a response to "Against Excellence"
I began tweeting a response to this post about elite universities, but my thoughts are too long for Twitter so I'm putting them here:
This is important but a lesson that I think needs to be learned through first-hand experiences (whether from within academia or without). The opposite lesson is too ingrained in us from childhood to be overturned with one well-written post.
From within the school system—through PISA and other standardized exams, college entrance exams, and more—we tell students globally that academic success is the key to everything they want in life—intelligence, self-worth, economic stability, virtuosity, their parents’ love.
We tell students these are not fundamental rights. They must earn them through vigorous work and a whole lot of luck. Most of them will, in fact, be rejected from the institutions that appear to hold their entire futures behind locked doors.
I've seen students plan and attempt suicide because of exam results. Students become recluses (known as hikikomori) because they’re given a tremendously unfair deal in life. Every spring students sob in my office when they are rejected from elite institutions.
Often their dreams are things that can be accomplished at much more open places—they want to become nurses, physical therapists, writers, etc. Yet EVERY student has been told they need (within Japan) Tokyo University to succeed. And few will get there.
What has surprised me most as a teacher is how little intellectual giftedness actually matters at all. I was pretty fresh out of university when I stepped into my own classroom. As a poor kid, I had definitely bought into the elite-university-is-your-only-chance-at-a-future bit. It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I realized how the things I’d thought I had to earn were actually basic human rights.
All of my students deserve to feel valuable. To feel loved, to feel hopeful about the future, to know the ways in which they shine. I realized that if my students deserved those things, then I did, too. I always had—I had just been told otherwise.
When it comes to my students, I care literally not at all whether they’re intellectually gifted. I always felt like my teachers liked me less if I wasn’t good at their class. (I have no idea if that is really true.) Yet I genuinely do not see why I would value the highest-scoring child over anyone else. And I don’t think anyone else has less of a chance at living a worthwhile life or changing the world in a positive way.
Unfortunately, the school system we operate within is outdated, and it’s not intended to teach people that there are myriad ways to live your life. But there are! Elite universities are only one of them. Sometimes I wonder whether they should even exist at all. I guess Harvard’s good for inventing things like napalm. :)