Thursday, March 14, 2019

Bribing, Lying, And Cheating

The college admission scandal that has been splashed across the headlines for the past couple days is shining a light upon what I consider to be the ugliest aspect of education in America. On the surface, it's a salacious story about wealthy parents getting caught bribing, lying, and cheating in their quest to get their kids into prestigious universities. From where I sit, it's just the tip of the iceberg.

Private universities have always been "flexible" with their admissions policies when it comes to the children of the wealthy, powerful, and famous. Indeed, what the parents in today's headlines have done wouldn't even be illegal except were it not for the fact that they apparently lied in their tax filings, which is what might land them in prison. No, what this story highlights for me is that the stress and anxiety that caused parents to commit crimes on behalf of their children is epidemic throughout our educational system, and not just in private schools.

As a high school senior, I sent away for applications to several prestigious universities as well as one from a nearby state school. Places like Harvard sent me thick packets of material to fill out that including writing essays and whatnot with no guarantee of entry. My state schools application was a single page and because my grade point average was better than 3.0, they had to take me. From where I sat as an 18-year-old, my decision was made for me.

Sure you could call me lazy or unambitious, both of which are fair, but the point was that it was my decision to make. In fact, if mom had had her way, I'd have taken a year or two off to see the world before committing myself. There was no pressure beyond the existential one of stepping off into the unknown. I had walked into my SAT test (a standard college entry test still used by universities) with no preparation other than the actual knowledge I'd acquired during my 12 years of pubic school. No one expressed disappointment in my decision, no one told me I could later transfer to a "better" school. There was a general consensus that I ought to at some point possess a bachelors degree, but when, how, and where I went about that was up to me.

Today, for many families, even the selection of a school for their two-year-old is a matter of stress and anxiety that far exceeds what I went through while applying to colleges. And the situation around kindergarten has become almost unbearable. Parents, in their misguided quest to set junior on the path to an elite university, and thereafter, an elite profession, are scratching, clawing, scheming, and conniving. This has lead to demands that our schools become increasingly academic and competitive, which flies in the face of what evidence tells us about how humans of all ages learn. It is forcing our schools to become more hoops to jump through than places where we learn to be critical thinkers, to pursue knowledge, and learn to work together with other people. It has become all about becoming college and career ready which is not the same thing as educated. And, tragically, it is creating a generation of anxious, stressed out kids who are growing in to anxious, stress out adults, something the world definitely does not need.

I don't know how to end the insanity, but if we value our children, if we value education, it must stop, for both their sake and our own. The proper career aspiration for young children is princess or cowboy, and as far as I know, there is not a university on earth offering a bachelors in either. Successful people (and by that I mean those who are satisfied with their lives, who have careers that stimulate them, and who have good relationships with their families and friends) have never been created through anxiety and stress, let alone bribing, lying, and cheating. Successful people become that way because they are self-motivated, sociable, and able to work well with others, which are traits that come from being free to educate oneself by asking and answering one's own questions, what we in the preschool world call "play."

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