in order to overhear their conversation.
She introduced herself forthrightly, in a cultivated voice, and said that she wished to enter the university to pursue a degree in Mathematical Physics.  She explained that she had a straight‑A grade record at her secondary school, had achieved perfect scores on the Invertian equivalent of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and in fact had already published sev­eral original papers on a rather recondite branch of Mathematical Physics in Invertian and foreign journals.  She was, she added, a champion swimmer and tennis player, and also had given public concerts as a pianist.  In her spare time, she said, she worked with learning‑dis­abled children, and took inner‑city girls on nature walks.  Needless to say, I was tremen­dously impressed.  This was just the sort of outstanding student I had encountered at Har­vard, Yale, Princeton, Swarthmore, and the other top colleges and universities in America.  She had that pulled‑together look of someone who knows her own abilities, has worked hard to develop them, and has acquired thereby a justifiably high sense of self‑worth.

As she spoke, the Admissions Officer grew visibly more impatient, fidgeting with his pencil and rather ostentatiously leafing through some paperwork on his desk.  When the young woman had finished, he looked up.  "Well," he said, in a perfunctory tone of voice, "take an application form and fill it out.  We will contact you if we can find room for you."  With that, he dismissed her and turned his attention to the second applicant.

My first thought was that the young woman had stumbled on a small‑minded bu­reaucrat who resented young people manifestly more talented and accomplished than he.  I had known a few such in America, even, I reflected, among the senior professoriate.  Then too, it occurred to me that because there could be no question about her being admitted, he might simply have sent her off so that he could attend to more difficult cases.  But as I stood there, wondering what might happen next in this topsy‑turvy country, I heard the young woman saying to an older couple who were apparently her parents, "I knew I wouldn't get in."  The looks on their faces confirmed that she had would be denied admission to the university.

The Minister of Education had observed all this with apparent approval.  Didn't he care that so supremely well‑qualified an applicant had been summarily turned away from the National University without so much as an interview?  How on earth could he explain to the faculty of the university that the very best students were being denied admission?  At that moment, the second potential student stepped up to the Admissions Officer's desk, and the Minister, with much the same gesture that his colleague had used the day before, mo­tioned to me to watch how this applicant was treated.
Standing before the desk was a young man who, in every conceivable way, contrast­ed totally with the young woman who had just been so unaccountably sent packing.  He was carelessly dressed, slouched rather than stood, and seemed bewildered by his surroundings, as though a university were entirely terra incognita to him.  Well, I thought, they shan't waste too much time on him.

Even before the young man started to speak, the Admissions Officer's manner changed completely.  He put down his pencil and visibly gave the applicant his complete attention.  "How may I help you?" he asked solicitously, his voice friendly and inviting.

"I wanna go to school here," the young man said, in a manner both belligerent and insecure.  "I don't have no high school diploma.  I flunked out of 12th grade."

"Can you read?" the Admissions officer asked.

"Sure I can.  Not books and stuff like that, but I can read the sports pages well enough to know which team's ahead."

"And how about writing.  Have you ever written an essay of, say, three pages in length?" The young man looked about suspiciously.  "Say, what's the idea of the Third De­gree?  I just said I wanted to go to school here.  I didn't say I wanted to be one of the teach­ers."

"Of course, of course," the Admissions Officer answered in a tone intended to calm the young man's anxieties.  "We quite well understand.  Would you wait just one moment?"

With that, he picked up the phone and said a few words too softly for the young man, or me, to hear.  Almost at once, a door at the rear of the reception room opened, and a group of distinguished‑looking men and women entered, wearing full academic regalia, as though on their way to a Commencement.  They gathered around the young man, took him gently in tow, and led him off through the rear door.
"What is going on?" I asked the Minister, who throughout these events had been tee­tering back and forth on his heels, hands in pockets, with a broad smile across his face.  "Were those senior members of the faculty?  What are they doing here in the Admissions Office?  Where are they taking that young man?  And why on earth was that extraordinary young woman denied admission to your university?"

The Minister was somewhat taken aback by this rush of questions, but he motioned me to a chair, and undertook to explain what I had just witnessed.  He sat down in a chair opposite me and gave a tug at his vest, as though to settle himself for a lengthy discourse. 

"Let us take your questions in reverse order," he began, "inasmuch as the young lady's case was dealt with before that of the young man.  The young lady was denied admis­sion to our university because she is highly intelligent, superbly well‑trained, already quite accomplished, and powerfully motivated to continue her studies."

At about this time, I began to wonder whether the Invertians really were speaking English.  It certainly sounded as though they were speaking English.  But perhaps, I thought, this is some curious dialect, derivative from English, in which certain of the key logical con­nectives have had their meaning reversed.  Could this be an obscure linguistic rebellion against their former colonial rulers?  The problem here was with the Minister's use of the word "because."  The young lady had been denied admission to the university because she was intelligent, accomplished, and highly motivated.  Did "because" in Invertian mean "in spite of?"  Did "denied admission" perhaps mean "granted admission?"  Or were the old sailor's yarns true about everything at the antipodes standing on its head.  I decided to try a bit of dialectical give‑and‑take in an effort to get my bearings.

