Education is More Than Academic Success

16:00—The committee convened to discuss the applicant. Before we met him the young man had already awed the committee with his academic record. His quirky mélange of artsy and science geek suggested a creative thinker. His perfect academic record demonstrated a keen mind. Even when judged against the über-hyperbolic rhetoric of praise, his letters of recommendation seemed to effervesce accolades. His recommenders seemed almost to venerate him in expressions like ‘a true genius‘ and ‘the most gifted student I have ever encountered.‘[1]

16:15—Impeccable in his tailored suit and coiffed hair, he didn’t carry himself as majestically or breezily as we had expected. Rather, he seemed almost diffident. Interactions were formulaic and almost austere—obligatory handshakes for everyone, thank you for coming, hands crossed devotionally on the table in front of him, shoulders squared off forming a plane parallel to the table in front of him, spine rigid and axial from medulla oblongata to the coccyx, his head didn’t so much turn as rotated slowly, smoothly, mechanically. For 30 minutes we asked him about his accomplishments, about his strengths, about his visions for the future. For 30 minutes he answered in precise sentences, best described, perhaps, as punctilious. He never ventured to think aloud, to think broadly or laterally. In response to each question, his head rotated steadily toward the questioner, he paused for a couple seconds, then he spoke to the strictest and most superficial meaning of the question. After 30 minutes, he remained an enigma.

16:45—We thanked him for the chance to get to know him better and assured him we would be in touch soon. Within 3 minutes we had agreed that he was smart, capable, accomplished, and remarkably ill-suited for the position. We spent another 27 minutes trying to explain away his mannerisms. We constructed incredibly elaborate and increasingly implausible scenarios in which his behavior was not only acceptable but laudable. In the end, we had to convey to him bad news.

17:30—I debriefed the applicant, during which the applicant took copious notes and said repeatedly: “I understand now what you want. I can correct that.” He seemed to be mapping the committee’s comments and feedback into a matrix of mental checkboxes. He will, I am certain, “correct” all his missteps. He won’t, I am equally certain, perform any better because the missteps aren’t intellectual puzzles to be solved. They are, instead, habits of mind, modes of thinking and speaking, ways of interacting. There’s no formula to “correct” overly formulaic and rigid thinking.

It’s easy as parents to focus on institutional and quantifiable criteria of success—grades, test scores, more grades, more test scores. It’s easy to raise our children according to some checklist:

  • Good grades ✓
  • Athletics ✓
  • Foreign language ✓
  • School clubs ✓
  • School government ✓
  • Musical instrument ✓
  • Extracurricular activities (e.g., service) ✓
  • PSAT/SAT/ACT test-prep courses ✓
  • College admissions counsellor ✓

But as parents we need to realize that education cannot be reduced to a checklist of academic successes. Moreover, focusing on the checklist blinds us to other facets of education, e.g., developing curiosity and cultivating wonder, acquiring and developing interpersonal skills. Our applicant’s parents had structured and guided his education, ensuring that every checkbox was ticked. Success was defined by performing a task. He became excellent at answering the questions asked, and nothing more than the question asked. Such a rigid educational program denied him the opportunity to develop as a person, to wonder, pose his own questions, to have the confidence to be boldly and daringly wrong, to have the briefest scintillation of creativity. Consequently, sitting before us in that interview was an accomplished, learned automaton.

  1. As a rule, letters of recommendation and praise from recommenders reveal little about the person’s talents, skills, and abilities. The rhetoric of praise has become perverted, a peculiar sort of textual pornography in its crude excess and superabundance. And like its sexual counterpart, the rhetoric of praise doesn’t reflect reality but rather particular set pieces that fulfill the needs and desires of the producers and consumers of that praise. In this case, however, even our inflated assumptions were surpassed. The Fates seemed to have bestowed on us a demigod.  ↩