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Friday, December 28, 2012

And then there is the singing the praise of schools by the top 1% of students...

I was happily reading Leon Wieseltier's essay in The New Republic called, Education is the Work of Teachers, not Hackers.  It is a piece worth respecting.

But there is a meta-point that just has to be made.

There are these people, let's call them the "highly academically aligned".

These people started as successful students.  They were in the top 5% or 1% of their class.  Some may say they were the smartest (partially true), but I look at them as much as people who had skill sets that also aligned very well with what the school was offering.  And they were praised a lot. These people then were awarded placement into the best universities, were they attended, and almost inevitably went on to get advanced degrees in some form of the humanities.  Finally, these people got jobs that aligned with the writing/analysis/cultural literacy skill set honed by today's education system, such as being reporters, columnists, novelists, or university professors. (These jobs may be going away, but that is a different issue.)

And now these people praise school.  

They don't praise school as any self-aware person might, such as saying, "Obviously, I was the exception.  I was very lucky. I was the 1% for whom the current version of formal education was designed - solitary, studious, and analytical - not the 99% for whom it was not.  I realize now that my seemingly personal experience was deeply subsidized, financially and emotionally, by the other students, including those around me and those students I never met. In the system in which I thrived, my A's were only possible by other's C's, D's, and F's.  I pushed off against these people to propel myself forward, rather than helping others to the best of my gifts. It is a bizarre environment, artificial and wasteful by any standard, yet one for which I was better suited than most. Schools lifted me up, but using the research skills and intellectual honesty I learned in school I have realized for how many students the opposite effect occurred."

Instead, these people say things like "Schools change all of our lives.  They enrich all of civilization   They put people on better paths.  If you work hard, (and play by my rules... er, the rules), you will succeed. Everyone should spend a lot of time in school." They say, "Schools are fair places and level playing fields where anyone can thrive" rather than saying "schools are brutal places where more than half the students will lose by design."

This is akin to the person, similarly hard-working and intelligent, who builds a very successful company and says, "Everyone should love capitalism."  Or a lawyer at the top of her game saying, "Our greatest achievement is the law." Or a successful athlete saying, "Football is the most wonderful activity ever created."

At best, these academically aligned 1 percenters are seemingly happily oblivious to their success in a zero sum environment as a driver for their love of the institutions.  They seem unaware of the happy dice roll that presented to them an institution, ready made, that is aligned with both their gifts and mission.

At worst, however, these people know that only by having a continuous full classroom can their own top-of-the-heap status endure.  Any traditional university employee or ongoing beneficiary wants that annuity.  Even some highly aligned alums crave their alma mater's status to grow, and the more people that supports the school system  status quo, the higher value their own affiliation becomes.

The tell-tale sign - the give away, the gaff - in their argument is always a variations of the statement: "No matter how bad most schools are, everyone should go, and the longer the better.  People who only sit in classrooms through high school are losers.  And don't quit after undergraduate.  Get a PhD!  Education must only be defined as time spent in school."

Instead, to encourage the potential of students and of schools, not just use the institutions for personal ego support, one has to be willing to say to all children, "Give it weeks, even months, but if an environment doesn't help you with your gifts and mission, find one that does."



  1. "No matter how bad most schools are, everyone should go, and the longer the better."

    Spot-on summary of the top reason people give for maintaining the status quo with regard to school. I started my own school in 2010 (www.honeyfern.org) and remain astonished at the mediocrity people are willing to accept because that's just the way things are.

    I have huge issues with Wieseltier's article. His ivory tower has shielded him from reality for far too long. Wonder when he last interacted with a K-12 public school in any meaningful way (as opposed to touring the top 1% of schools with a carefully orchestrated showcase of classrooms/activities).

  2. I tried to email you, but couldn't get through. Please drop me a line when you get a moment.

  3. Well, now that I have failed my child through high school (graduation is in June) how can I help him through college? (I wish I'd had this food for thought 18 years ago).