Huebner: In Defense of Kindness

We can fear false shows of kindness, or we can say, “bring it on.”

by Julia Huebner | 4/18/17 12:45am

I never imagined that I’d write a column in defense of kindness, especially in defense of appreciating small acts of kindness within the hyper-competitive, résumé-driven rat race of college admissions. I was dismayed after reading the April 12 piece by my colleague, Dorothy Qu ’19, that criticizes the New York Times op-ed “Check This Box if You’re a Good Person,” written by former Dartmouth admissions director Rebecca Sabky.

In her article, Sabky argues that kindness is a differentiating factor in college admissions. The admission process, as all Dartmouth students know, is a hoop-jumping competition notorious for its numbers-driven nature and sometimes brainless — if not dishonest — résumé fluffing. Sabky pinpointed a student’s visible kindness when she read one of his letters of recommendation written by a custodian at his high school.

I would like to respectfully disagree with Qu’s interpretation of Sabky’s argument. At best, Qu’s article misses the penumbra of Sabky’s piece; at worst, Qu’s willingness to pad Sabky’s facts with speculation is simply unprofessional.

Before I delve into the nuances of Qu’s argument, I think it’s important to highlight our points of agreement. I wholeheartedly agree with Qu’s assertion that “being a good person should be considered as important as, if not more important than, academic and extracurricular prowess, hard work and talent.” I’m happy to see that we rank our values, at least in this instance, in the same order.

I was surprised, then, to read Qu’s thesis and supporting arguments which seem to conflict with our shared value judgment. I’d like to consider a few of them here.

First, Qu reasons that “the kindest people are the least likely to ask someone for a recommendation letter commending their kind acts,” implying that the mystery student’s kindness is somehow tarnished by perceived self-importance. I’d like to note that nowhere in Sabky’s article does she comment whose idea was it to have the student’s custodian write the 12th grader’s letter of recommendation. Although Qu assumes that the “confident” boy suggested it, his parents, an attentive counselor or the custodian himself could have presented the idea. Furthermore, although Qu was right to delineate kindness from decency, she neglected to separate kindness from meekness. If someone considers herself kind, I don’t see why she would not be able to speak or write about that character trait. Assuming that the kind are also humble and therefore would downplay their character — especially in a process that requires enough introspection to write candidly about oneself — is a case of false equivalency.

Second, Qu criticizes the apparent shallowness of Sabky’s definition of kindness. I think we all can agree with Qu when she writes that, “There is much more to goodness than just cleaning up after your classmates or thanking the people who do so.” Sabky understands that noticing blips of kindness is far from a perfect system to detect an upstanding high schooler: hence her cheeky title. Sabky admits that kindness is “hard to pinpoint on applications even if colleges asked the right questions.” Qu is correct in observing that other kind students who didn’t write so bluntly about their kindness can fall through the cracks — and that’s a shame. Sabky agrees: without a method to “effectively recognize the genuine but intangible personal qualities of applicants,” admissions officers must work within the existing system and notice hints of character. Nevertheless, learning the names of all custodians in a “large public school in New England” and interacting with them is, in my opinion, a prime example of one’s kindness and thoughtfulness. I freely admit that, while I was friendly with a few staff members, I didn’t know the names of all custodians at my small public school in Chicago.

Third, Qu hypothesizes that it was the student’s originality — not his kindness — that attracted the watchful eye of admissions officers. I’d actually like to congratulate the 12th grader for both his kindness and originality: his out-of-the-box thinking is a mark that he’d thrive intellectually at Dartmouth. I hope that, someday, writing about simple acts of kindness won’t merit the badge of innovation.

Fourth, Qu argues that “Sabky’s low bar for kindness” somehow “reward[s] … affluence” “by giving admissions a more agreeable reason to admit privileged students.” I am truly baffled by the line of Qu’s reasoning. Is she correlating small acts of kindness with being a rich kid? Or, conversely, implying that poor students don’t have the resources to either be kind to or receive recommendation letters from their custodians? And where’s the evidence in Sabky’s article to even suggest that the mystery 12th grader was wealthy? Qu and I are in agreement that the New York Times’ study about disproportionate wealth at Dartmouth is troubling, but I do not follow her specious logic that equates, or even correlates, wealth with small acts of kindness.

Finally, Qu laments that students could simply begin to pack their college essays with “soon-to-be clichés about appreciating their custodial staff.” Sabky also recognizes that high school juniors will follow the kind student’s trend, recognizing that, “Next year there might be a flood of custodian recommendations thanks to this essay.” I can’t wait. Maybe high schoolers will realize that the true “golden ticket” of character that accents intellectualism will help them get into college and guide them to be better individuals.

Three-hundred and fifty days ago, I chose Dartmouth over peer institutions because I was impressed by the kindness of current students when I visited campus. When academic achievement is held constant — as it must be at this caliber of an institution — I want to live and learn with the kid who is nice to a high school janitor.