The Difference Between a System and an Ideal

Recently, New York City announced the results of their Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). This aptitude test is taken by eighth grade students and serves as the sole factor for admission to the most selective high schools in the city.

While black and Latino students make up 66% of all NYC students, they received only 10% of these coveted slots.

Hold that thought.

Meritocracy is defined as “a system in which the talented are chosen and moved ahead on the basis of their achievement.”

Are we to believe that any one group of thirteen-year-old children is that disproportionately less talented than another to justify such as discrepancy as described above?

The term meritocracy was originally coined in the 1958 satirical essay by the sociologist, Michael Young. You read that right, satire.

The essay was a dystopian tale set in 2033, where a historian now living in a so called meritocracy looked back in time to review how they got there

Young’s historian proved also to be a wise futurist, when he recognized the limits of meritocracy. His forecast included a future full of simplistic judgment, saying for example — “the eminent know that success is a just reward for their own capacity, their own efforts and in which the lower orders know that they have failed every chance they were given.” 

He also envisioned a day where merit based systems would ironically lead to the hoarding of advantages amongst those who had worked their way to the top, writing that “nearly all parents are going to try to gain unfair advantages for their offspring.”

We conflate systems with ideals. It is the difference between “this is how things work” and ‘this is how things should work.” We no more live in a true meritocratic system than we live in a true democracy.  As Young foretold, rules get re-written by those at the top who, perhaps naturally, wish to remain there. 

It is the ideal of a meritocracy that we should constantly be striving to live by. 

Ultimately this means ensuring that everyone plays by the same rules and where the playing field is created level for all. 

But it must first start by being honest enough to admit when we’ve gained favor through other means AND recognizing when certain meritocratic practices (such as the test mentioned above) are not as much about merit as we would like to think they are. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

This Is Me vs. This Is Us

This devastating article details the lengths to which a private school went to drive their students into college. It included allegations of abuse, falsifying transcripts and encouraging students to exaggerate the challenges in their life in their admissions essays. 

The idea was to “manufacture up-from-hardship tales that it sold to Ivy League schools hungry for diversity.”

In the fictional world of the TV show “This is Us”, a recent episode also focused on a character’s inspirational admissions essay.  Here young Randall resists the temptation to answer the question of naming “one” person who has made the greatest impact in his life.  Instead suggesting that it was a small army of people who made his journey possible. Watch him read his essay here. 

Both of these stories put a spotlight on the increasingly high stakes game of college applications and their signature component, the admissions essay. 

The first exposes the system’s bias toward “pull yourself up from your bootstraps stories.”  The higher the climb the more worthy the student appears to be. 

The second also funnels the student down a narrow narrative that tries to pin success, if not on your own effort, then that of a single other person.

We all love a good success story.  We root for the underdog and are moved – even to tears – when they make it. 

But our attraction to these stories can inadvertently drive young people to only see their journeys through this narrow lens at a time when we should be teaching them to see their lives more completely.  

We are telling them that we value stories that scream “This is Me” instead of asking them to make the connection that says “This is Us.”

Thanks to all of those who donated to our #givingTuesday campaign. Your generosity will go directly young designers/interns who have struggled to move up in life. They in turn will help us create moving content that helps more people reflect on their lives. 

Battling for Trophies

Recently my 10 year-old daughter participated in an event called, Battle of the Books. The premise seemed noble. Spark interest in reading by creating a program where students would be given five books to read over the summer.  They would meet as a group to discuss the book and then in the fall, they would gather with students from other schools for a competition based on recalling the book’s content. Sort of like a gameified book club for kids. 

Programs like this can be very valuable in encouraging reading over the summer, where studies have showed student’s reading and vocabulary often decline.
 
Then I arrived at the Battle.
 
Held in a high school gym, it had the feeling a live sporting event. Teams from across the county gathered and there was a palpable excitement that was easy to get caught up in. It was clear that teams were taking this seriously – some much more than others.  

While at the event, I heard of the lengths that some towns would go to in order to bring home the trophy.  Some teams had cuts.  Meaning that kids at some point were “kicked off” a reading team – and left home from the competition. 

Other teams had practice sessions to develop their “buzzer strategy.”  Apparently this is a key tactic for being able to be the first to “buzz” in to answer a question. Some even had designated buzzers. 
 
