Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Names that sell

"To Woo Students, Colleges Choose Names That Sell," runs the headline of an NYT story. Some may interpret this as additional proof that higher education is excessively commercialized. But I think that what the story describes is a healthy response to student needs and demands. In the case of what used to be called Beaver College, a more apt headline might have read "Colleges Choose Names That Don't Cause People to Giggle"; in the case of what used to be called Western Maryland College (and is actually located in central Maryland) a better headline might have been "Colleges Choose Names That Aren't Misleading".

In fact, I think colleges often aren't attentive enough to such issues. At Harvard, for example, there is a major ("concentration", in Harvard-speak) that is intended to allow students to escape the narrow and sometimes imperialistic perspectives of the various social sciences by adopting an interdisciplinary approach. It's an interesting idea (though one can certainly quibble with the execution). Anyway, this concentration is called "Social Studies", which of course makes most people think of a silly middle school class. Social Studies concentrators are doomed to a lifetime of explaning themselves and making self-deprecatory jokes every time they are asked what they majored in. Here, some concern with the concentration's branding would certainly have helped (even something as primitive as "Social Analysis" would have been ten times better), but nobody cared enough about the students' perspective.

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