Just Who Deserves an "Elite" Education?
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Justin Hudson gave this commencement address to his teachers, classmates, and parents at Hunter College High School in New York City (the alma mater of Elena Kagan, among others). For the NYT's coverage of the speech, go here.
Food for Thought
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I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven year olds, or four year olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as “gifted”, while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance. If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that. It is certainly not Hunter’s fault that socioeconomic factors inhibit the educational opportunities of some children from birth, and in some ways I forgive colleges and universities that are forced to review eighteen year-olds, the end results of a broken system. But, we are talking about eleven year-olds. Four year-olds. We are deciding children’s fates before they even had a chance. We are playing God, and we are losing. Kids are losing the opportunity to go to college or obtain a career, because no one taught them long division or colors. Hunter is perpetuating a system in which children, who contain unbridled and untapped intellect and creativity, are discarded like refuse. And we have the audacity to say they deserved it, because we’re smarter than them.
Clare Spark - 8/12/2010
David Austin Walsh gives us an interesting account of his own education in a school set aside for bright kids, and he wishes that all youngsters could have had his privileges. He also mentions obstacles to that grand design, but does not enumerate them. I wish he would. In my view, the attempted co-option of angry minorities in the late 1960s led us to this place. I stick by my reading of the situation and invite HNN readers to look at this index to the history of Pacifica Radio and its connection with the progressive movement. http://clarespark.com/2010/07/04/pacifica-radio-and-the-progressive-movement/.
David Austin Walsh - 8/12/2010
I don't believe Hudson ever made the argument that Hunter throw out its tests and admit students solely on the basis of diversity. He simply pointed out that there does seem to be something a little unjust about deciding that a four-year-old or an eleven-year-old gets on the fast track in life solely on the basis of a test while so many others are provided with inadequate resources. Insofar as this is his argument, I agree with him.
This is an issue with which I am personally familiar. I did not attend an elite high school (or an elite college, for that matter), but I *did* attend my city's "gifted and talented" 1-8 magnet school. As I recall, we had the best of everything -- a brand-new facility, highly-qualified teachers (my eighth grade chemistry teacher was a former forensic investigator and held a PhD), motivated students, and even an atrium. Why did we deserve those resources when every other elementary and middle school in the city was poorly funded and overcrowded? As I recall, my brother spent fourth grade in a hastily-converted equipment shed because of overcrowding. Why did I deserve to be taught in a sunny atrium and he in a shack? Why couldn't everyone have been taught in that atrium?
When I was a student at my (non-elite) high school, I saw overcrowded classrooms, terrible facilities (my alma mater bears, from the outside, a striking resemblance to a factory, replete with a smokestack), a dangerous learning environment (on a good week, the school only had one altercation that required police intervention, and in a good year only one or two students were killed -- outside of school, granted), etc. This was one of the better high schools in the city. It had a strong AP program, and while very, very few of its graduates ever went on to elite universities, the college admission rate was slightly above the city average (roughly 35%, if memory serves), possibly because most of the school's resources were focused on the AP program. Indeed, the school was more or less segregated between those on the fast track and those who not. And those of us who were on that track often felt guilty about the attention lavished on us while, in the same building, kids were selling drugs and joining gangs.
I'm not absolving these students of personal responsibility for their poor choices, but I do know that the parents of AP students went ballistic every time resources went to remedial classes, or special education, or indeed anything that was not directed toward their own children. And because these parents were the most involved in the PTA and other governing bodies at the school, their voices carried disproportionate weight.
My point is this: I don't think Hudson was saying that Hunter should throw its doors open to all comers or admit minority students on the basis of a diversity quota, but that the quality of education FOR ALL needs to be improved. Perhaps not everyone can attend Hunter College, Stuyvesant, or Bronx Science, but a student SHOULD be able to receive a quality education at a public school in Harlem or the South Side of Chicago (or in a general ed. classroom). The same holds true at the university level -- not everyone can go to Harvard, Yale, or even Berkeley, but students SHOULD be able to receive a decent education at an affordable price from their local state universities. There are obstacles to that ideal, of course, but I challenge anyone to object to the principle.
As the reader is no doubt aware, I empathize with Hudson's feelings of guilt. He certainly should not succumb to those emotions -- after all, there is a quite a difference between being given an opportunity to succeed and actually succeeding -- but he should tuck them away in the back of his mind so that, when he's sitting on top of the world later in life, at the very summit of the meritocratic elite, he retains a sense of humility and a sense of empathy for all those who were dealt different cards in life. And just maybe -- just maybe -- do something about it.
*That* was the point of his speech.
Clare Spark - 8/11/2010
HNN readers: Please read the NYT article linked here. This controversy is all about "diversity" versus meritocracy; i.e., are we to group people by "race" or by adhering to standards necessary to advancement and citizenship? Justin's speech (he was not the first in his class, but was selected by a faculty member) reminds me of Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis, influenced as it was by racialist (black nationalist) analysis of our predicament. For more on elite sponsorship of racial thinking see http://clarespark.com/2010/07/18/white-elite-enabling-of-black-power/.
Richard - 8/11/2010
"If you are young and not a liberal, you have no heart. If you are old and not conservative, you have no brain." Justin has heart. Rather than reduce the quality of education given to our brightest youth, we must improve the quality of education available to all.
David P - 8/11/2010
Mr Hudson is so tragically wrong. Unfortunately, being poor leads to lower intelligence in children. New research shows that poorer children don't have the same neurological development of children from more affluent households overall. Lack of upper level verbal stimulation inhibits higher level brain function.
There are of course exceptions, but this holds true for the majority.
We obviously could do a better job in our schools. There is no excuse for not teaching everyone to read properly. I have had students 14 years old that could not read a first grade reader well. That is obscene!