With a large team and no “buzzer” strategy, our squad did not fair well in the standard metrics of this competition. But when I asked my daughter how she felt about the whole things, her answer was telling.  
 
“Well, we were given five free books to read over the summer that were really interesting.  And we were able to spend time with our friends talking about books – which was fun.”
 
It has become the accepted position that competition and the potential for rewards are ideal motivators to drive us to our best.  

But as parents, teachers, business leaders, and even our elected officials – do we too often prioritize winning and competition over teamwork and cooperation? 
 
New research summarized in this week’s New York Times talks generally about the limits of a rewards based culture and how intrinsic motivation is better for long-term character development. The last line in this op-ed really drives home the point.
 
Leading thinkers like Douglas Rushkoff are encouraging us to return to our cooperative roots, via his Team Human podcast and soon to be released book of the same name (both are riveting and should be required listening/reading).
 
Competition can be fun and intense and there is no doubting the dopamine high we get when we reach the top of a podium. Yet, when we “go all in” and see only the trophy it means that some things are left out – like perspective and purpose.
 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

The Child or The Road?

Uncertain times raise the stakes for raising a child.  We project our own fears upon their future and our anxiety seeps into our actions and ultimately theirs. 

This manifests itself in ways big and small, many of which are chronicled in the new book, The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.  (Ironically, the title itself may unwittingly add to this anxiety.)  The book is challenging and tough to read as you reflect on your own actions and life, but it is valuable for that very reason.

It opens with a quote from a folk tale that says, “Prepare your child for the road, not the road for the child.”  Let that idea sink in.

We have leaders who we hope will prepare the road well through policy and practice. When they don’t we should do our part to hold them accountable. But the reality is that our control over the road pales in comparison to our ability to prepare our children for whatever that road may hold.  The film Captain Fantastic is a perfect example of how families can do just that – albeit perhaps to an extreme.

In an example closer to home, we’ve been giving much thought to the newfound freedom of our fifth grader who now must walk to school each day. It is a ten-minute journey that includes crossing multiple streets, navigating one five way intersection and walking through a hidden path.

Preparing the road means that we have street lights and stop signs, penalties in place for breaking traffic rules and crossing guards to facilitate crossing the road. Increasingly, some children are given phones so parents can receive updates on their progress or even track it themselves via GPS.  All of these seem reasonable ways to prepare the road for a smooth journey. 

At the same time, what does the child do when the crossing guard is not there, or the lights are not working, or the phone battery dies?  It is then when the test will come as to whether we have prepared them for this road.  Do they know to look both ways?  Can they use their judgment to determine when to cross un-assisted?  Will they know which adult it is ok to ask for help, if they need to reach their parents?

It is natural for any parent to want every road – present or future – to made free from danger.  But the reality is that is an impossible and exhausting ask.

Instead, our only hope is that we have prepared them to deal with the uncertainty that can make life both scary and thrilling.

How To Tell The Truth

My six year old daughter stepped off the bus with a very long face.  “Daddy, you’re going to be so mad at me. I did something awful at school today.”
 
Embarrassed, upset and ashamed, it took twenty minutes for her to work through her tears and tell me that she got in trouble for talking in gym class. A crime that was punishable by sitting alone on the stage at the front of the gym. A second infraction would bring with it the much-feared trip to the principal’s office.
 
I first thanked her for telling me the truth. Then I told her I was not mad at her and there was no need to be afraid of further punishment.  
 
When we talked about what she had learned from this, she said to “not talk after the whistle at gym class” and perhaps more importantly that she “should never be afraid to tell me the truth.”
 
When we are young, telling the truth, if not always easy, comes naturally. Lying is a learned behavior. Children begin to tell ridiculous fibs as early as 3 or 4 and graduate to more complicated and believable lies at 7 or 8.
 
Research shows
that people lie for a number of reasons but most will fall into two buckets:  to protect ourselves or to promote ourselves (see this fascinating chart breaking down our motivations for lying.)
 
The average person tells a few lies everyday. People who lie more often have shown to have a more active portion of the brain that is associated with reward processing (e.g. it makes lying worth it). Another study demonstrated that according to brain activity, the more we lie the less stress or emotional discomfort we feel about lying.
 
