What’s So Great About a Good Education? (A Rant)

I can’t claim to have an explicit link to LDS life with this post, but I think it’s topical nonetheless. There have been several discussions on this site about education– the various pros and cons of homeschooling, pre-schooling, small private colleges, etc.

So here’s my little contribution: Why does it matter? I may be in a minority of one on this, but I haven’t ever been able to figure out the difference, in the end, between a super-duper high-grade education and a low-end ride through a mediocre public school. Before you write me off, I wish to say that I am a huge fan of education. I loved learning from K through 20 (or some number like that, if you’re still counting grades through law school), and will forever be grateful to have been so enlightened by science, history, literature, etc.

But I’m not convinced there is that significant a difference of outcomes between the various forms and levels of education. I’ll give myself as an example. I went to Farmington Junior High School, in Utah, followed by Davis High. In case you’re unfamiliar with the state of public education in Utah, it’s supposedly abysmal. From what I hear, I got a very poor education. And yet, I seem to speak the same language as my friends who went to elite private schools in Potomac, Maryland. They got to BYU and found the curriculum far from challenging. That was roughly my experience as well. They went on to graduate programs that set them up for cushy jobs doing professional type things, and I did basically the same thing. So what’s the difference? Why were their many thousands of dollars so well-spent, and where did my bare-bones public education leave me in the lurch?

Right now, my wife and I are discussing the various pre-school options available to us in our new Salt Lake neighborhood. To some extent, there’s a bit of a social status game going on on Salt Lake’s East Bench, with one’s pre-school selection playing a bit part in the competition. I want no part in this. Further, I am still very ambivalent about spending loads of cash to buy my son access to a room full of toddlers learning fun things, where that basically describes my own childhood running around the neighborhood for free. Supposing I win out (I won’t), and Rex misses out on the fabulous pre-school experience– have I consigned him to a destiny of blue-collar futility? Why was that not my fate? And don’t tell me I’m a rare prodigy that somehow escaped the inevitable consequences of my troubled background– I’m not, and I know many others like me. Of course, we haven’t even begun the discussions about private vs. public– one which a huge number of our neighbors have decided on the expensive side. (By the way, one major complaint with this is the lack of community it breeds. Pick any five houses in the neighborhood and chances are the kids there go to five separate schools. That setup would have tragically altered my own childhood, where I was friends with neighborhood kids because I lived by them and saw them at school. But that’s a tangent, I suppose).

I understand why it’s important to go to the right grad school, and the right college. These decisions are easy to link up to tangible benefits, in the form of job opportunities and professional advancement, no question. But if one can rise to above average in her high school, whether it be Exeter or East, it seems she can get into a decent college and avail herself of basically the same opportunities as anyone else. I know that by asking these questions I am outing myself as forever disqualified from joining the elite establishment of our happy country, but I sincerely would like to understand why people think some of these schooling choices are worth it.

Home school, pre-school, public school, private school, in the end, I don’t see the difference. If I imbue my kid with the right attitude about learning, and give him the right tools starting in the home, I expect the results would be largely the same. Prove me wrong. Please.

58 comments for “What’s So Great About a Good Education? (A Rant)

  1. “By the way, one major complaint with this is the lack of community it breeds. Pick any five houses in the neighborhood and chances are the kids there go to five separate schools. That setup would have tragically altered my own childhood, where I was friends with neighborhood kids because I lived by them and saw them at school. But that’s a tangent, I suppose.”

    Actually Ryan, I don’t think it’s a tangent at all. On the contrary, it’s central. This is the issue: meritocracy divides. The competition over educational, professional, and consequently social opportunities divides. The issue is never whether or not someone wants a good job, or wants their children to have a good education; who doesn’t want those things? The issue is, what are the costs? What are the costs of accommodating ourselves to an ambitious mentality of success? One cost is very simple: it tends to disrupt the sort of neighborliness, rough equality, and mutual participation that makes life liveable. Not worth it, at least not most of the time, I say.

  2. How big of a difference statistically must it make before you are proven wrong. Suppose that it increases on aggregate the chances of success (defined in terms of higher academic performance later in life) by 5 percent. 10 percent? 25 percent? You get the picture.

  3. Would it be not worth it, Russell, if you worked at the local Tyson’s processing plant rather than ASU? There may not be a huge difference in your economic situation and the economic situation of a foreman at the processing plant, but your ability to live in the world of ideas (however imperfectly) is based on a commitment to the value of education and meritocracy. Would you give up communitarian philosophy as a vocation in favor of philosophy-less communitarianism in practice?

  4. One reason to go to a good school, is if you will actually learn something and enjoy all those years sitting in classrooms, rather than just being bored and annoyed. The purpose of school is not merely to get a “good job” when you’re done. If your goal is merely a “good job”, maybe an education in boredom is helpful. But there’s more to life. A school where the teachers are good role models (many are not, or are simply unappealing to the students) encourages a child to take a positive approach to growing up, rather than resisting it at every possible chance. I’m not knocking your job, Ryan, but I am disagreeing with the apparent assumption that (staying out of jail and) locating yourself within the corporate machine is the primary goal of education.

    For me in college, the easier the class was, the worse my grades were. Half the time BYU was boring and frustrating, like my public schools, in comparison with my incredible high school. This probably made it much harder for me to go to the grad. school of my choice. Luckily I am very happy with where I ended up, but this is largely a happy accident; given the choice, and not knowing how great Notre Dame actually is for my interests, I would have gone somewhere “higher” on the totem pole, but I was rejected from those places; apparently a BYU degree with only decently high grades was not good enough for them. Plus, BYU is harder to get into now than it was when you went, a few years back, as I understand.

    My high school experience (a particularly choice private school, by the grace of God, but there’s nothing magic about private vs. public schools) completely changed me. My parents had done everything I can imagine they could have done to instill in me a love of learning, and I did love learning, but I found school spectacularly tedious, and my love of learning was positively thwarted much of the time by school, and I had no interest in society at large or in entering the adult world despite my wonderful parents, until going to my wonderful private school. If you want to instill in your children a love of learning and of worthwhile achievement, don’t send them to a school that will systematically blunt these traits.

