I taught for a long time in three very different high schools, one of them a highly prestigious public school in a highly prestigious community. I met very different kinds of students from all walks of life, economic conditions, and various ethnic groups. However, there was always one group of students that always intrigued me, but not necessarily for positive reasons. Most of these particular students came from, surprise, that highly prestigious and competitive high school from that highly prestigious and competitive community. I called them “excellent sheep”.
They took as many AP courses as they could accumulate without any love of the subjects. They did all the same extracurriculars. They were tutored to get the highest SAT scores possible. They either had coaches or had “ghost”writers help them write their college essays They had all figured out how to play the academic game of success without taking risks but many couldn’t do simple tasks like get on a commuter train to NYC. These students were the epitome of a saying one of my “regular kids” put on a t-shirt we made up one year: “Be Different. Just Like Everyone Else.” They followed the script to get the highest grades, the highest SAT scores, and to get them into the most elite universities in the country. And get in they did.
Then, while working as a Fordham University mentor with 19 TFA corps members for four years I discovered the same thing. Although more diverse than most think, several of my corps members also fit this description. From Ivies or other Ivy like colleges, they had always been top students because they had played the game by the rules, gotten top scores, and thought of themselves as “ the best and brightest”. I always asked best and brightest what? They were often the ones who had the most trouble adapting to the far less than perfect conditions in the schools to which they were assigned, and were the most rigid in following the TFA line and had the hardest time in following the more practical wisdom I was providing them based on real experience.
In fact, in one of my earliest blogs I claimed that there were many corps members who, in the spirit of extracurricular activities accumulation, saw TFA membership as a similar escapade to many of the things they did while in HS (pay to be in a program that built a school in Costa Rica) to get them into the elite college of their choice. However this time it was to get them into the graduate program or job of choice. I said of them, “They would have gone to the Peace Corps in Africa, except their mothers didn’t let them.”
Last week, I read William Deresiewicz’s, Xcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of The American Elite. The title certainly sounded familiar. It was a phrase I had used years ago. Deresiewicz taught for years at Yale, one of the top Universities in the country. I taught for 18 years at Scarsdale High School, one of the top public high schools and Yale feeder schools in the country. He wrote about the same type of students I had taught and some of the TFA corps members I had worked with who did not stay in teaching, but have put themselves on the education public policy path to become the next Arne Duncan. I was captivated by the similarities in findings he had at the University level to what I had discovered on the high school level. I would recommend it to anyone looking to see why those in our leadership class are more followers than leaders.
Deresiewicz describes them as, “smart, talented, driven, 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 are doing but with no idea why they are doing it.”
What follows is a summary of some the thoughts and observations we have both made over the years. They are a sad commentary on those we call our elite and our best and brightest as well as the institutions that have created them.
We have both concluded that students have not learned how to learn. Instead they have learned how to succeed at school. They believe doing homework and getting top grades is all education is. “They have learned to ‘be a student’, not to use their minds.” They are “content to color within the lines” of direction their schools have given them. Few are passionate about ideas or “intellectual discovery” of their own choosing. They are more interested in developing credentials, what Deresiewicz describes as “credentialism”. Others might call this “meritocracy.”
“Credentialism” has lead to a narrowing scope of practical utility in education setting its sights on future success in economics, business and finance. In fact since 1993 economics went from being the top major in 3 of the top 10 universities in the country to a whopping 65% of the top 40 universities and liberal arts colleges in 2014. As a result in 2010-11 (even after the Great Recession) “nearly half of Harvard graduates”, “more than half of those at Penn,” “and more than a third of those at Cornell, Stanford, and MIT” went into two fields: Finance and Consulting! “In 2011 36% of Princeton graduates went into finance alone.” The chief not-for-profit on that path to success? TFA!
Sheep! A former Yalie writes, “My friends and I didn’t run sprinting down a thousand career paths, bound for all corners of the globe. Instead we moved cautiously, in groups, plodding down a few well worn trails….” Deresiewicz adds, “That is the situation consulting firms, especially have learned to exploit.” The “work is pretty much like college: rigorous analysis, integration of disparate forms of information, clear and effective communication. They seek “intelligence, diligence, energy—aptitude. And of course they offer you a lot of money.” Success!
Here lies the rub. Our “best and brightest students” are told the world is their oyster. They are told, often from birth, that they can be anything, do anything, and be the best at it. However, most of them simply “follow the fold” and “choose to be one be of a few similar things.” Now that unfortunately includes education reform.
How sad is it that so few choose the “path less travelled”. How sad is it that our system produces high achieving clones. To get into the elite schools (from pre-K to university and beyond) students kill themselves overworking and underplaying, parents helicopter and kill themselves paying, all in the hope of what they call opportunity.