In other words, as we get older, telling the truth becomes harder and lying becomes easier.
 
Which brings us to the events of last week.
 
Our credibility is a window into our character. If we cannot be trusted to tell the truth about little things, like why we got in trouble in gym class or how much we drank in high school, it will call into question our ability to tell the truth on more substantial issues.  

I trust my six year old to tell me the truth, a belief that was reinforced this week shortly after she stepped of the bus.  I wish I could say the same for anyone who might someday ascend to the highest bench.

 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Who’s In Your Class?

China, Columbia, England, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Peru, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States — twelve students representing eleven countries.  This is the makeup of a masters level class I’m teaching this fall at Parson’s School of Design.

As I sat with them discussing what we’d cover over the course of the semester, I couldn’t help but think what they would teach each other and me – just by the very nature of their diverse life experiences.

Each had traveled more than a thousand miles to live and learn in a new city – with perfect strangers.  I couldn’t begin to fathom how rich and exciting this experience must be for them.

Contrast this with another feeling I also experienced last week involving students and classroom composition. This was the week when my daughters would each learn who would be in their classes for their 1st, 3rd and 5th grade years respectively.

Every parent needed to find his or her child’s assigned teacher online.  After they could add their child’s name to a Google spreadsheet so other parents could see who was in what class.  My anxiety grew as one by one I saw my daughter’s friends end up in classrooms different from theirs.  

I wondered if we should have made requests for our girls to be in the same class as certain friends (which rules allow).  If somehow, our desire to let fate determine who was in their class was a bad call.  One that our girls would now resent us for and that would create unnecessary stress for them in school.

Each ended up with one or two good friends in their class.  As we shared the news, we tried to spin the paucity of old friends as an opportunity to meet new ones.  If I were being honest – that is not how I felt at the time.

Until I walked into a class with twelve students from eleven countries.

Appreciating the vast difference between grade school and graduate school, the idea of new experiences versus the comfort of the known was also in stark contrast.

Increasingly we have the capability of engineering the novel and the new out of our lives. Leaving less to chance and serendipity. Favoring the familiar over the foreign.

While there is value in the deepening of old friendships and experiences, there is an expansiveness that comes with the new. Or better expressed in the words of Anais Nin: 

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. 

Here’s to the arrival of a new school year, filled with new friends and new worlds.

The Expectations of Parents

Ted Williams was arguably the greatest hitter to ever play major league baseball. Yet his parents never watched him play a single game.

In her memoir, Educated. Tara Westover tells an incredible tale of being raised by survivalist parents and never went to school or to see a doctor as a child.  She went on to receive her PhD at Cambridge and is now a best selling author.

I share these stories not to diminish the importance  of parents in our lives – research confirms that a protective adult is one of the most important factors in helping us overcome trauma and lesser life challenges as children.

Rather it’s a reminder that we can relax a little when considering if we are doing all we can to ensure our children’s success in life.

From the unneeded pressure of “tiger mom” mentality to this recent article in the NY Times discussing the fear of being judged for not doing enough as a parent, we need to check our expectations of what we must do for our children.

In a recent conversation with author and psychotherapist, Esther Perel, I learned that for most of history the word parent was only used as noun – not a verb. 

It defined a role in our lives not an ongoing expectation of non-stop service. It reminds us that regardless of what we do, we will always “be a parent.” 

Perhaps this can shift our expectations from always doing for our kids to simply being there for them. 

In the end,  our kids will be just fine and just maybe journey will all the more enjoyable.

Update on Coyote Attacks

This was the subject line of an email we received from our Mayor. It marked one of the strangest weeks our town has experienced in recent memory,

On Monday, our schools went into lockdown as a man with a gun was on the loose after killing his girlfriend in a nearby town.

On Wednesday, there were reports of multiple coyote attacks that injured five and killed a small dog.

On Friday, a storm with high winds whipped through the town, knocking down trees, damaging property, and resulting in hundreds of families without power.

If you were a child in this town it meant that your shades were drawn in your classroom on Monday.  An adult escorted you to and from school each day. You weren’t allowed to walk to school or go outside for recess all week. School was canceled one day and sent you home early another due to the conditions. Some had no heat or electricity for a week.

There will always be scary things in the world. This week it happened to a man with a gun, rabid coyotes, and live wires.