  5. I agree with Nate Oman that going to the good schools does make a difference. I am a product of New Mexico’s public school system. I had a few good teachers but believe me, when I went to BYU I was definitely sucking hind teat compared to all the Utah public school kids. Luckily my ineffable talent allowed me to overcome. :)

    The real problem is, as Russell Fox points out, that elite education tends to draw people apart. Schools that teach better than others tend to also get better applicants and so the meritocratous are weeded from the untouchables. Unfortunately, unlike Russell Fox I think most cures are worse than the disease. Weep beyond tears.

    If you ask me, the subject of this post and Greg’s post on being a good Mormon Meritocrat are the same.

  6. In retrospect I had a very similar childhood. My parents put a premium on excellence, but I grew up playing in the forest close to my house and latter playing sports and loafing instead of doing homework (not that there was any to do). I then sailed through BYU and my Ph.D. program.

    While discussing the disparity of experience with my private school and then later Ivy friends, the differences are quite evident. They learned Japanese and computer programming (enough to land sweet part-time jobs in the summers). They were pressed to read the classics and really delve into them. They were genuinely challenged. I had the opportunity to learn French (though pathetically) and remain happily unchallenged.

    I will readily admit that the disparity dissolved at grad school. Privately schooled Ivies and publicly schooled state schoolers seemed to perform at the same level. I imagine that the choice for grad school selects for similar types of people.

    Looking back, I am now making up for my lack of zealous pedagogy by reading and studying out of personal volition, that which I did not while I was younger. I guess that means there is an opportunity with children to affect a personal profundity by exacting scholarship, which may or may not occur at public school. At the same time, I had a great time just playing and not doing homework. I’m not sure that I would trade this away.

    This does not however consider the quasi-meritocratic cultural elitism that has been heretofore discussed. And Adam, thank you for the rural pig raising metaphor, I laughed heartily.

  7. Indeed Adam, my post was triggered by conversations with my wife that sound much like conversations between Ryan and his wife, or between Bryce and Heather Oman on Nate’s preschool post. I guess if you get a bunch of parents of 3 and 4 year olds together, this topic is a natural. I’m just jealous I didn’t get a comment from Russell on mine ;)

  8. Russell, here’s a proposal for equality and neighborliness:

    Why don’t we just make everyone shop at Wal-Mart?

    One reason not to is the employees are underpaid (ditto most public schools).
    Another reason is shopping there does not build any sort of human relationship (that was roughly, though not quite my experience in the huge classrooms of a relatively good public school).

    I could go on.
    How much neighborliness does it build to get tossed into a sea of 1400 kids from all over the valley? You might never see your neighbor, except on the bus to and from.

  9. And further, I am of the opinion that graduate programs frequently suffer from similar defects to those of many public schools. Getting through a PhD program, even a “good” one, is not a reliable marker of having gotten a good education. Since high school my schooling has contributed in an important way to my education, but my real education has been quite distinct from my schooling. I liked BYU in part because it allowed me to pursue my education, rather than simply being buried in classwork. It also happened to have some wonderful human beings sprinkled through as professors, people whose wisdom went far beyond their academic field, or the course material.

  10. Nate, your comments #2 and #3 are essentially making the same point, one which (when my class-sniffer isn’t turned up to eleven) I’m able to acknowledge without throwing a fit. As I said over at my blog, no one who isn’t already a member of the Old Order Amish is absolutely anti-meritocratic. There’s simply too much force behind the argument for allowing specialized advancement. But that doesn’t mean the conditions which make advancement possible can’t or shouldn’t be subject to basic social tests, to determine the degree to which they do or do not encourage unnecessary division. Being an academic is, indisputedly, an elite and divisive thing in our culture, as it has been for centuries (“town-gown” conflicts go back to the Middle Ages). So is being a lawyer, an actress, a priest, a stunningly wealthy software designer. We (wisely, in my view) allow a lot of these meritocratic advances to stand; but to allow the meritocratic mentality to warp such endeavors as the primary education of children is, I think, a terribly unfortunate step, and one that ought to be resisted as appropriate.

  11. Nate, I agree that at some point the risks taken with a below-average education aren’t worth it. I suppose I write with an unstated, and hubristic assumption– that being that my kids (and, i believe, the kids of most of the posters and commenters here) will be above average in their native gifts, and thus rise to the top of the mediocre schools they attend. Most of us can say this, I think, given that most of our kids will be raised on the same kinds of conversations and issues we’re having on this website. That will create some intelligent kids. So, if they are among the smarter ones in their below-average schools, I still think they end up being just fine, on the measures of ultimate job success. While being in the top ten percent of kids at a Salt Lake Public High School may not buy entry at Brown, it will probably still get people into decent colleges, leading to decent jobs, leading to decent lives, etc.

    As for Ben’s comments about the real value of education, I am surprised by his thrust, because he’s standing exactly where I had meant to stand in this whole discussion– I’m a believer in the *real* value of education– which is love of learning, a sense of wonder about nature and humanity and God and creation, much more than just getting some well-paying job. But my own take on how to foster that curiosity is different from Ben’s. Instead of choosing the best school to do this, I hope to do it myself, for each of my kids. There will be inspiring teachers at these fantastic private schools, but my kids will still come home to me taking them on nature walks and teaching them guitar chords and reading Rikki-Tikki Tavvi. Why pay someone else to do that?

    Russell and Adam, I really don’t blame the meritocracy for this breakdown in community. I’m a fan of a culture that allows us to rise and fall based on our outputs and efforts. The problem is not meritocracy, but pride. I don’t mean to suggest that every private school kid is there because his parents are snobs, but that the drive to find the *absolute* best thing for one’s kid, as opposed to just a decent, clean, safe place to bloom, grows out of vanity. Can’t we differentiate between pure meritocracy and vain competition?

  12. Depends on the kid, period. Maybe you would have turned out better had you gone to private schools; maybe worse. But as far as paying big $ for pre-school: if you do it, it’s a good thing, because that means you’re stupid, and your child probably is, too, and will need all of the help he/she can get.