"You denied her admission because she is intelligent, accomplished, and highly moti­vated.  But surely she is an absolutely certainty to do well at university.  I would imagine the probability that she will graduate, indeed graduate with honors, is just about 100%."
"I'm glad you saw that," he replied, apparently pleased that I was catching on.  "I thought perhaps, this being a somewhat unfamiliar setting, that you might not have recog­nized it as soon as we who are more practiced at the ins and outs of admissions.  I was half‑sure before she even opened her mouth, and as soon as she said she had published original papers in Mathematical Physics, I knew there was no point in letting her in."

"But think how much she can profit from a university education," I protested, feeling as I did so that I was rapidly losing my grip on reality.  "With her background and prepara­tion, a university education will bring her to the very pitch of intellectual perfection.  By the time she leaves, she will be virtually at the same level as your most senior faculty.  And think what a delight it would be to them to have such a student in their courses.  Why, they could present the very latest results of their own research for her consideration and cri­tique, instead of plodding through the elements of basic Physics and Mathematics."

"Well," the Minister answered, "you have just made the case for rejecting her ‑ as good a case as I could have made myself.  That young woman is already so well developed intellectually that she does not need what a university can offer.  With or without our uni­versity resources, she will do well in life.  Indeed, she is already capable of securing a posi­tion in one of our nuclear power plants, and with a bit of on‑the‑job training, she will be a productive and successful member of society.  To spend our scarce education funds on her would be wasteful and inefficient."

"And that young man," I said, rather more belligerently than I intended, for I was growing very frustrated indeed.  "You have admitted him to the university despite the fact that he can barely read and write.  Judging from that flock of professors who shepherded him out of here, he will be getting the most expensive education Invertia has to offer.  Yet I will bet my airfare home that he won't make it through four years of university education.  Everything is against him!  He needs remedial reading, remedial writing, no doubt remedial math as well.  Out of every hundred such students you admit, you probably won't see more than fifteen of them on Commencement Day."
"Oh, I agree with everything you say," the Minister replied.  "But what would you have us do?  You saw him when he entered.  Educationally speaking, if I may put it this way, he was in extremis when he walked in. If we had turned him away, I am absolutely confident that he would have died intellectually before too long.  At this very moment, our team of professors is working with him, starting the painful, difficult process of developing his intellect, challenging his mind, helping him through the shame and self‑doubt of semi‑literacy.  As you say, we lose quite a few young men and women like him, but we save quite a few too.  Imagine the thrill we all feel when one of those young people, whose mind had all but ceased to function, begins to read, to write, to think, to argue, to question a world that has, until then, been closed to him or her."

I have to admit that I was beginning to feel just a trifle less sure of myself, but I de­cided to press on nevertheless. 

"Look," I said, trying hard to find some common ground on which the Minister and I could achieve a meeting of the minds.  "Your motives are no doubt admirable.  I sympathize entirely with what you are trying to accomplish.  But how on earth can you use a university faculty to do the most basic remedial education?  Where do you find students able to take your advanced courses in literature, philosophy, physics, or chemistry?  How can students like that young man even begin to handle the sophisticated intellectual materials presented in advanced seminars?"
"Our faculty are capable of helping the educationally most wounded of our students ‑ if I may put it that way ‑ because we have for some time now been recruiting faculty spe­cifically for that purpose.  We require that professors in every department be trained in what I might call educational emergency procedures.  The handful of advanced courses we offer are quite adequately enrolled, but we take care to offer few enough of them so that there is no problem.  All our facilities are designed to serve the needs of the educationally disadvantaged.  We have even devised a system of icons to guide our poorer readers about in the library.

"As for the drop‑outs, of whom, as you suggest, there are many, you must not sup­pose that our efforts with them are wasted.  Not every student who enters our university completes a degree or goes on to advanced study, but even those who are with us for only a semester or two have clearly benefited from the experience.  Some who could barely read leave able, for the first time, really to enjoy a daily newspaper.  Others have acquired nu­merical skills that will earn them more challenging and rewarding jobs. Most, I think, ac­quire some sense, however incomplete, of the life of the mind.  And those with whom we completely fail ‑ whose minds die before we can save them ‑ well, they are the price we must pay for the chance to help so many others.

"We could restrict our university to that young lady and her sort.  There aren't many quite that promising, but Invertia has its share of gifted young men and women.  What would we accomplish, were we to do so?  Our population would consist of a small number of superbly educated people whose already magnificent talents and abilities had been brought to the pitch of perfection by an expensive and exclusive education, and a large population of inadequately educated men and women whose lives are stunted, whose per­spectives are narrowed, whose capacity for intelligent self‑government diminished, because we denied them admission to our university."

I was by now thoroughly confused.  I felt an overwhelming need to make sense out of the experiences of the past two days, to place my visits to the NICH and to the Invertian National University into some sort of coherent framework.  Somewhat desperately, I pro­posed a meeting at which the Ministers of Health and Education and I could talk informal­ly.  The Minister of Education immediately agreed, and assured me that it would be no trouble setting up such a meeting for the following day, which was to be my last in Invertia.  With that, we returned to my hotel, and he left me until the next afternoon.

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