Saturday, December 1, 2007

Whatsamatta U

Two bible verses to preface today's post.

First, Jeremiah 9: 23-24:

23 This is what the LORD says:
"Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom
or the strong man boast of his strength
or the rich man boast of his riches,

24 but let him who boasts boast about this:
that he understands and knows me,
that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,"
declares the LORD.*

And Doug brought to my attention Proverbs 19:2:

2 It is not good to have zeal without knowledge,
nor to be hasty and miss the way.*

Not surprisingly, the Bible gives us a both/and lesson. It is not good to have zeal without knowledge, but it is also improper to boast about knowldge. One can easily imagine what Jesus would say about people who were either boring intellectual snobs or who showed a dangerous lack of knowledge or wisdom.

The inspiration for today's post is a recent Wall Street Journal article on the 50 or so top highschools ranked by who places the most students at the so-called "elite" schools. I find a perhaps unBiblical fascination about reading about people for whom attending a "non-elite" private school or a public university (or, shudder, waving-off of college to become a comedy writer or an auto mechanic) is some kind a personal tragedy. And the article itself was full of many unanswered questions:

What does anyone get, at the margin, out of attending an so-called elite university?

What does it mean that so many of these schools are either: 1) expensive Northeastern private schools; 2) high stakes admission parochial or public magnet schools; 3) public schools in high income areas?

What is the purpose of lists such as these? What good does it do to tell someone in a grindingly poor rural school district that if only they lived in the Washington D.C. suburbs their chances of going to Princeton would be higher?

Do we next see a list of the top 250 middle schools to get into the to 50 high schools to get into the top elite colleges? Where does it end---admission to college prep kindergardens to get into the top 1000 elementary schools to get into the top 250 middle schools to get into the top 50 high schools to get into the top colleges? (Oh wait, that's already happening.)

And, as with so many of these exercises, this may confuse correlation with causality. Just because you play football in the NFL doesn't mean that your last name changes to Manning. Many of these schools undoubtedly have great "success" precisely because of who they have as students.

There's almost an endless discussion about education reform that could follow on this topic, but I'd like to turn back to the opening bible verses. Sometimes the economist's skill at defining institutions must yield to the Christian's imperative to change people. For students and parents involved in the college admission process, I think it is imperative to ask "Where is God in all of this?" If you believe that your calling is as an actor and going to Yale for drama is the logical and best path, so be it. But the Christian life should not be about credential elitism, snobbery, career anxiety, or making meritocracy one's personal God.

I also think there's something to be said to people such as myself in America's universities. It is not clear whether we are captives or instigators (I believe largely captives), but universities are now and have been for some years caught in a destructive obsession with the rankings sytems that drive student admissions. We all know that this stuff is phony and nonsense, but we are caught in a prisoner's dilemma where no one university can afford to say, like Eric Cartman, "**** you guys, I'm going home."

The quote from Jeremiah suggests that an end to boasting about knowledge would mean not only more justice but also more kindness. I don't know if that's a correct match for the verse to this problem, but it seems to me that we have a system that is neither just, nor righteous, nor kind.

* NIV from Bible Gateway.