  13. “How much neighborliness does it build to get tossed into a sea of 1400 kids from all over the valley?”

    Ben, you’re confusing an argument against a particular philosophy of education with an argument for a particular form a schooling. As the long thread which Bryce prompted on public education and home schooling, several of us made the point that defending public schooling as an egalitarian good doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the need for more locality, choice, and diversity in the way the good is produced.

  14. “I’m just jealous I didn’t get a comment from Russell on mine.”

    Sorry Greg, I was busy hiding under a rock and issuing random manifestos and condemnations all last week. Kept me busy.

  15. “just jealous I didn’t get a comment from Russell on mine .”

    Your remark cracked me up. My last little post didn’t get a lot of comments but it attracted not ONE but TWO Russell Fox comments. I was all over busting out proud. Don’t know why that’s the marker for postorial success but it is.

  16. Ben, you don’t think that you’d feel some tiny increase in solidarity between yourself and the guy down the street if your kids went to the same school together? You might see him at the PTA meeting, at the school play, and you’d certainly hear your kids talk about his occasionally. I’ve learned, through many hard hours in nursery and primary that a very good way to get to know a family is by getting to know the children in that family. Parents of my primary and nursery kids automatically trust and respect me, and I them. I think this plays out just as well when our kids have relationship with the kids down the street, versus the situation where kids living three houses apart have absolutely no connection whatsoever because they never see each other except when their different school buses pass in the night.

    Of course, living in Salt Lake, I can’t just blame the private school families. The neighborhood division is fostered just as much by Salt Lake’s inane policy of allowing kids to go to school anywhere they like. Again, I ask, why?

  17. I think families are better off spending their money on books, music lessons, and travel rather than private school tuition or expensive houses in neighborhoods zoned for good schools.

    My own children are enrolled in very poor public schools, but do not seem to be suffering for it. We spent about $1000 on a library of cheap paperback editions of classic works of English and American literature. My kids seem to have read it all, most of it several times. They could not have gotten that kind of education in any classroom. Oh, and we also supplement their math education using the Saxon books. In the end, what really matters is whether parents pay attention to what their children are learning.

  18. Maybe it’s because I’ve usually been a fairly bored (and relatively poor) student that I find the whole idea of “which school” bordering on elitism and snobbery. I know I’ll be in the minority since so many people here have attended Harvard, Yale, and other Ivy league schools (the University of Utah you say? How gauche!)

    Not to mention the insane unfairness of essentially deciding a child’s fate from 9th grade on. I also went to school in Utah (on the east bench), and here’s how it basically went. In 9th grade, you’re in high school. Better hope you do well that year, or else you’re basically screwed for life. See, if you don’t do well, then you won’t get into honors English or honors history in 10th grade. Then, when you’re a junior, forget getting into honors English since you didn’t take the honors class as a sophomore. Kiss any AP classes goodbye for your senior year, and with it, kiss your chance of Ivy league college adios.

    Ok, so that’s a bit of an oversimplification. But once you get a poor GPA one year, it’s tough to pull it out. I’m still pretty young (28), but when I drive by high schools or see kids in my neighborhood who are high school age, I’m amazed we trust them that much. For every year I age, they seem three years younger. They’re kids, and they deserve better chances than we give them.

    Since I’m working on my degree late, maybe I’m a bit bitter, but the level of pretentiousness among some (and I stress the word “some”) in the Mormon intellectual community over degrees and education is astounding. Given that Mormonisms best thinkers early on were entirely self-taught with very little formal schooling (Orson Pratt, B H. Roberts, etc.) you’d think we’d appreciate the contribution of those without formal education more. But even here at T&S, we hear the phrase “pseudo-intelligensia” thrown around plenty, which is in itself a mighty arrogant term. If you don’t have a degree like myself, it’s hard not to take such statements personally.

  19. Russell: “Sorry Greg, I was busy hiding under a rock and issuing random manifestos and condemnations all last week.”

    If the choice is between a comment on my meandering, self-consumed post, or communitarian manifestos pointing the way to a brighter future for the Democratic party, I’ll take the latter. All is forgiven.

  20. So, uh…wait. John, H., can I get a clarification? Do we. . . agree? Maybe I need to make this my last T&S post– comments from the Grey Fox AND detente with John H. What better measure of success for this public school kid?

  21. John H.: For what it is worth, I suspect that 90% of the uses of the phrase “pseudo-intelligensia” are by lawyers who feel a sense of intellectual inferiority for having JDs rather than Ph.Ds. BTW, while you are correct to point out that Orson Pratt and B.H. Roberts were autodidacts without any degrees, it is also worth pointing out that prior to the final decades of the 19th century, graduate school as we think of it didn’t really exist (at least in America) and was not thought to be a pre-requisit for scholarship. Alas, we live in a different time now…

  22. Tres gauche, mon vieux.

    But take heart. When we say ‘pseudo-intellectuals’ we aren’t talking about people who act like intellectuals even though they don’t have the credentials. We’re talking about people who think they’re intellectuals just because they have credentials. In short, ourselves.

  23. Instead of choosing the best school to do this, I hope to do it myself, for each of my kids . . . Why pay someone else to do that?

    Money matters, yeah, but what about time? Your children are going to spend enormous amounts of time in school. Are you going to be fighting the school, or will you both be pulling in the same direction? My teachers were angry at me because I would ask questions they didn’t know the answer to, or correct them. I was punished for learning things they had not told me to learn.

    From my parents I learned to value learning, but from school I learned that nobody else values real learning, and social institutions are designed to abuse everyone equally. I was not allowed to pursue my love of learning for the seven hours or so I spent in school every day; I had to just sit on my hands while the teachers doled out insipid teaspoon after insipid teaspoon of pre-processed, schoolified knowledge, and made me do four times as much busy work as it would have taken for me to actually learn the material. I was completely uninspired by it, and thereby was trained to view society as an obstacle to my happiness. I was not taught solidarity, rather the opposite.

    Adult life, as I was introduced to it at school, was a matter of bossing other people around and clinging to a stale routine, accomplishing nearly nothing, merely for the sake of order. Some teachers were different, but they were the exception.
    Your kids will do something during all those hours; what will it be?

