Theresa, a dear friend whom I haven’t seen in ages, called me the other day. We talked for a long time. Her son is a sophomore in high school. As his doting mother, Theresa is in a lather about his prospects for college admission.
As we hadn’t spoken in quite a while, Theresa asked me about my philosophy about college admissions. She wanted to know what I thought were the quality colleges.
Theresa is an educator at a major state university. I asked her what good education looks like, in her professional opinion. She responded, predictably, that good education is all about what happens in the classroom between a well-prepared, knowledgeable, caring, and enthusiastic instructor and the willing, capable, and hard-working student.
Moral of the story: education is not about an institution. It is a process that occurs between teachers and students, primarily. It is about learning, not about prestige.
The sad fact is that many of the most prestigious, Gotta-Get-In colleges do not deliver the best quality education—based on this bare-bones definition. They deliver a lot of atmospherics and ivy and Nobel Prize winners and fantastic facilities (for graduate students, anyway). But what happens in the classroom is not necessarily the priority of every Gotta-Got-In institution.
Theresa and I bandied these ideas around for quite some time, and we shared some interesting personal insights about our own educational experiences…both as students and as teachers.
A few hours after we hung up the phone, I came across an article written by Gregg Easterbrook, a writer for the Atlantic Monthly who has been a fellow at the Brookings Institution. He wrote an article for Brookings in 2004, entitled “Who Needs Harvard?”
I recommend it to my readers who want a glimpse of how I think about prestige and the Gotta-Get-In colleges. I don’t think Harvard and the rest of the top 25 most selective colleges are all bad: I attended one and taught at another, and I’m proud of my associations with both. Furthermore, several of the top 25 are truly outstanding—places I might be delighted to see my kids or my nieces and nephews attend.
What I decry is the notion that entry into the top 25 becomes a life-or-death pursuit for many kids—and their parents. We all must keep things in their proper perspective: an excellent education can be had a literally hundreds of institutions around the country.
And the quality of a student’s education has much more to do with the initiative, intelligence, and focus of the student than with the quality of the institution she attends.
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