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.

3 comments:

russ said...

Reed College has opted out

from wiki:

In 1995 Reed College refused to participate in the U.S. News and World Report "best colleges" rankings, making it the first educational institution in the United States to refuse to participate in college rankings. According to Reed's Office of Admissions:

Reed College has actively questioned the methodology and usefulness of college rankings ever since the magazine's best-colleges list first appeared in 1983, despite the fact that the issue ranked Reed among the top ten national liberal arts colleges. Reed's concern intensified with disclosures in 1994 by the Wall Street Journal about institutions flagrantly manipulating data in order to move up in the rankings in U.S. News and other popular college guides. This led Reed's then-president Steven Koblik to inform the editors of U.S. News that he didn't find their project credible, and that the college would not be returning any of their surveys.[17]

Rolling Stone, in its 16 October 1997 issue, argued that Reed's rankings were artificially decreased by U.S. News after they stopped sending data to U.S. News and World Report.[18] Nicholas Thompson reiterated this judgment in an article in The Washington Monthly in 2000.[19] Reed has also made the same claim.[20] In discussing Reed's decision, President Colin Diver wrote in an article for the November 2005 issue of the Atlantic Monthly, "by far the most important consequence of sitting out the rankings game, however, is the freedom to pursue our own educational philosophy, not that of some newsmagazine."[21]

David Page said...

Let me preface my response by saying that I was lucky enough to go to a top 5 high school as ranked by newsweek.......

Although the rankings may seem somewhat superfluous and prideful, it seems foolish to deny that healthy competition wouldn't bolster any facet of society, whether athletics, business or education. I can certainly tell you that I was substantially more prepared for college than almost all of my peers. I started college with well over my freshman year completed due to AP exams and only because of this fact am I currently able to spend so much of my time doing research and volunteering at my church. One could easily argue that I may have been just as successful had I attended any other high school and that I was simply a product of good parenting and self-motivation, but this would be disregarding the fact that the competition at my high school pushed me to do my best. Being at a high school that is very serious about academics proved helpful in many ways. Just a quick example.....with every graduation senior going to college, the advisors were able to give much more sound advice as they had the unique ability to focus their time on admissions and scholarships as opposed to dealing with pregnancies, gangs or any other problems that come with most schools.

Now I am not saying that my school did not have some problems with drugs, skipping class or other disruptions, but it was an excellent environment for learning. I realize that my school did draw most of the top tier students away from local schools which often left a less than qualified student body at other schools, but it did provide a safe-haven for the high schoolers who were serious about their education.

David Page said...

Let me preface my response by saying that I was lucky enough to go to a top 5 high school as ranked by newsweek.......

Although the rankings may seem somewhat superfluous and prideful, it seems foolish to deny that healthy competition wouldn't bolster any facet of society, whether athletics, business or education. I can certainly tell you that I was substantially more prepared for college than almost all of my peers. I started college with well over my freshman year completed due to AP exams and only because of this fact am I currently able to spend so much of my time doing research and volunteering at my church. One could easily argue that I may have been just as successful had I attended any other high school and that I was simply a product of good parenting and self-motivation, but this would be disregarding the fact that the competition at my high school pushed me to do my best. Being at a high school that is very serious about academics proved helpful in many ways. Just a quick example.....with every graduation senior going to college, the advisors were able to give much more sound advice as they had the unique ability to focus their time on admissions and scholarships as opposed to dealing with pregnancies, gangs or any other problems that come with most schools.

Now I am not saying that my school did not have some problems with drugs, skipping class or other disruptions, but it was an excellent environment for learning. I realize that my school did draw most of the top tier students away from local schools which often left a less than qualified student body at other schools, but it did provide a safe-haven for the high schoolers who were serious about their education.