The Ivy Coach Daily

June 23, 2021

College Applicants Must Know Their Cultural Touchstones

If you don’t think it matters to college admissions officers if students are cultured, you haven’t seen Columbia’s longstanding application (photo credit: Andrew Chen).

Over the last nearly three decades helping students earn admission to their dream colleges, we’ve come to realize that so many young people — even those with perfect or near-perfect grades and test scores who have their sights set on our nation’s most selective universities — are not in touch with our prevailing cultural zeitgeist. Maybe it’s because they lack intellectual curiosity. Maybe it’s because they’re inundated with schoolwork. Maybe they just don’t like to read. But when a college applicant articulates that his or her favorite book is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby followed by J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, it’s as telltale a sign to admissions officers as any that the student reads only that which is required and is not in tune with our culture. On that note, we figured we’d share with our readers some cultural touchstones, in literature, film, and television, that have been released since the start of the pandemic. We share these novels, works of non-fiction, feature films, and television series, with descriptions from Amazon or Wikipedia, not so parents can put these works in front of their children to make them consume them but rather to wet your palettes so you realize your child, well, isn’t as cultured as you might like.

10 Noteworthy Books, Feature Films, and Television Series Released Since the Start of the Pandemic

1. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabelle Wilkerson. Non-fiction book. An Oprah’s Book Club selection. “The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions.”

2. The Good Lord Bird. Television series based on the National Book Award-winning novel of the same name. Showtime. Winner of the Peabody Award featuring the Golden Globe-nominated performance of Ethan Hawke as John Brown. Its Peabody commendation: “For a rich and complex portrayal of a madman who would become a martyr, offered through the eyes of African Americans, The Good Lord Bird wins The Peabody.”

3. The Bomber Mafia by Malcolm Gladwell. Non-fiction book. “In The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell weaves together the stories of a Dutch genius and his homemade computer, a band of brothers in central Alabama, a British psychopath, and pyromaniacal chemists at Harvard to examine one of the greatest moral challenges in modern American history. Most military thinkers in the years leading up to World War II saw the airplane as an afterthought. But a small band of idealistic strategists, the ’Bomber Mafia,’ asked: What if precision bombing could cripple the enemy and make war far less lethal?”

4. Just as I Am: A Memoir by Cicely Tyson. Non-fiction book. “Just as I Am is my truth. It is me, plain and unvarnished, with the glitter and garland set aside. In these pages, I am indeed Cicely, the actress who has been blessed to grace the stage and screen for six decades. Yet I am also the church girl who once rarely spoke a word. I am the teenager who sought solace in the verses of the old hymn for which this book is named. I am a daughter and a mother, a sister and a friend. I am an observer of human nature and the dreamer of audacious dreams. I am a woman who has hurt as immeasurably as I have loved, a child of God divinely guided by his hand. And here in my ninth decade, I am a woman who, at long last, has something meaningful to say.”  Cicely Tyson.

5. The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country by Amanda Gorman. Poetry. “On January 20, 2021, Amanda Gorman became the sixth and youngest poet to deliver a poetry reading at a presidential inauguration. Taking the stage after the 46th president of the United States, Joe Biden, Gorman captivated the nation and brought hope to viewers around the globe with her call for unity and healing. Her poem “The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country” can now be cherished in this special gift edition, perfect for any reader looking for some inspiration.”

6. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. Non-fiction book. “Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn. In our daily lives, too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. We listen to opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard. We see disagreement as a threat to our egos, rather than an opportunity to learn. We surround ourselves with people who agree with our conclusions, when we should be gravitating toward those who challenge our thought process. The result is that our beliefs get brittle long before our bones. We think too much like preachers defending our sacred beliefs, prosecutors proving the other side wrong, and politicians campaigning for approval–and too little like scientists searching for truth. Intelligence is no cure, and it can even be a curse: being good at thinking can make us worse at rethinking. The brighter we are, the blinder to our own limitations we can become.”

7. Deacon King Kong by James McBride. Fiction book. An Oprah’s Book Club selection. One of President Obama’s favorite books. “In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and, in front of everybody, shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range. The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself. As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters—caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York—overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.”

8. Unorthodox. Television series. Netflix. Winner of the Peabody Award. “Esty, a 19-year-old Jewish woman, is living unhappily in an arranged marriage among the Satmar sect of the ultra-Orthodox community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York City. She runs away to Berlin, where her estranged mother lives, and tries to navigate a secular life, discovering life outside her community and rejecting all of the beliefs she grew up with. Her husband, who learns that she is pregnant, travels to Berlin with his cousin, by order of their rabbi, to try to find her.”

9. The Crown. Television series. Netflix. Winner of the Golden Globe. “The Crown portrays the life of Queen Elizabeth II from her wedding in 1947 to Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, until the early 21st century. The first season depicts events up to 1955, with Winston Churchill resigning as prime minister and the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret deciding not to marry Peter Townsend. The second season covers the Suez Crisis in 1956, leading to the retirement of Prime Minister Anthony Eden; the retirement of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963, following the scandal of the Profumo affair; and the birth of Prince Edward in 1964. The third season covers 1964 to 1977, beginning with Harold Wilson’s election as prime minister and ending with her Silver Jubilee, also covering Edward Heath’s time as prime minister. Camilla Shand is also introduced. The fourth season is set during Margaret Thatcher’s period as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, and also focuses on Lady Diana Spencer.”

10. Nomadland. Feature film. Searchlight Pictures. Winner of the Academy Award. “In 2011, Fern loses her job after the US Gypsum plant in Empire, Nevada, shuts down; she had worked there for years along with her husband, who recently died. Fern decides to sell most of her belongings and purchases a van to live in and travel the country searching for work. She takes a seasonal job at an Amazon fulfillment center through the winter.”

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