The Best of Andy Rooney

The best colleges are faced with a dilemma every year: They need a lot of freshmen to pay for their buildings and teachers, but they have to keep the place hard to get into if they want good students. College-entrance administrators, the people who stand at the college gates letting some come in and keeping others out, are depending more on essays written by the applicants than they did a few years ago. It's good.

College entrance, like everything else, was beginning to depend too heavily on numbers.

The best things in our lives, things like love, family and health, can't be expressed in terms of numbers, yet we insist on assigning numbers to everything. I suspect it's because numbers save us from having to think about things and make judgments. I didn't get into the college of my first choice because my numbers weren't high enough.

I always liked to think that if they'd judged me by something less tangible than my math scores or the addition of my right and wrong marks on the multiple-choice tests, I'd have done better. I don't envy the college-entrance people who have to read all those essays.

Correcting a math exam is easy, but judging anything as intangible as the merits of a piece of writing is complex.

The scientists and the engineers with their computers are making most of their decisions with numbers. They enter a big batch of them in the computer, press some keys and out comes an answer.

Computer experts talk as if they have the answer to everything within their grasp, but no one can assign a number to such intangibles as taste, beauty, art, honesty, goodness, or to an essay by a student. Numbers are popular because all of us are so unsure of so many things in our lives that we feel better when we know something for certain.

Numbers are the most certain things we have. It probably accounts for why sports are such a popular pastime. When the game is over, all you have are 2 scores. The athlete or team with the biggest number is the winner and that's that. It's over.

No indecision. The world is divided between people whose work is judged by counting and people whose work is not.

A political candidate who gets fewer votes than his opponent has been judged in numbers.

An insurance salesman is judged by the amount of the policies he sells. People whose work is judged by counting -- like factory workers who turn out so many widgets an hour, masons who lay so many bricks, or field workers who pick this number of bushels -- take some comfort from the certainty of their occupation. They're in no doubt where they stand.

People whose work isn't judged in numerical terms live a life of uncertainty. No computer and no set of numbers ever devised could help the Supreme Court dispense justice. There's no area in which differences of opinion of the quality of work vary so much from numbers as in art.

This includes painting, literature, music, dance and theater.

If we could assign figures to the art of Meryl Streep's acting, there wouldn't be any suspense about who will win the Oscar for best actress. College-entrance examiners, without the wisdom of Supreme Court justices, are going to have to make some difficult judgments about excellence and potential. Because of my bitter experience, I naturally like seeing colleges using written essays as part of the entrance requirement.

Thomas Jefferson, talking about the virtues of public education, said that if we were all educated, "twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually." No writer these days would dare suggest that there was any human rubbish in America to be raked over, but I think it would be OK to say that this new trend in college admissions standards might uncover some good students who might otherwise have been missed.

(This classic Rooney column was originally published Jan. 20, 1986.)

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