    As for solidarity, yes, there is a miniscule amount of solidarity built by going to the same enormous and impersonal school, but what would be accomplished by spending that time some other way? Maybe your children would build real friendships!

    Russell, how much actual education and social unity are you willing to sacrifice to the mere idea of solidarity, which the actual public school system does not advance? I am talking about the real reasons to send a child to a real school, not the reasons that might become relevant if the public school system were dramatically transformed so as to begin serving its intended purpose.

    Fun discussion : )

  24. You want to teach your children yourself, Ryan. But your children most likely will never see you at work, working. The people they will see at work, the examples of adult life they are given, vividly, day in and day out, are their teachers. If you can choose a school with an exemplary group of teachers and which is managed in such a way that the teachers’ job is doable and enjoyable (not forty kids per class, for example), do it.

  25. As for solidarity, yes, there is a miniscule amount of solidarity built by going to the same enormous and impersonal school, but what would be accomplished by spending that time some other way? Maybe your children would build real friendships!

    Ben, you’re not really suggesting that the horrible education you recieve in public schools makes it impossible to build friendships, are you?

  26. I wonder sometimes.

    I am working on a PhD in English, preparing to enter the realm of full-time academia professorship (years down the road, though).

    And yet the most satisfying (personally, spiritually, etc.) job I have ever held was when I worked as a landscaper, tending lawns and installing sod.

    I’m not sure if that contributes to the debate at all, but it is what all the comments made me think of.

  27. “The most satisfying (personally, spiritually, etc.) job I have ever held was when I worked as a landscaper, tending lawns and installing sod.”

    Me too. But it wasn’t full time and it was with a bunch of good Mormon kids.

  28. ::pats M.A. fondly::

    Just educated enough to be dangerous. Not educated enough to be taken seriously. I’m sitting pretty.

    But I think John H makes a good point. I found public schools boring enough even though I was lucky that I got tracked into the honors program. And my grades suffered as a result.

    Of course, then there’s the fact that the rural elem. school I attended never made it to the back of the math book (in any of my grades 3-6) so when we moved to Provo and it was time for me to sign up for 7th grade (a shout out to all my Dixon Middle homies) I flunked (barely) the math assessment because I didn’t know how to work with decimals and fractions. That got me sent to mastery math so I was a year behind all the rest of my honors student peers in high school — I didn’t take algebra until 9th grade. Which was lame. Plus it made honors chemistry and physics quite difficult.

  29. Adam – mine was full time (overtime actually – six days a week. However, we did get rainy days off – usually).

  30. “Russell, how much actual education and social unity are you willing to sacrifice to the mere idea of solidarity, which the actual public school system does not advance?”

    First, I disagree that “social unity” is, as you appear to be implying, fundamentally incompatible with the circumstances which attend any actual existing public school system. I don’t know what the particulars of your definition of social unity are, but if your definition involves, for example, neighborhoods that include families which share a common interest in and attachment to a particular educational institution, and who associate with one another in conjunction with that attachment and interest, then I don’t see why public school systems can’t qualify as providing such. They have in my experience, and that of others’ as well.

    Second, I disagree that what I’m talking about is “the mere idea of solidarity” in contrast to “actual” social unity. If you think sending one’s kids to a public school and being part of that public project necessarily fails to satisfy the material or cultural requirements of any social feeling, say so; but as it is, it seems to me that you’re just positing that any aspiration to community which involves a public concern like common schooling is, by definition, false. Well, it isn’t.

    Third, that being said, you’re asking an important and difficult question: how do I judge the trade-offs between supporting a large common endeavor and focusing attention on my children through more exclusive institutions? My short answer: there’s no simple rule one way or another; we simply have to take our priorities as they are, and make the best judgments we can. (For my attempt at a longer answer, look here.

  31. Ben, you’re not really suggesting that the horrible education you recieve in public schools makes it impossible to build friendships, are you?

    You can make friends at school, but it’s primarily done between classes, on the bus, and while whispering behind the teacher’s back, in my experience. The classes are too big, and the students have too little autonomy for classes to contribute much to building friendships, unless you consider sitting together in the same room friendship. I think that’s a pretty thin notion of friendship.

    Particularly when you go to junior high or high school and every period you’re with a different group of kids. You meet lots of people and learn to be polite to them as you file in and out of class, but you don’t have developed friendships with many because your attention is so dispersed.

    I had far, far more friends at my very small high school than at any other point in my life, because I was consistently interacting with many of the same people. Each graduating class was around 60 students, so we actually got to know each other. Plus, our classes were small enough, and the students serious enough, to be very discussion-oriented, so a big part of class time was spent actually having involved intellectual conversations with the other students. Some of you may have trouble imagining what I’m talking about. Some of my upper-division philosophy classes at BYU were like this, and some of my honors courses, but most of my college classes were not. (I suspect that taking honors and AP classes at most schools puts one in a smaller group where it is easier to get to know people from one class to the next, mitigating the impersonality of a large school.)

    Okay, not everyone can go to the Cate School (Carpinteria, California, and not cheap), but my point is that it can make a very big difference what school one goes to, depending on the schools you have to choose from.

    Compared with what some schools offer, even just a school that’s smaller, the usual public school experience is structurally not very conducive to building friendships, sort of like shopping at Wal-Mart. A small private school with a strong service program (I was part of a tutoring program; my friends went to a home for the mentally retarded every week, we held fund-raisers . . .), where your kids will build many meaningful friendships with students and teachers, might do a lot more to build their awareness and concern for their community than just going to school in the same building with 1200 kids they don’t know. Of course, it really depends on what schools you’re choosing between. Schools are not all created equal, but in any given town, the differences may not be anything to get worked up about. So there’s no substitute for doing your homework, visiting the schools, meeting the teachers, etc. to see whether the differences are worth the cost.

  32. I was raised in public schools. I think this was largely due to the fact that my parents did not want to pay for private schooling, and while they felt the public school system was inadequate for me, it would suffice. I always learned a lot outside of school, far more than I ever learned in school, anyway, especially during my elementary school years in Idaho.

    Now that I’m at BYU, it seems to me that all my public school learning really doesn’t have that much of an effect on my studies here. Even if I had gone to elite private schools, it is hard for me to believe that that would have benefitted me at BYU. Classes here are easy enough, in general, for me as it is.

    So I’m glad that my parents didn’t spend the money to send me to private school. They have a few more of my siblings to raise, and they can use the money. I might just be an exception, but I don’t think it would have been a good investment.

  33. An undercurrent I am seeing in this discussion seems to be “school helps people (student, parents and neighborhoods) be unified because they are all in the same place at the same time.”

    I don’t know about you but I found public schools to be very divisive. If you weren’t in the top cliques (jocks, cheerleaders and the like) you were either trying to be (bullies) or not (nerds).

    There is a big difference between a good education and a good school and they don’t overlap as much as most people think. A good education teaches, “That looks interesting, I am going to try that and see how it works, I may mess it up but it will be fun anyway..” A good schooling teaches, “Be quiet and don’t make mistakes.”

    Are public schools evil? Hardly, they are just bureaucracies, which have tons of rules for which they are trying to control the 5% of people who should not be there in the first place.

  34. Ben, when were you at Cate? Were you in the Carpenteria ward or in one of the Santa Barbara wards at the time? I’m just curious if I ever fouled you in a basketball game, or something like that. As for me, I was a bit up the road at a public school (Dos Pueblos HS, ’89). I have no complaints about the education or social environment there. I made friends, I was involved in enough activities to suit me, I was well prepared for college, and the price was right.

    My experience so far as a student, and with the occasional experience evaluating students’ applications, is that most schools are good enough to get you to the next step of whatever it is you want to be doing, and that the most important factor is what the individual student makes of the opportunities at hand. I recognize that there are limits to this, and sometimes the preparation is uneven. My public high school prepared me well for BYU (although some of my classes were pretty mediocre). I could have gone somewhere else for college, but BYU was good enough, and I was well prepared there for my graduate program in German (although I would not have been well prepared for grad school in my other major). There are maybe 40 PhD programs in German in the US; apart from a few marginal programs, the strengths of a particular program matter much less than the individual experience of the particular student, and no program is notably more successful than the others at placing graduates in tenure-track jobs. Things are probably different in other fields.

    When I’ve looked at student evaluations, a student’s high school or college background hasn’t counted for all that much. Coming out of a rotten high school with glowing recommendations can make up for deficiencies in other areas. If the student comes from a private prep school, being at the top of the class wasn’t as important, but weaknesses in the application looked all the worse.

    On the other hand, on the other hand… Everything I’ve said so far concerns credentials and outcomes, not intellectual growth. I sometimes wonder if my education has left me permanently stunted in some regard. Lucid prose, rigorous thinking, unyielding logical argument, and unsparing analysis are not automatic for me. They all require considerable effort, and my attempts at achieving them have an uneven record of success. I don’t think most schools are any better or worse in terms of credentials and outcomes, and I haven’t experienced any educational institution that owns the key to instilling intellectual capability. But I wonder if one is out there somewhere, and if I missed the boat.

  35. “…and the price was right.”

    This is where the rubber meets the road for most of us. Though, over all, I tend to agree with Ben Huff’s thoughts on this subject, some of us simply didn’t have the option of going to a private school because of financial limitations. So, I went to public school, failed miserably and – uh – that was that.

  36. “An undercurrent I am seeing in this discussion seems to be ‘school helps people (student, parents and neighborhoods) be unified because they are all in the same place at the same time.’ I don’t know about you but I found public schools to be very divisive. If you weren’t in the top cliques (jocks, cheerleaders and the like) you were either trying to be (bullies) or not (nerds).”

    I think part of the problem here is Ben and others are focusing on one sphere, while I and others emphasize a different one. Does your average high school engender a tremendous amount of social comfort, affection, and solidarity amongst the high school population? Absolutely not; your average high schooler is a mess of contradictory teen-age hang-ups and emotions, which will regularly result in bitter conflicts and resentments. The only guaranteed way of defusing that problem, as I see it, is creating more controlled environments. Breakdown the public school system, divide it along strictly meritocratic (and class) lines, pore far more resources into schooling than are currently available (or encourage parents to do so privately), and create small, exclusive, unified, high-intensity schools, where education can truly be a common endeavor. I’ll happily grant that going that route would make the education of teen-agers both more productive and more peaceful. The exactly same thing could be said about home schooling, which replicates (at a much lower cost) many of these same benefits. As I said in Bryce’s thread on that topic, I don’t disagree at all with claims about the potential education and social advantages of non-public schooling. I just am concerned about the civic costs. That’s the sphere I’m looking at–the neighborhood, the city, the polity–and not the internal social mechanics of high schools themselves.

    (For what it’s worth: I loathed high school, and God the Father Himself couldn’t get me to go back to a high school reunion. It’s possible that the psychological costs of attempting to educate young people in common simply become too great by the time they hit 14 years old or so; I’d like to see our society provide more socio-economic space and approval to kids who choose to leave school when they’re teen-agers and apprentice themselves to an auto mechanic or software designer or some such thing. But that’s an argument for another day.)

  37. I, for one, hope that the public school system in this country is still redeemable for lots of reasons. First, coming from a large family, private school was just never a financial option for us. If all the upper-middle class kids (which usually happen to come from families with two parents who are well-educated) are sent to private school then the public schools won’t have a chance. If the public school system fails then I fear there are those who will never rise out of poverty. I also think it is valuable to come together with people who are very different from you and learn to work together. That doesn’t mean that they should distract you during calculus class—but both groups can be in the same school learning to interact in the lunchline, during assemblies and in after school clubs. When I voted the other day it occurred to me that I never see the kinds of people that were there at the polling place in my daily world and it made me feel sad,isolated—almost trapped–. It hasn’t really been since high school that I’ve been surrounded by people so different from me and that’s a loss, I think.

    I know that there are those who think that the public school system has already failed. But, I must disagree. I had a strong group of close friends in my honors and AP classes all the way through high school. Although there were certain classes that left a lot to be desired, my sophomore honors English class, my AP American History class and my AP English class senior class easily rivaled my classes at BYU. My high school may have been an exception but there were so many things to get involved with—an award winning choir, the debate team, seminary council, school plays with the drama club, the school newspaper, athletics, student government—-many of which I participated in—-that there were abundant opportunities to develop meaningful friendships. The description Russell and Ben give of public high school is absolutely foreign to me. Further, going to pubic school has not prevented me from obtaining the higher education I’ve wanted.

    There is another implicit idea in this thread that I want to address—it is the idea of “success” and what makes someone “successful”. Although I love learning and have always enjoyed school, I have siblings who hated school and have not chosen to go to college. In fact, they think I’m insane for still being in school at 30. In many ways they think of themselves as more “successful” than I (they own homes and cars, etc that I don’t). They are happy with their choices even though society makes distinctions between those of us who have a degree and those who do not. Here I agree with Russell that there needs to be socially approved space for kids who choose to leave school to do something else.

  38. Bravo, Melissa. Your public school experience is much like mine. Still wondering how I made it out of that mess with friends, social skills, and self-esteem. I think Ben’s portrayal of the cheap, shallow friendships forced on us by public schools is very out of synch with reality. In fact, most of my closest friends are people I was friends with in high school. Go figure.

  39. Ryan —

    To respond to your initial post, I hope you win. I’ve been biting my tongue over on Nate’s preschool thread because I don’t want to offend anyone with my strongly held opinions. Hopefully this is buried deep enough that no one will bother to read it.

    Early preschool is a boon and a godsend for children in homes where there is little education, poverty, and broken families, and efforts to provide quality preschool opportunities to these children should be encouraged. Access to print-rich, literate environments is extremely important for early development.

    However, for families on the East Bench, and other families with educated parents and with economic means, early preschool has nothing to do with academics. You’re being sold a bill of goods if you’re sending your kids to a preschool that promises high achievement academically. You can do more at home to teach your kids what they need to learn before kindergarten than any preschool can. What do they need to learn? A little discipline, respect for authority, kindness, patience, how not to interrupt, no hitting — nothing that you don’t teach your kids anyway. The only academic skills they need are letter recognition and some colors, and even that isn’t entirely essential before kindergarten.

    This isn’t to say that preschools don’t have their useful purposes, but they should be recognized up front, without being obscured by bogus claims of increasing readiness for future Ivy League studies. They can be a nice social experience for kids (also overrated in my book, but that’s just me), a break for parents (essentially day care), an ego boost for the parents (already noted by Ryan in his initial post), and a means of interacting with other members of the community (although if everyone kept their kids at home, we wouldn’t need to go find artificial communities to be a part of). I’m much more sympathetic to these arguments for preschool, although I don’t believe in them myself.

    We’ve always done co-op preschools for our kids, and they seem to have turned out fine so far.

    To sum up: Preschool is good if you can’t do better yourself. If you’re reading this, you can do better yourself.

  40. “I think Ben’s portrayal of the cheap, shallow friendships forced on us by public schools is very out of synch with reality.”

    I’m always impressed at how many people seem to have enjoyed high school. (My wife had a grand time in her a big box of a high school in Michigan.) I hated it, though I now acknowledge it as being part of a system whose assumptions and consequences I think are worth defending. Basically, I just have a low opinion of teen-agers, and think that wherever any given adolescent stands on the prize-student-troublemaker-bully-nerd-what-have-you scale, education during those years is going to be tough.

  41. Bryce,

    Here here! I couldn’t agree with you more. I never went to preschool but I could read when I started kindergarten because my parents paintstakinging taught me with early readers. I don’t think that pre-school can be justifiably billed as a preparation for Yale, etc.

    I do think, however, that a few hours of alone time for an overworked mother of toddlers every day can also be an important (even necessary) thing for parents and for their kids. If pre-school can provide that that’s great!

  42. “We’ve always done co-op preschools for our kids, and they seem to have turned out fine so far.”

    To back up Bryce’s experience: we sent Megan, our oldest, to a pre-school in Alexandria, VA, and she enjoyed it and had a good experience. We’ve done a co-op pre-school arrangement (first Joy School, then something local parents have come up with on their own) for our second daughter, Caitlyn, for the last two years, and she’s also enjoyed it and had a good experience. From what I’ve seen, there’s no substantive difference between the two.

    “I don’t think that pre-school can be justifiably billed as a preparation for Yale, etc.”

    In terms of substantive education, this is absolutely true Melissa. Insofar as the construction of our meritocratic, class-obsessed-while-still-in-denial society goes however, unfortunately pre-school can, on occasion, be so billed, if only because certain elite elementary schools will look favorably upon kids who went to certain pre-schools (talk to the admissions people at Waterford School in Sandy), and certain prep schools will look favorably upon kids who went to certain elite elementary schools, etc., etc. It’s all crap as far as I’m concerned, but a social reality nonetheless.

  43. I didn’t learn to read before kintergarten. Indeed, I didn’t learn to read until I was nearly out of grade school, despite the best efforts of my parents. Furthermore, I didn’t learn to read after several years of intense tutoring by special education teachers. In fact, I didn’t learn to read until I was taught by a woman who specialized in learning disbled children and was very good at what she did. She taught at an East Bench elementary school two school districts away from my home. I nevertheless made the trek to the school each day, largely because of my parents oh so gauche concern with meritocracy at an early age. They were genuinely concerned that a child who was unable to read at age eleven -would face serious adverse intellectual, social, and economic consequences later in life. They did not think that the neighborliness that I lost out on by not attending the same school as the kids on my street compensated for the loss of expert instruction. Maybe they were wrong. Perhaps I would have learned to read at about age eleven regardless. I no doubt would have been more socially well adjusted in my ward and neighborhood if hadn’t gone to school with kids that lived many miles away. However, I can’t say that my parents concern with later educational opprotunities at so young an age was “all crap.”

  44. Russell,

    I don’t doubt the social reality. In some ways it is the sad, sorry state of things. But, having taken classes at Yale, Harvard and Brown in the last 5 years I can also say with certainty that a lot of the students there, including myself, did not attend an elite pre-school or elementary school. (The mere idea of an elite pre-school has me in stitches at the moment).

    This is not just a matter of the Ivy League schools trying to diversify their populations and thus lowering their standards. I’m actually not always sure that the private schools are better overall for a student’s development. Admittedly, I know nothing about Waterford’s curriculum, but I did go on a couple of dates with someone in college who went to Waterford and thought he was more than a little strange. This may or may not have been due to Waterford, but it seemed to me that some basic social skills were missing. He seemed unable to relate to the “rest of us” lowly public high school graduates. It is this sort of separateness from each other, this deepening of class consciousness that is produced by the elite education race that worries me. The other noteworthy point is that I don’t think this guy was any brighter than the BYU guys I usually dated—he only thought he was. It was this false self-consciousness of status that I hated. If we can’t entirely prevent the sense of self-importance that comes when kids think they are really smart, at least we can try to delay it until college.

  45. “I can’t say that my parents concern with later educational opprotunities at so young an age was “all crap.'”

    Nate, if you can find the point in any of my posts in which I said that my preferred assessment of the value of one schooling arrangement vs. another always trumps any and all other preferences whatsoever, including special or alternative education needs, I’ll happy recant everything I’ve written. But I don’t think I ever made any such point. Do you really think it’s impossible to discourage or criticize an elite, even extreme, meritocratic emphasis while at the same time encouraging or endorsing specialized treatment of those who are falling between the cracks? I don’t think it is; providing such arrangements–even at whatever social cost–becomes, at a certain point, a simple egalitarian imperative, not to mention a fundamental parental responsibility. Don’t confuse what happens at a $10,000/year tuition pre-school with what happens in specialized classrooms set up by the public schools themselves; they aren’t just at different ends of a single continuum, they’re in different categories entirely.

  46. Nate,

    I think your situation is an unusual one. I am oh so glad that you learned to read because I’ve learned oh so much from reading the things your reading has enabled you to write. I think your parents were absolutely right in the decision they made with you.

    For me the question is about whether parents of toddlers need to worry about whether their child (of 2 or 3 or 4) is going to get into the “right college.” This concern is usually not about the learning, growth and development of the child, but about whether they will be able to compete twenty years later as adults and achieve economic and social success. This kind of pressure on children is dangerous—I think it can lead children away from education rather than towards it. I think the pressure to be exceptional (even without private schools) lead some of my own siblings away from education. Education is not about getting into the right school or making a certain amount of money when you get out. It is about discovering the joys of literature, solving riddles, exploring ideas and so forth. My point was just that a parent of a two-year old who evidences anxiety about her child’s completely normal development will inadvertently pass that anxiety onto the child in unhealthy ways.

  47. Melissa’s last point here is an important part of what’s been bugging me. Ultimately, an education isn’t to be judged by the standards of any big, impersonal institution, even if it’s Harvard or Yale or IBM. The ability to participate in such institutions is valuable, and a high school education should be judged in part by whether it prepares one to keep up at someplace like BYU; if it doesn’t, it’s probably inadequate. But that’s not the end of the story. To approach an education as only a means to some pre-given end like this is to misunderstand what an education is. Ultimately, educated people form these institutions. Educated people set the standards for the institutions, not the other way around! So while you want your children to be capable of participating in these impressive institutions, and you may have to refer to this goal at times to help a child understand the point of doing her homework (oh, I forgot, young ladies generally aren’t the problem on that score!), if your only goal for your child’s education is for them to be able to keep up at BYU, you are selling your child short. Education isn’t just about jumping through hoops, although this is an indispensible part of the process. Education is about learning how to creatively and informedly set worthy goals for oneself and achieve them.

  48. “I do think, however, that a few hours of alone time for an overworked mother of toddlers every day can also be an important (even necessary) thing for parents and for their kids.”

    Bless you, Melissa! I struggle not to feel guilty about Elena’s two mornings a week in preschool. But with John working 80-90 hours every week, I was starting to go a little nutty until we decided to start preschool last month. (A decision we made jointly and deliberately to address my incipient insanity.) Bryce, my hat off to your wife, who must be an amazing woman indeed.

    On the larger question of the merits of a “good” education, there’s something I’m struggling to articulate. For those blessed by temperament and history to have full confidence in their intellectual gifts (like many of the men commenting here, I suspect), I’m in basic agreement that an elite educational pedigree is unnecessary, and even, perhaps in some cases, undesirable. But for women and other historically (or presently) disadvantaged groups, the opportunity to compete in an educationally elite arena–one historically inaccessible to them–can bring great personal satisfaction, and it can also signal an important societal commitment to stripping certain status-markers from the possibility of success. (I hear your objection, Russell, and yes, class is probably the last and most tenacious of these markers to remain.)

  49. The gist of this blog has been towards getting into the right colleges, starting kids out right, and so on. I’d like to bring something else up that I think is a legitimate concern. Nate notes his parents concern that he learn to read so he can get into the right college, have a future, etc. and says their concerns (if overblown at times) were probably good concerns. I think there are probably other good reasons for them to be concerned.

    In many places in the Church we are losing our youth–particularly our young men–before they even hit college age. I have seen that there is often (not always) a correlation with that inactivity and how they are doing in school–not exactly the grade they are getting, but the effort put out and their ability and willingness to read, do things, etc. Early on this may just be a matter of unwillingness to work that plays out in an unwillingness to do lots of things they ought to be doing. Getting out of high school with few educational abilities and therefore fewer chances for good economic circumstances and “success” contributes more to their inactivity. (I’ve stated this too quickly, but I hope you get my point.) This may not be a problem in some areas, but I think it is widespread.

    Furthermore, I don’t think, _generally speaking_, that one gets along well in the Church or is able to enjoy all there is in the gospel, without an ability to read fairly well. I’m not talking about an elite kind of sophistication, but a general ability to read and make good sense of what one reads and to make similar good sense of the situations one faces and the experiences one has. This may be one reason the Lord commands us to get knowledge and wisdom. So perhaps Nate’s parents should have been rightly concerned that Nate learn to read, but for for different or at least additional reasons.

