All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.


22 June 2011

College For Everyone: A Brief, Terribly Unfair Field Study

Anyone who's taking the time to read this blog has probably heard about "College for Everyone" or "College for All" -- the social and rhetorical push to make sure that no one under 21 or 22 ever really commits to a career or thinks about starting up a company before they've learned about Tolstoy and taken an acting class, to ensure that the success conditions of our education system are marked by collegiate sheepskin.

As you can tell from my tone, I'm not a fan of this line of thought, and thankfully it's not gaining ground nearly as quickly as its supporters would like.

Now last night I went to a high school graduation for someone I care about very dearly. It was by far the largest, longest high school graduation to which I'd ever been, but I had good company up in the nosebleed seats of the UCI Bren Events Center and some of the speeches were entertaining. (Someone needs to think about the stress on the poor band, having to play Pomp and Circumstance while 600+ names are read.)

But something happened there that I thought was blogworthy. Knowingly or not, a member of the School Board gave a speech in which she thought she was being quite nice; I thought she was being -- taken on her own terms -- quite rude.

The El Toro High School Class of 2011 has a very large percentage of people going to college -- I forget the actual number but it was something high like 85% or so. The speaker mentioned this, and then proceeded to name about 15-20 of the most prestigious and most notable local schools: Yale, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Biola, Chapman, and a bunch of others. Then she mentioned that a goodly portion of students were going to community college. Then the full statistic on how many students were continuing with higher learning. This was really the centerpiece of her speech: congratulating the class on how many of them were staying in school.

Then after that, after a brief digression into other topics that I don't actually remember, there was a single sentence about students who were going (this is a paraphrase quote) "on into higher learning, into the military, or into a career."

And that was it.

If you were going on to college, you got to be the focus of almost the entirety of the woman's speech. (Not that, being a high school student who's probably never even thought about the school board, you really cared about her speech.) If you were going out to die for your country, or to be a productive member of society, you got a single sentence (which felt like it was put in there precisely so no one could say that she actually ignored all those other students).

Now by itself, that isn't a big deal. I don't care so much about how many people go to college, so if someone wants to talk about people going off to college, that's fine by me. You might just as well quote statistics about the class's total weight, or how many of them have gone skinny-dipping off the coast of Japan, or how many cans were raised in the food drive (which was mentioned several times by many people).

But it was fairly obvious from this lady's tone, and the speech itself, that she was filled with all sorts of warm fuzzies for the students who were going on to higher learning, that somehow the prestige of the school's academic future enhanced the prestige of the institution of which she's a representative. There wasn't a doubt in my mind: she would have been happier if 100% of the students had been going on to college. She would have died, right there on the stage, in paroxysms of ecstasy if every single one was going to an Ivy League or to Stanford. And that sentiment was apparent in her speech (as whitewashedly political correct as the speech was).

So taken on her own terms, she was congratulating about 80% of the class on achieving something that she valued, while more or less dismissing the other 20%. Which, again, is fine taken by itself. We do things like this all the time in day to day conversation; it's called making judgments. It's what humans are good at.

Except that this isn't a graduation for the kids going to college -- it's a high school graduation, and she's a speaker at this graduation. Context matters. Let me put this in other terms:

If I bake cookies for a bunch of people for Christmas, and deliver them out, no one accuses me of not getting Christmas cookies for the people I don't know. I exclude them because I'm not going to bake 6 billion tins of bookies, and that's fine.

Now imagine that you're in a class of 30 other students. If you bring cookies for you and your best friend, then you and your best friend have cookies. If you bring cookies for you and your five best friends, you're starting to get a little cliquish, but it's still fine. But if you bring cookies for 27 of the students, and leave out the three students towards whom you don't feel as warmly, you're being rude. Cruel even. Context matters.

And if you spend 2-3 minutes talking glowingly about how wonderful it is that all these students are going on to college, if you go through all the attention-giving trouble of naming a lot of the schools, and then dismiss 20% of the class in a sentence, at their graduation and right in front of them, you're being rude. You're telling them they're a disappointment (which I don't think they are) and that if they weren't part of the class, if the college percentage was higher, you'd be happier. Which might be true, but is a terrible thing to say to someone at their graduation.

She wasn't really giving out cookies -- as I said, I don't think anyone really cared what she thought. But she thought she was giving out cookies. And she didn't give them to around 20% of the class.

Now I'm being somewhat unfair -- I don't know what was going on in this woman's head, and I'm only making the best educated guesses I can about her inner motivations. Maybe she doesn't actually think that everyone should go to college, and she just isn't a very good speaker who conveys ideas she doesn't actually hold. But sometimes an act is rude whether or not you intend it to be rude -- not always, I think, but sometimes.

This is one of those times. And someone who is a professional in education, who is in a position of authority such that she's asked to speak at a graduation of a number of students it's unlikely she's ever met (which, to be fair, is what school board members do!), should know better anyway. And my suspicion is that this is being repeated at other fairly well-to-do school districts around the country.

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