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Day 19/03/2014

{ Rethinking Elite Education } “Fragile Thoroughbreds” and “Excellent Sheep”

Elite School Logo

Let’s talk about elite schools.

I went to one and taught at one. My husband, ditto. My husband’s current job has made it possible for our daughter to attend one too.

It’s hardly news that elite schools are often bastions of privilege and wealth, among other things. Nor is it news that a diploma from a top private high school — even more, a top university — is often seen as security for a life of access and comfort. That’s a seductive, and not incorrect, view.

Yet in Brooklyn where I live, this seems a good time to participate in public education. I may not be alone in this opinion: Not a single one of our daughter’s 18 pre-school classmates now attends private school — besides her, that is. So, as a native New Yorker who carries a certain amount of guilt that I never received a day of public education in my life, I’ve been observing somewhat wistfully the groundswell of our peers — few if any of them NYC public school graduates themselves — throwing in their lot with the NYCDOE.

Yes, my daughter enjoys a rich menu of academic and extra-curricular programs every day at her private school. Yes, she has the guidance of half a dozen excellent and well-supported teachers who sincerely want to be there. Yes, she is surrounded by peers who, like her, come to school well-fed and well-rested.

But is the comfortable, pampering environment of an elite school the best environment for growth in the long term?

I wonder about that. And I’m not alone.

rethinked...* logo

My reservations about elite education stopped feeling like the taboo-that-shall-not-be-named-around-public-school-parents in part because I stumbled upon two very insightful critiques — though not of elite education per se. Rather, these were critiques of the unintended consequences of elite education: “fragile thoroughbreds” and “excellent sheep.”

As noted here recently, Coursera now offers an online class on character education, led by KIPP founder Dave Levin. In one of the course’s videos, none other than Dominic Randolph, Rethinked founder and Character Lab co-founder (with Levin), speaks about the need for character education in elite schools. An excerpt of the video is available here. (To see the whole video, sign up for the May session of the MOOC!).

Dominic sees the elite school environment as giving rise to “fragile thoroughbreds,” top students who — through a combination of academic success and relatively affluent lives (my words) — experience few challenges.

[Fragile thoroughbreds are] the kids who are actually performing really well given our metrics at Riverdale. The kids who have the highest GPAs, who are going through this school, always succeeding. 

I worry that the message they get is, It’s all easy… The trouble is, they’re going to reach a point in their lives when it’s not easy. Those kids have a sort of Dweckian fixed mindset. And I think that’s a really dangerous thing to send kids out into the world with. 

[…] If you’ve got a life that’s pretty easy, and a lot of things are done for you, and you come to a place where you feel very comfortable, you get reinforced in that comfort. [Character education] is a way of disrupting that comfort level a bit….

Especially [parents] who can offer their kids a certain amount of ease or facility in their lives, they’re starting to think, Well, wait a minute, am I actually providing my kid with the type of capacities they’ll need to thrive and survive in the world…?

Dominic’s observation is that character education helps give “fragile thoroughbreds” an explicit understanding of skills and mindsets that would likely prove useful to them when faced with setbacks — such as grit and Dweck’s “growth mindset.”

The question is, how do you confound those kids? How do you create systems in a school that confound that easy belief — Everything’s perfect, everything’s fine, and I’m always going to be an A student — ? 

I think that’s an interesting question when you have the pressure of college admissions. The colleges are looking for these perfect transcripts… I’m interested in the delta, I’m interested in growth. And unfortunately the college admission system isn’t looking for growth right now. And that’s a big problem.

rethinked...* logo

Writer William Deresiewicz earned a B.A., an M.A., and Ph.D. at Columbia, and for ten years he taught writing at Yale, my alma mater. There, he observed students closely. In a fascinating essay first published in 2008 in The American Scholar (and which he has expanded in a forthcoming book), he coins the term “excellent sheep” — accomplished hoop-jumpers who aren’t necessarily interested in, or adept at, genuine intellectual inquiry. He argues that both the resume- and test-score-driven admission process and debatable intellectual climate at Yale and other elite colleges outweigh the advantages — as unpopular as that position may be. His assessment is unflinching.

The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.

[…] If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? 

So how does elite education “shut down” opportunities and “cripple” students?  Deresiewicz spells this out unapologetically:

[Elite education] makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you…. [I]t inculcates a false sense of self-worth…. [I]t teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense.

Without calling for remedies, it seems Deresiewicz would reach much the same conclusion as Dominic Randolph: that students at elite schools need to broaden their skill sets beyond the skill they most excel in — analytical thinking.

[…] However much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this. [emphasis mine]

In short, they need the kinds of experiences that, to borrow Dominic’s phrase, confound students’ sense that things will always be easy for them — experiences that will allow them to grow.

But students at elite high schools and colleges, these two would agree, are not typically getting those experiences. Indeed, Deresiewicz’s most damning assertion against elite colleges — and I suspect it’s one that is not widely known — may be that experiences outside of students’ comfort zones are precisely the experiences that many elite schools actually take pains to prevent.

An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. [As a Yale graduate myself, I can corroborate this.] In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.

That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. 

Dominic and Deresiewicz would agree: elite campuses ought to heed the guidelines put forward by today’s more sensible parenting experts — allow kids to skin their knees, hold them responsible for their actions, give them room to fail.

The challenge before us is how to transform the culture of a school so that growth and risk-taking are valued, recognized, and in some measure rewarded — in actual practice, not just in theory.

Stay tuned for several Rethinked…* initiatives that aim to achieve just that.

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