Thoughts on the one percent education
The Education Life section of the New York Times, published once each quarter is one of the real gems of the “paper of record” that sets it apart from almost every other newspaper I know.
This quarter, the section really delivered with Neal Gabler’s Once Percent Education, a thought provoking idictment of the current educational system with its focus on pre-determined merit, college admissions, and endless striving for perfection and individual accomplishment.
Here are a few quotes from the article:
The emphasis on personal achievement has done more than turn the admissions process into a race to rack up résumé points; more important, to the extent that elite colleges set the pace, it is turning the educational culture into one that stresses individual perfection instead of one that stresses social improvement.
Some may see this obsession with perfection as the culmination of a long trend; tiger moms have been pushing their children to be intellectual decathletes for generations. But it may actually be a reversal of an even longer trend. At the turn of the last century, the influential philosopher John Dewey saw education as a democratizing force not just in its social consequences but in its very process. Dewey believed that education and life were inextricably bound, that they informed each other. Education wasn’t just something you did in a classroom to earn grades. It was something you lived.
There is a big difference between a culture that encourages engagement with the world and one that encourages developing one’s own superiority.
Finally, a culture that rewards big personal accomplishments over smaller social ones threatens to create a cohort of narcissists.
In the end, 1 percent education is as much a vision of life as it is a standard of academic achievement — a recrudescence of social Darwinism disguised as meritocracy. Where the gap at the country’s best schools was once about money — who could afford to attend? — now there is the pretense that it is mostly about intelligence and skill. Many 99 percenters are awed by the accomplishments of 1 percenters, especially as the gap between rich and poor in SAT scores and college completion widens.
And here is the most powerful ending:
The danger isn’t just that people who are born on third base wind up thinking they hit a triple; the danger is that everyone else thinks those folks hit triples. One percent education perpetuates a psychology of social imbalance that is the very antitheses of John Dewey’s dream.
As product of public school and very modest means, who has now spent his entire teaching career working at elite private schools, I think I will be pondering the implications of this article for some time to come.
Here are just a few thoughts I’ve been having:
I would love to make an article like this part of the college process for students. At its worst, the college process for strong high school students becomes a completely individualistic exercise, steeped with competition (“you’re my best friend, but you better not apply to the school I’m applying to and take my spot”), devoid of a wider sense of the history or meaning of the process, and couched in completely hyperbolic terms—”If I don’t get into school X, my life is over.”
Why can’t we use the college process to help students better understand themselves, reflect on the opportunities they’ve been given, and understand the wider culture and history of this experience? We could teach students that the entire focus of college admissions of character—the admissions essay and the focus on extracurriculuars was cooked up in the 1920’s as a scheme by the Ivy League to identify and exclude Jews from admission, because academically, Jewish applicants were outscoring their preferred WASP counterparts. Add in some readings from the somewhat recent Gratz vs. Bollinger decision on Affirmative Action in college admissions, and findings that diversity is most beneficial to the majority students.
While we’re at it, I’d love to have students read excerpts from Shop Class as Soulcraft, to see the incredible value and satisfaction to be found in work that you don’t need a college degree to do. Let’s also bring math into the mix and do a few lessons on exponential growth by studying inflation in college tuition costs.
Then I’d like my students to consider Jonathan Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation, and help students to see that schools today are almost as segregated as they ever have been. While we are free to study physics with the latest lab equipment, focused mostly on critical thinking and deep reasoning, other, equally promising students find themselves in run-down, overcrowded schools, taking classes in sewing and hair braiding rather than APs.
I like to think that if we brought these lessons into the college process, students would have a greater sense of what an incredible privilege it is to spend four years studying ideas on one’s own, and a greater sense of responsibility to do something with that education. I’d like to think that these lessons would also significantly diminish in all the trivia of the college process: USNEWS rankings, $400/hr SAT prep and trying to figure out which school has the best party atmosphere.
I’ve written a lot about the ideas of Cal Newport and working to help student realize they have the power to change the world even in high school. I strongly encourage you to read Cal’s beautiful treatise on what the college process could be: The Race to Somewhere: How to Make the College Admissions Process the Foundation for a Well-Lived Life. Properly framed, I think these lessons about the college process can help students escape the the treadmill of individual resume building and instead focus on helping students to develop a happy life, founded on a true love of learning and desire to use one’s talents to make the world a better place, starting now.
I’ve found the differences between public and private school students and teachers to be much less than one might think. There are extraordinary teachers to be found everywhere, and the same is true for students. To me, the principal advantage of private school for teachers and students are much smaller class sizes, the freedom for teachers to set the curriculum as they see fit and of course, the incredible resources private schools are able to allocate to its students. The difference in resources is staggering (I’ve taught at schools where the tuition is over $40,000/year, and the actual cost to educate a student is 10-15 thousand more). A former headmaster of mine worked relentlessly to help students see the incredible inequality in our society (he exposed me to Kozol), and he went a step further to ask students that given this inequality, what could possibly justify a school devoting so many resources to so few students? His response to the question was always simple and direct—this investment in students comes with the greatest responsibility—using these resources to change the world for the better and reduce inequality.
Note: A day after reading this, I thought of one course at my school that is doing just what I describe above—engaging students in cooperative endeavors to make their community a better place. Synergy 8, a trans-disciplinary, project based, problem finding and solving course focused on community issues”, taught by colleagues and friends Bo Adams and Jill Gough. This course is helping 8th grade students to take a break from chasing grades and instead focus on tackling real issues in their school, from the somewhat mundane lunch line efficiency, to more significant issues of how to address childhood obseity in the greater Atlanta area.