"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Excellence–An Endangered Species

William Deresiewicz has recently written Excellent Sheep a book about the relentless pursuit of career and material success which has degraded an Ivy League education to nothing more than a paper chase.  Institutions like Yale and Harvard which have always prided themselves in turning out young people who can think – creative, disciplined, and intellectually entrepreneurial Americans – are living a lie.  While the best and the brightest still attend the Ivy League, they pick boringly predictable, practical, and useful majors like Economics; major in pre-law or pre-med, and exit these hallowed institutions no more intellectually, emotionally, or even spiritually developed than when they entered.

There is some truth in this; and there is no doubt that for many driven parents, the path to Harvard begins as soon as children are born and fingers and toes are counted. Little Jason is pre-enrolled at a career-track nursery school, given all the sensory and intellectual stimulation that he can take, and propelled through resume-padding extra-curricular activities, accelerated classes, and enrolled in all the right social programs.  There is no wonder that these children enter Yale with only one thing in mind – professional success, wealth, and status.  It is unfair to expect that these talented students would waste valuable credits and course time studying Shakespeare, Kant, or Confucius.  They never get a true liberal arts education, one which was designed not only to produce inquisitive, rational, and disciplined thinkers, but to expose students to ideas that have far more meaning and ultimate personal relevance than exchange rates or the principles of contract law.

The fault with this unilateral, success-driven education is not the fault of Yale or Harvard.  It is the fault of parents for whom acceptance to the Ivy League reflects more about their desire for status and social position than a serious and responsible choice for their children.  It is the parents who crow like cocks greeting the sun when the thick envelope from Princeton arrives in the mail.  It is they who hand out cigars, buy rounds of drinks, and share the good news at bridge clubs, on golf courses, and at the gym.  Their children are happy because they have pleased their parents, and if anything tremble at the news because now the pressure is really on.

I know many parents who share the same Ivy League hopes as their obsessive friends, but who understand the true, traditional, and still current values of Harvard and Yale and bring their children up very differently.  They know that their sons and daughters will be in the richest academic environment in the country, surrounded by super-smart and talented classmates, and able to choose from a rich, gourmet buffet of academic subjects rarely found elsewhere.  These children, brought up to value learning, education, curiosity, and knowledge itself, will suck the university dry, take advantage of every course offering, move unpredictably but creatively through the curriculum, and will challenge their teachers, the university, and themselves.

Cato the Elder was a philosopher-educator who devised an educational system for young Roman aristocrats who would rule the Empire.  Cato focused on classical learning – mathematics, history, logic, and oratory – but he also stressed the moral and ethical principles that underlie governance.  Young Romans were taught the values of honesty, courage, honor, respect, and compassion.

Oxford and Cambridge were founded on the same principles – the English noble who studied at Kings College in 1441 not only studied theology, philosophy, and ethics; but also the principles of proper and right service.  These Oxbridge graduates of the Middle Ages benefitted from the same academic rigor and discipline as did Cato’s students a thousand years before. 

Harvard and Yale were modeled after the elite British schools.  Not only did they focus on the same academic, ethical, and moral principles as their English counterparts, but they built their campuses in the same style.  Yale’s Gothic architecture is very much like Oxford’s.  Harvard’s less ornate Early Georgian style is much like the Tudor style of Cambridge.  Both British and American universities are divided into residential colleges.

                               Gothic Towers – Yale (left), Oxford (right)

A close friend of mine whose children were both headed off to the Ivy League gave them this advice: “Take what you like, not what you think you should”. A Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa in Art History will be far more impressive than lesser academic performance in more ‘relevant’ majors.  Most importantly, selecting courses according to interest and preference will take advantage of the best that a premier education can offer - expanding and deepening knowledge and understanding of subjects already of personal relevance and importance.

The Harvard ‘Red Book’ is published every five years for each class.  Students are encouraged to write about their experiences, their choices, and their changes.  Reading a class’s first Red Book gives lie to the simplistic notions of Deresiewicz, for students relate stories of remarkable intelligence, versatility, enterprise, and maturity.  Many have changed jobs and career paths more than once and have had the confidence to do so without hesitation or regret.  It is clear that Harvard not only gave these young people an enviable academic background, but encouraged confidence and a strong sense of self-worth.  Young Romans, Britons, and Harvard graduates all left with a sense of purpose, intellectual ambition, and discipline.

The American Ivy League is similar to the British Oxbridge system in other ways as well. Eton and Harrow, English preparatory schools which begin a student’s education early on, and begin the process of molding disciplined, logical, and morally-and ethically-grounded students.  America’s best prep schools – Sidwell Friends, St. Albans, Andover, Exeter, St. Paul’s and Choate – do the same. 

These schools, however, can be little more than paper mills, academic feeding grounds for the pre-law students headed to Yale if they were brought up by parents who have instructed them in this narrow, and intellectually insular way.  For those who have been taught by their parents to be inquisitive as well as responsible, elite secondary schools will continue their enviable liberal education.

The real issue in education in the United States is not with the Ivy League or high-performing secondary schools, nor even with obsessive parents, but with public education and the ‘progressive’ critics who prefer its ‘democratic’, inclusive, and collaborative principles to the individualism and excellence of the best private schools.  America is at its best, they say, when all boats rise together, when the most disadvantaged have the same opportunities as the most advantaged.  While such egalitarian principles are laudable, they are responsible for the discouragement of individual enterprise and excellence. 

So-called ‘cooperative education’ according to which more able, intelligent children help those who are slower to learn, retard the progress of the smartest, most intellectually ambitious, and most likely to succeed.  Excellence is not recognized and honored as much as collaboration, compassion, and consideration.  Superior intelligence and talent are not applauded, but suspected and challenged.  Far more public resources are invested in those children with ‘special needs’ – i.e. slow learners – than to accelerate those who are ‘gifted and talented’.

Yale and Harvard are still the premier universities of the United States; and anyone who challenges the value of an Ivy League education is just whistlin’ Dixie or eddying in socially ‘progressive’ backwaters.  Of course many students propelled through Harvard and Yale for the wrong reasons might just as well have labored in some top-tier public university which won’t question professional career choices and which will provide a more than adequate preparation for them.  For those fortunate few who have been given a Cato The Elder education from their earliest years, Yale and Harvard are the only places to be.

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