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Would Da Vinci have Gotten the Small Envelope?

Posted by on Wednesday, February 18, 2009 in Advice for Parents, File Reading Explained, Preparing for College.

A wonderful article appears this week in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Chronicle Review by W. A. Pannapacker of Hope College.  In it, Pannapacker portrays the well known genius of Leonardo da Vinci set against the lesser known backdrop of growing biographical evidence that he was a chronic procrastinator.  Amid the volumes of lauded works that constitute a considerable portion of the Western world’s artistic, scientific, and industrial traditions lay a bevy of promised yet uncompleted projects, false starts, and abandoned ideas.  If his biography was a high school transcript, it would be peppered with “I’s” and “W’s.”  I wonder if da Vinci himself were charged with constructing the intellectual pedestal upon which he stands, if the  monument itself would be nothing but a half-carved stone slab.

This is probably the best news I’ve received in some time.   For me, genius seems perpetually delayed and happens mostly when I’m not looking.  It appears when I’m not trying to make my son laugh, only trying to make pancakes on a Saturday morning when the egg breaks wide open on the side of the bowl and counter, sending him into a ten-minute hysterical fit of chuckling.

Still, it makes me think about the admissions decisions we make (what else?) and how we interpret this “conflict between unlimited aspiration and the acknowledgment of human limitation,” as Pannapacker puts it.  We see this sometimes in our office in an applicant who seems to have all the intellectual horsepower, but can’t get the wheels in motion in class, at least not consistently.  This is where the rubber meets the road (apologies for the stretched metaphor) for an admissions committee, when we must project intangible promise from tangible accomplishments of an applicant’s past.  Though we try, can an admissions process ever recognize pure genius, as Pannapacker describes it?  Are we expecting it to emerge “fully formed,” asking unconventional brilliance to be depicted conventionally –  in a single-spaced, 12-point Times New Roman font resume no less?

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