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.
More on this subject will follow.