Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Myth of the Elite College: Ideas or Things?

I read an article linked in a tweet from NPR. The "Tiger Mom" announced that her daughter was accepted into Harvard and Yale as an undergraduate student. Some have said this is vindication for her parenting techniques. The assumption, it seems, is that since Harvard only accepted 6.3% of its applicants, Chua's daughter must be successful. The less students that are accepted into an institution the better it is, the better the institution the better the applicant is. Right?

I remembering applying for doctoral programs and internships where I had a 1 in 100 percent chance of being accepted. Having been selected by some of those programs, I must be pretty smart. Not really. For the most part, I was in a group of 50 serious applicants applying to the same 50 highly competitive programs. We were all going to get into a selective (thus good, right?) program. The other half that didn't get in weren't viable applicants to begin with (applying to programs on a whim, wrong fit, underprepared, etc.).

Suddenly being the one picked out of a hundred is not all that exciting to me. It's important to read these numbers and know what they mean. The same pool of people are applying to lots of different elite schools. The low rate of acceptance doesn't really mean anything special. What these statistics  mean is that more popular or well known universities have bigger pools of applicants from which they can pick (and reject). Consider the following quotes:

"It's like needing a new stereo and buying the whole Radio Shack", says Mark Speyer, director of college counseling at the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School in New York. "With these bigger pools, colleges are getting a lot of students who have no chance." (from the NYT)

Fred Hargadon, former dean of admission at Princeton and Standford, doubts that more and more applicants make for a stronger class. "I couldn't pick a better class out of 30,000 applicants than out of 14,000," he says. "I'd just end up rejecting multiples of the same kid." (from the NYT)

Karl M. Furstenberg, dean of admission and financial aid at Dartmouth from 1992 to 2007 commented "It's a classic arms race--escalation for not a whole lot of gain," he says. "I don't think these larger applicant pools are materially improving the quality of their classes. Now what's driving it is the institutional self-interest factor, where bigger pools  mean you're  more popular, you're better." (from the NYT)

What really got my goat (what does that phrase mean, anyways?) is Chua's conflation of sucess and admission to an Ivy league school. Is the more popular choice the better choice?

Having worked at some top-tier elite schools, I can say that the enormous wealth and resources of the school provides the student to access to things that students can't get at other institutions.  The wealth and resources do not, however, make students any more or less likely to come into contact with ideas. Being at an elite institution, at times, actually isolates students from access to ideas. Think large impersonal classes taught by doctoral teaching fellows.  Think faculty in labs doing solitary research rather than in the classroom inspiring students.

Things or ideas? Which is more important in a college education? Ideas are where it is at for me. Things seem less important.

To understand why, you have to understand my context. Different people might have different ideas because of different contexts.

I was not a student at an elite ivy league institution. I selected (and was selected by) smaller institutions. I wasn't the kind of high school student that people thought would be successful in any college (let alone an Ivy League). I had horrible study skills in high school and had no idea how to learn. I had few teachers who knew how to help me. I was a student in a reasonably affluant suburb. I had access to plenty of things but no real access to ideas. I had no access to ideas that would help me understand myself and how I fit into the world. The things were nice, mind you, but I was starving for ideas. This is my context--it's the position from which I understand this issue. You might like to consider your own context and how it might lead you to different thoughts on this same issue.

A found a way to escape my high school that was rich in things and poor in ideas. In my Junior year I enrolled in classes at a local community college. Cuyahoga Community College wasn't rich in things. The building was old and dated. Pipes leaked. Holes regularly appeared in the parking lot that threatened to swallow my car. Science labs had old equipment and technology wasn't particularly up to date.

Ideas--now that was a different situation. What this two year college lacked in things it made up in ideas. I had professors who loved to teach. I discovered that learning was only partially about memorizing facts--it was also about learning to think, have opinions, and have reasons to support those opinions. I went from an idea poor high school that was rich in things to a community college that was poor in things and rich with ideas. In a second my world got bigger. It hasn't stopped growing since then.

I later went to a small liberal arts college in the mid-west called Baldwin-Wallace college. It did happen to have a lot of things (nothing in comparison to the elite schools, but it was comfortable). It again was a place with more ideas. I found more of myself and had more access to the ability to be more than I thought I could be. It was there that I finally figured out how I learned, what I needed to learn, and how to find situations that made it more likely that I learned. When it came time to find graduate programs I knew exactly what I was looking for: a progressive institutional where I would be exposed to big ideas, be mentored, and be pushed to learn from the inside out rather than the outside in.

Education for me isn't about the accumulation of things--or that ability to consume ideas, things, or products. Education isn't about being opened up and having knowledge poured into my head. Education is certainly not about doing the popular thing or going to the popular school. Education, rather, is about digging deep down inside and transforming from the inside out. I found that in my second Masters program at Goddard College and four years later found it again in my doctoral program at Antioch University: New England.

Ideas, not things, is how I learn. I did not need or want to be a vessel that a professors filled up with knowledge from the outside in. I'm a being that needed a professor to create a space where I could learn learn to be more.

So what about Amy Chua? She most definitely presents herself as someone who believes that learning is something that comes from the outside and is poured into a child. She seems to see children as things that are molded rather than beings that are encouraged to blossom. I wonder what her context is--and how these ideas might work in her context?

What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting, insightful blog you've written, Jason. I must say, I learn things I've never known about you from reading your blog. If I was a tiger mother, I'm sure I would find this more than a little disconcerting. However, being your mother, I've always taken delight in your creative thought process & I find it fascinating to put your experiences into the context of my understanding & memories of your high school & college experiences...especially since I'm also a graduate of the community college & the small liberal arts college of which you speak.

    However, what really prompted me to post a comment was your wondering about where the term "get your goat" comes from. I have always delighted in your curiosity & I would like to think that perhaps your propensity for curiosity was influenced by my curiosity which seems to be as perpetual as your own. So here's what I found out about the origin of that phrase:

    To Get one's Goat

    Where does the expression come from?

    If someone has GOT YOUR GOAT then it mean they have caused you to be annoyed. But where does the expression come from? There are several explanations:

    1. Horses of a highly-strung nature were often accompanied by a goat (or a sheep). It was a way of calming a horse down, especially a thoroughbred horse before a race. See horse problems. The legend has it that rivals and crooks deliberately betting against that horse, would steal the goat, resulting in the horse being upset and less able to race. Such practices are uncommon these days (see bookmakers), although it was said to be common in America in the early 20th Century.

    2. There is an old French phrase "prendre la chèvre" which also means approximately "to get your goat" or "to take away the goat". Various places suggest this is because in old times a person's goat would be their only source of milk, so they'd be understandably miffed if someone took it!

    3. When Captain Cook was on his great voyages of exploration, trying to discover the Great Southern Continent (not found) and the North West Passage (not found), he made some interesting discoveries among the islands of the Pacific. Unfortunately, islanders got his goat, and when they refused to return it, his wrath was vent upon them. Details of the history are worth looking into further.

    A few references to these ideas and some variants can be found at the bottom of the page on which I found this information: