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2012-02-19 09:48:39 (UTC)

One Percent Education

One Percent Education
Published: January 20, 2012

IT has been a populist winter. As Occupy Wall Street needles America’s financial sector over the country’s economic imbalance, it also focuses attention on another issue that helps feed that imbalance: educational inequality.

Just as the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans gobble up a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic resources and rejigger our institutions to funnel them benefits and power, so too do our educational 1 percent suck up a disproportionate share of academic opportunities, and threaten to reconfigure academic culture so that it both mimics and serves their values.

Pointedly, the Occupy Harvard news release announcing its formation read: “We want a university for the 99%, not a corporation for the 1%.”

Good luck with that!

Who are these academic 1 percenters? To a large extent, they are the children of the economic 1 percent — children of privilege who have been given every chance to excel and often do. They attend private schools and summer camps, take music lessons, get extensive SAT tutoring, land prestigious internships, take trips overseas and generally do what the less affluent cannot afford to do.

Their educational dominance culminates with competition for spaces at the best schools, which has never been stiffer. Of the 1.6 million high school seniors who took the SATs last year, roughly 30,000, or just under 2 percent, will end up in the freshmen classes of the country’s 20 highest-rated universities. Superachievers get the lion’s share of slots in the Ivy League, Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other outstanding universities. As a result, they dominate the Rhodes, Marshall and other prestigious scholarships. They get catapulted into the most selective professional and graduate schools. And they land the highest-paying jobs, becoming, if not the next generation’s 1 percent, at least its 5 percent.

Many elite institutions are attempting to redress the economic imbalance with generous financial aid — Harvard, for example, gives students with family income below $65,000 a free ride, and the number of freshmen receiving low-income Pell grants has climbed to 18 percent this academic year compared to 12 percent five years ago. But that’s still well below the nearly 27 percent of American households with poverty-level incomes of less than $25,500.

Even with economic outreach, the vast majority of students at the best schools are likely to be wealthy, well-appointed young people groomed and professionalized at an early age precisely so they would impress admissions officers. Most low-income and even middle-income students cannot meet the academic and experiential benchmarks that elite schools set.

Indeed, there are very few poor superachievers.

The emphasis on personal achievement has done more than turn the admissions process into a race to rack up résumé points; more important, to the extent that elite colleges set the pace, it is turning the educational culture into one that stresses individual perfection instead of one that stresses social improvement. Because graduate schools and the best jobs often require extraordinary credentials, students must pour their energies into their own ambitions and accomplishments. And schools encourage it.

Some may see this obsession with perfection as the culmination of a long trend; tiger moms have been pushing their children to be intellectual decathletes for generations. But it may actually be a reversal of an even longer trend. At the turn of the last century, the influential philosopher John Dewey saw education as a democratizing force not just in its social consequences but in its very process. Dewey believed that education and life were inextricably bound, that they informed each other. Education wasn’t just something you did in a classroom to earn grades. It was something you lived.

The principle gained force in the 1960s, when students demanded that education be more relevant — this was the period when African-American studies and women’s studies entered the curriculum — and for all the criticism that those renegades have endured in the decades since, they may not have been so nutty after all.

There is a big difference between a culture that encourages engagement with the world and one that encourages developing one’s own superiority.

The former promotes a sense of commitment; the latter has the danger of rewarding students for collecting as many experiences as they can without stopping to explore — like tourists who pride themselves on how many stickers they can slap on their luggage.

Focus on community service has never been greater, and many of us know parents who boast that their teenagers helped build a clinic in Botswana or taught schoolchildren in Central America during spring vacation. But motives matter, and such casual experiences can be empty ones if they turn what could be real social involvement into personal aggrandizement. (Look what I did!)

More, 1 percent education may make students risk-averse. Though educators are fond of saying you learn from failure, with today’s stakes, the best students know you cannot really afford to fail. You can’t even afford minor missteps. That is one of the lessons of 1 percent education: 1 percenters must always succeed.

Finally, a culture that rewards big personal accomplishments over smaller social ones threatens to create a cohort of narcissists. I’ve talked to graduate school applicants who fret that, no matter what else they have done, they won’t be admitted because they don’t have a passel of publications. I’ve talked to medical school applicants who worry about their choice to volunteer at a local hospital over working in an important cancer research lab. In another illustration of academic hyperactivity: 255 of the 1,015 students in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government are simultaneously pursuing a second degree — be it in medicine, law or business.

One of my student assistants at the Kennedy School, where I served a fellowship last semester, confessed to me that he and his classmates were constantly being told that they were the best of the best, which pressures them to prove it by pursuing the sorts of activities and research that wins honors. It is not only narcissism we have to worry about; it is solipsism.

In the end, 1 percent education is as much a vision of life as it is a standard of academic achievement — a recrudescence of social Darwinism disguised as meritocracy. Where the gap at the country’s best schools was once about money — who could afford to attend? — now there is the pretense that it is mostly about intelligence and skill. Many 99 percenters are awed by the accomplishments of 1 percenters, especially as the gap between rich and poor in SAT scores and college completion widens.

Whatever this does to education, it also undermines the underpinnings of the social contract.

The danger isn’t just that people who are born on third base wind up thinking they hit a triple; the danger is that everyone else thinks those folks hit triples. One percent education perpetuates a psychology of social imbalance that is the very antitheses of John Dewey’s dream.