The problem with elite education today: 8 important points

Spent a good chunk of the morning reading one of the best articles I’ve come across in months. ‘Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League’ by William Deresiewicz brings up some really important points about the system of elite education today, and his thoughts apply to kids everywhere, not just in the States. As an academically inclined Asian who grew up in an upper middle class family and who once harboured dreams of attending an Ivy League university (for no other reason than it sounded cool and exciting), this is familiar territory. Here are 8 important points from Deresiewicz’s article:

1. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

2. So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

3. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique beinga soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

4. Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify.

5. Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselvesthat is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?

6. The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things … Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker.

7. Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” and not in the spirit of “making an effort,” either…

8. Instead of service, how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any collegeoften precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not “smart”.

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‘Game of Thrones’ theme so awesome even the Queen’s Guard performed it

Here’s a Changing of the Guard ceremony you don’t see every time. Go, Buckingham Palace!

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O green thumb, where art thou?

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Until I got my very own garden, for which I was wholly responsible, I had never even so much as contemplated a plant before. Gardening was a hobby I had never gotten around to (ahem) cultivating, and the very first summer I lived in this house, I forgot I had living things on my land and didn’t water my (only) birds of paradise plant so all the flowers died. Thankfully, birds of paradise is one of the hardiest plants out there, and it sprung back to life a couple of seasons later.

This year, I looked out my kitchen window one day and finally decided I should do something about the “window box” that had sat there sad and empty for so long. I decided on flowers over herbs because I wanted some colour, and so one afternoon, my 4yo and I went to Bunnings and bought these for $1.60 each. I didn’t even know you could get potted plants that cheap! If it turns out I have black fingers of death instead of green thumbs, I reasoned, at least I wouldn’t feel as bad.

My next door neighbour is a dear, elderly, plant-loving Italian couple who’ve taken to planting shrubs and flowers on my land because I’m so bad at utilising the space I have (read: not planting anything at all). And I could so imagine the sweet grandma saying to her husband the morning after I brought these home, “Finally, the girl next door is growing something!”

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Parking fail. Human even more fail

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Despite this valiant effort, the car still did not fit within the parking space. Not that the owner cared. Or even thought to consider PARKING SOMEWHERE ELSE.

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A commercial that calls for us to ‘Inspire Her Mind’

Ads like this one and toys like Goldieblox are the beginning of a new trend (for lack of a better word) in girls’ education, and it’s a wonderful thing. I’m excited to witness the certain evolution of gender stereotypes and education in the coming years, and wouldn’t it be funny if, despite my vaguely arty tendencies and ineptitude for math, my 4yo eventually decides to become a physicist or something.

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Kids are better at the Marshmallow Challenge even though it doesn’t involve eating candy

Just found out about the Marshmallow Challenge and my favourite part of this talk was how kindergarteners perform so much better at this than graduates of business school. We were all children once, but along the way we seem to have forgotten that the best way to learn is to do, and experiment, and fail, and do it again. As grownups, we spend far too much time planning and thinking and talking and being afraid of looking bad or failing, when we should just be doing. It’s something I remind myself from time to time, but even the very act of reminding myself is “talking” instead of “doing”. Remembering that it’s okay to be in the beta phase makes me feel better about what I do and who I am, and it especially makes me feel better about this blog, which pretty much has been in “beta” for the past 10 years.

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