  50. My husband is one of those guys who went to the Waterford School back in the early 90’s. He told me that he was surprised when he got to BYU and everybody had read the same books that he had and knew the same stuff, if not more than he did. His teachers/instructors were always telling him that the Waterford education was “superior” to public school education. He also wished that he could go to public school (his parents made him go to Waterford) so that he could be in the same school with his neighbors and church pals. He wished that he could be a part of the community that his friends were.

  51. Rosalynde —

    My wife is indeed amazing and wonderful, but she really needs a break, which is why we reconsider our decision to homeschool often. I have no problem with parents who need a scheduled respite from the rigors of child raising. My primary objection is to a culture in which parents who can ill-afford exclusive preschools find themselves making great sacrifices to send their children off to said preschools because they feel as though they would be depriving their children of countless future opportunities if they do not. A secondary objection is to parents who contribute to that culture by publicly explaining their decision to send their children to preschool because it’s educational or essential to their success instead of admitting that they want some time away from the kids. I don’t think any parent would begrudge another parent some quiet time to themselves. Why not just be honest? (not implying that there aren’t other reasons for sending children to preschool besides academics and time for the parents).

  52. I don’t buy arguments that “getting into the right school” at any age/grade is the overwhelmingly determinate factor in terms of “being happy and successful as a child and later as an adult,” because, well, it’s kind of a silly argument. If your four-year-old has a desperate need to be going to the most exclusive high school on Earth in ten years, you have bigger problems on your hands than “how can we afford this expensive pre-school;” if you’re in any other situation, the reasons for attending an expensive pre-school seem to me based largely on what the other parents you know are doing. Maybe if you’re Jane Pauley or a Senator’s wife or a member of the House of Representatives the only way your kids are going to see their neighbors is by going to a school like that; I don’t know. There are plenty of reasons for (and against) sending your kids to pre-school in general, obviously.

    No one (NO ONE) asked me where I went to pre-school while I was on my internship in Washington, DC. I was working in the Dept. of Education And Cultural Affairs and I don’t think even my direct supervisor knew I had been home schooled. No one even much cared about my grades in high school OR college. And my successes and failures were almost entirely based on my ability to understand what people wanted of me, do the things they asked for me to do, and be a nice person while performing both of the above. There are about six billion paths to take that will lead to success in any given endeavor, and probably fifty billion paths that will lead to failure. No single choice, or even series of choices, seals the deal. Kids get released from juvenile hall and end out becoming civil rights attorneys; kids graduate from the best high school in the entire northeast and become serial killers.

    Having said all that, individual educational choices do matter. Teachers’ attitudes can transform kids’ lives, and parents’ habits are usually the difference between kids who graduate from high school and kids who don’t. It takes a lot more work to get from Watts to Harvard than it does to get from Beverly Hills to that same school, and everyone knows it. Does it take more work to get from Watts to happiness than it does from Beverly Hills? I am not convinced it does, though the stuff you have to survive when you start from Watts is probably more likely to get you killed, pregnant, or in prison than when you start from Beverly Hills (yes, I am generalizing, and yes I have been to Beverly Hills, and yes I know there are poor people there — I use those as example origin points because they’re CA places I’ve been to that mean something to most Americans).

    But the incremental difference between the Public School at 105 E. Main St. and the Parochial School at 122 E. Main St. and the Exclusive Private School at 157 E. Main St. in the same town probably aren’t anything other than, well, incremental differences — statistically indistinguishable, when you account for parental education levels. The biggest thing is that the nuns are going to make sure you leave knowing the catchism, the public school allowed you to participate in league sports and go to the football games with everyone else, and the elite private school has a counselor whose only job from the time you were 11 forward was to ensure you got into the elite private college of your dreams. If the catchism, football, or that elite private college was the most important thing to your kid, then the choice is easy. If none of those things is the most important thing to you or your kid, then you’ve got to make far more complicated decisions.

    My personal experience was that the elite private institution (not that elite exactly: the Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential in Philadelphia) helped a lot, while the generic pre-school/daycare I went to had a minimal impact. The next elite private institution accepted me (Polytechnic in CA, for Pre-Kindergarten at age 4) but I didn’t go because of my parent’s (lack of a) relationship with one another. The highly gifted (very exclusive) public school program is the only thing that made school even slightly bearable (and I still hated every second that didn’t involve immediate learning — like the time before school, during recess and lunch, after school, between lessons, and all idle time on field trips). The home schooling helped me on the path towards taking responsibility for not being bored, and for getting stuff done for myself because it was Actually Important. The public universities (mostly Ohio State but also UCLA, Long Beach City College and Coastline Community College) and community colleges reintroduced the concept of accountability and intellectual discipline that home schooling had lacked (it was too easy to get “C”s as a home schooler, and they didn’t mean as much as official transcript ones did — let alone official transcript “E”s for failure).

    Would it have been an easier road if I’d gone to Poly for elementary and high school, and then MIT or CalTech for college? Absolutely. Would I be doing something different now if I’d gone that route? Probably, yes — I dropped Computer Science for dumb reasons. Would I know as much about my own strengths and weaknesses, and have as many funny stories to tell my kids someday? I don’t know, but it seems unlikely. Which was better? I have no clue, except that I can say that the way things have turned out isn’t completely horrible, and has a lot going for it.

    I challenge anyone who went to an elite school or a *decent* public high school (leaving out the failed schools where people graduate without being able to read) to say anything different.

    Having said that, I would have really enjoyed some of the opportunities at Polytechnic, MIT, CalTech, etc. Though I also often neglected truly awesome opportunities actually available at the institutions I attended, so who knows.

  53. I agree with the sentiment that you express when you ask “what does it matter?” I failed out of high school and never earned a high school diploma. Then I got thrown out of BYU. I still managed to graduate from college Summa Cum Laude but with a degree in philosophy, so that I have no marketable skills whatever. Still, I manage to get by.

    If you and your wife are smart and have lots of books around, your kids will probably be smart. If you work hard and make a good living, your kids will probably work hard and make a good living.

    It’s all about examples and discipline, not credentials; like it or not, they’re going to learn more from you than from any school.

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