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”.

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.

“Give childhood back to children”

No, our children don’t need more school. They need more play. If we care about our children and future generations, we must reverse the horrid trend that has been occurring over the past half century. We must give childhood back to children. Children must be allowed to follow their inborn drives to play and explore, so that they can grow into intellectually, socially, emotionally and physically strong and resilient adults. The Chinese are finally beginning to realise this, and so should we.

If indeed (some of) the Chinese (in China) are starting to realise this, from what I’ve seen and heard, most of the ethnic Chinese in the rest of Australasia have not. And we need to, for the sake of our kids and our future selves.

A long while ago, I read an article that said kids should be allowed to get bored sometimes because that is when they start to use their imaginations and be creative. I don’t remember the source anymore but it was a great article because it made me feel so much better about how I regularly leave my 3yo to entertain herself while I work from home. I also began to notice that when she was left alone, she would tell stories, act out princess scenes, pretend play, build “houses” out of sofa cushions and “go shopping”.

Of course the question of what constitutes play then arises, and whether there’s “good” play or “bad” play, because inevitably parents will only want their child to do the “best kind of play”. That’s a different discussion altogether. For now, you can read Dr Peter Gray’s full article here. He raises some pretty important points.

‘Don’t You Worry Child’ by PS22 Chorus and Ithacappella

My love for PS22 Chorus has a lot to do with good music, but even more to do with passion (from them) and hope (for me). The way the kids move and sing, the way their voices come together – it always moves me.

Chorus director Gregg “Mr. B” Breinberg inspires me to want to make a difference in my own little circle because he is proof that, with talent, hard work and dedication, I can. That’s the “what” of it. The “how” I have yet to figure out.

I love how these kids are getting the opportunity and mentoring of a lifetime with Mr. B, and I can only hope and pray that my kid should be so lucky to find her own versions of “PS22” as she grows up.