“It ain’t nothing till I call it”

In January of 2003, the New Yorker magazine ran a short piece by Nick Paumgarten in which the scholar Stanley Fish related one of his favorite baseball stories. The central character was a well-known major league umpire named Bill Klem. Here is the story:

“Klem’s behind the plate…the pitcher winds up, throws the ball. The pitch comes. The batter doesn’t swing. Klem for an instant says nothing. The batter turns around and says, ‘OK, so what was it, ball or a strike?’ And Klem says, ‘Sonny, it ain’t nothing ‘till I call it.’”

The article continued with Fish’s commentary:

“What the batter is assuming is that balls and strikes are facts in the world and that the umpire’s job is to accurately say which one each pitch is. But in fact balls and strikes come into being only on the call of an umpire.”

It seems to me that this story and Fish’s remarks have equal relevance for the college admissions process.

At this moment in our culture, most people are inclined to believe that within the universe of colleges, a separate and select subset of good colleges exists, as “facts in the world.” This explains why college counselors continually hear comments like: “I haven’t heard of that school. Is it a good college?” and “I’m not sure which school I want to go to, I just want to be sure it’s a good college.”

There are many problems with the view that a small subset of objectively derived “good colleges” exists, and that we can rely on designated umpires to say which colleges are which. Chief among these is that most people don’t think carefully about who makes the call as to whether a college is “good” or not. Most often, we regress to the lowest common denominator when choosing umpires to assess what is “good.” Familiarity and name recognition are oft-used arbiters when judging colleges, as in “if we haven’t heard of it, it can’t be a good college.” The US News &World Report (USNWR) and other college rankings often serve as umpires in the college quality sweepstakes. (If it’s in the USNWR top twenty, it’s good, or so the thinking goes.) And selectivity (the percentage of students admitted to a college) is frequently cited as a means of identifying a good college, since many people seem to believe that the more students a college turns away, the better it is. It is undeniably quicker and easier to make use of an outside umpire than to put in the time, do the research, and make the call yourself, but that strategy doesn’t pay off in the long run.

In my work with students, a primary goal of the college counseling process is to help each one understand that a college ain’t nothing – good or bad – till he or she calls it. That is, it’s the individual student’s experience at a particular college that makes the college “good” or not. We all know students who have attended well-known colleges and been unhappy with their experiences there. And the world is full of people who went to less well-known or less selective colleges and who had their lives transformed by fabulous teachers, who made terrific friends, and who have gone on to have happy and successful lives. Deciding whether a college is “good” or not is a complex process, and your individual call may change while you are there, and as you reflect on the place in the years after you leave it.

Ideally, in this phase of their lives, students will be able to take control of their college search and application processes and develop the confidence to make the tough calls at the critical moments. Those of us on the sidelines can remind high school seniors that the process of researching and choosing colleges is simply a new context in which to make use of skills they have been using (we hope!) throughout high school. They are gathering information and analyzing and interpreting the results of their research. These days, however, when college admissions is such a hot topic in the media, students can’t help but be deluged with a range of information and opinions about colleges as they move through the admissions cycle. As a result, they often feel overwhelmed and insecure about making their own independent calls. College counselors see this insecurity surface early in the admissions cycle when students just can’t seem to finalize a list of colleges to apply to, and at the end of the cycle, when students fortunate to have multiple offers of admission struggle to make a final choice about which college to attend. At that point (the bottom of the ninth inning, so to speak) we hope that students will be able to look beyond the shorthand measures of popularity, rankings, and selectivity as they weigh options and make their choices.

Because, really, the individual student will make or break his/her experience at any school. That means that every college can be a “good” college, if the student has the skill, strength, and spirit to make it so.

(Need some motivation to get into the game? Here’s a little inspiration from Frank and Gene.)


A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Head-Royce School magazine, Summer 2007.