To me it seems that we have created too many opportunity costs. The narrow paths our best “students” follow have closed off to them the passions they never had a chance to enjoy. The narrow paths have closed off the chance to teach, to work with their hands, to be a musician, or to be a stand up comedian. The pressure of having to stay within the lines and conform to the expectations of teachers, counselors, professors, parents and peers for fear of embarrassment for doing something “beneath them” has actually closed a world of possibilities and probably their true callings.
That is a shame for both them and all of us.
Our elite leaders want others to be like them. In education, they want schools to be what they knew them as. They want all public schools to be like the Scarsdale NY, Weston CT, Riverdale OR, Chappaqua NY, and Briarcliff Manor NY schools that “24/7 Wall Street” named as the wealthiest schools in the country. They like charter schools because they see them as private schools for poor kids. Why not try to spread a little Dalton or Friends Academy love?
Remember, our first Black president did not go to school at Stevenson HS in the Bronx; he attended Punahou School, a private college preparatory school. Arne Duncan did not go to Dyett HS in Chicago; he went to the University of Chicago Lab School. What do they know?
The problem that they continue to ignore? It’s the economy stupid! Or in this case it is the socioeconomic status that provided the opportunities our elite had. So lets examine (again with the help of author William Deresiewicz).
They are groomed. To get into the elite universities and colleges they must be more than intelligent, well tutored, test taking sheep. They are groomed to be leaders. They can’t have just belonged to student government; they had to have been president. They had to be first violin. They had to be captain of their teams. As Deresiewicz puts it, “ You have to come across, in other words, as an oligarch in training, just like the private school boys of a century ago.”
They cant just take required courses. They can’t take courses they may be passionate about. They can’t do experiential learning (unless convinced it helps their interview process). They must take as many AP courses as possible and score as many “5”s as inhumanely possible (again with tutoring). Some even take the SAT in 7th grade to be recruited in high school.
This process has been speeding down a slippery slope for decades. The competition has grown exponentially and parents have been using nitro-injected engines to get their “race to the toppers” across the finish line first. Race To the Top was created by Harvard grads who knew what many had to do to get in. Even the name of the law smacks of the process.
But what of the excellent black sheep? Many have become the best teachers in the best schools trying to help those in the herd see a different path. Others just work as hard as they can to accelerate the shepherding into the Ivy corrals. It is hard to stay the black sheep in the high-pressure environment of these competitive schools as a teacher, counselor, parent, and especially student. Crazy begets crazy as many will attest to. Deresiewicz tells us the following:
- Parents refuse “to allow their children to go on a field trip, because they couldn’t afford to lose a day of academics” – with “a lot of kids agreeing with them.”
- “It doesn’t matter if your parents aren’t crazy…because the environment is. Other people’s parents are crazy, so the whole school is crazy.”
- Most “teachers are trapped in the system.” As their schools “ give the parents what they want, no matter what’s good for the kids.”
Here is the upshot of all of this. These elite public and private schools have been, for generations, producing students who grow up to be corporate and political leaders “constructed with a single goal in mind.” Sociologist Mitchell L. Stevens describes it thusly, “Affluent families fashion an entire way of life of life organized around measurable virtues of children.” “They are not simply teaching to the test, they live it.”
What of their personality traits? William Wordsworth’s famous line, “The child is the father of the man,” says a lot about who we grow up to become. They become what they were made to be in their childhood (which now extends into extended adolescence). Alice Miller tells us in The Drama of the Gifted Child that many parents have made perfection the goal (see Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother) with the following results. Their child gives them what they want…or tries. The demand is constant and ongoing. What the child does is never enough. “What, only an A-?”
What happens to this child as an adult? They swing back and forth between what Miller calls “Grandiosity and Depression” or as Deresiewicz calls it “Hotshit/piece of shit”. They create a false self to cover much of this up. In the policy world it comes across as “other directed”, maybe philanthropic or as misguided reformism. However in fact what this covers up is an anger, a cynicism, a “Hobbesian competiveness”, a careeristic attitude combined with a false sense of duty that they call leadership.
As a result, they see education through that prism. To many it has become as one student told Deresiewicz, “not far from game theory, an algorithm to be cracked in order to get to the next level.” People don’t go to schools to learn. They go to climb society’s ladder.
Is it a surprise therefore that when the children of this system grow up, that they create data based “measurable virtues” for our children and VATS or APPRs for our teachers? Is it a surprise that they measure students and teachers using algorithms as if it was game theory…with students, parents, and teachers in communities not as well off as theirs as the pawns to be sacrificed as they continue to climb their ladders of success?