At the same time, it has been said that whenever something bad happens, you will always see helpers looking to do good.

This week there were teachers keeping kids calm in the class, people from the police and fire department searching the woods for coyotes, and the public works team sawing and removing trees to clear the way for vehicles and a restoration of power. Our tax dollars were certainly hard at work.

Beyond what people were doing is what they were saying. The Mayor and Superintendent kept us regularly informed. Citizens offered support for their neighbors in the form of shelter, showers and charging stations.  And, of course, parents walked the fine line of helping their children make sense of the real dangers while making sure they felt safe and protected.

So on one level, it was undoubtedly a very, very strange week.  At another, it was a community working together exactly as we would hope and expect them to during difficult times.  In a word – acting normal.

What Great Teachers Do

As I walked around my children’s classrooms, the walls were papered with new projects. The collective imagination of each class was surpassed only by the ingenious assignment that inspired it. Poems written by pairs of students describing what they had in common and what made them different, a quilt that showed the individual tastes and interests of each child woven together to make one fabric, an interview series between students discovering the likes and dislikes of a new friend in class.
 
Linking many of these exercises was the theme for the school year, “While we may all be different fish, we swim together as a school.”
 
Rather than indoctrinating these children with this important theme, the teachers instead gave them tools that would allow them to discover it’s meaning for themselves. 

It reminded me of something once written by someone who knows a thing or two about discovery.
 
“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.”  — Galileo
 
In his day, the idea of how to share what one knew was a matter of life or death. Which is why he shared his evidence of the earth revolving around the sun not as a belief or proven fact but as a point for discussion and careful consideration.
 
It seems rare that we have the time or patience to let people “find it within themselves.”  We present our facts and instantly dismiss others who don’t accept our position.
 
What if instead we asked questions that would allow someone to discover our truths for themselves on their own terms?
 
VICE news featured a former National Parks director who was spending both his time and money from retirement going around the country talking to outdoorsman.  Accepting that many in his audience are skeptical of climate change, he simply asked them questions about what THEY saw changing in their experiences hunting, fishing or spending time outdoors.  The result was an opening to a constructive conversation about climate change
 
Good teachers, whether in grade school or the school of life, recognize that it’s not about having all the answers, but in being able to ask the right questions. *******

 
Teaching as discovery fueled our development of Your American Dream Score.  We’re very excited to announce that our partner PBS Learning has just released resources based on this tool that help teachers engage students on questions around social mobility and civic engagement.  If you or someone you know is interested in using these resources, click on the links below.

How To Save Art

During a classroom visit last week, my nine-year-old daughter showed me a project, featuring side-by-side drawings of the same subject – in her case spring. One was a realistic depiction and the second an abstract version. Accompanying the pictures was a biography on the Russian artist Kandinsky whose work they learned had a similar transition from the realistic to abstract.

The most remarkable thing about this lesson in perspective was that it was not part of their art class, but instead central to a social studies unit on Russia. Her teacher told me she was grateful to still be able to do these kinds of things with the added pressure coming from other curriculum requirements.

Recently, the President’s budget called for  eliminating federal support for the arts, humanities and for public media, further igniting debate on the role of art in our society. 

Sadly, art has come to be seen by many as separate from life. Either elevated as elite and above the masses or devalued as out of touch with every day needs and concerns. In both instances, art in the abstract is perceived as being distant and detached from the reality of life.

Yet our individual lives tell us a completely different story. Who can’t point to a book, painting, song, performance, film, or show that has lifted us for a needed moment or even permanently informed our worldview?

Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation, recently described how lucky he was as a little boy growing up in rural Texas, when his grandmother would bring him old art magazines and programs from arts events. She hadn’t attended the events herself but instead worked as a maid in a wealthy family’s home who had given them to her.

In this moving talk, Walker says, “Those pages unlocked my capacity to imagine a world beyond my own—and to imagine my place in it. Simply put, the arts changed my life.”

When we isolate the experience of art from the experience of life, we fail to appreciate its true value and leave it susceptible to the whims of false choices – whether in our federal budgets or our classrooms.

In his persuasive defense for public television, General Stanley McChrystal challenges this isolation and false choice saying, “In our society, I see public media as a lever. It pushes people by elevating them and their sights. It brings them into more thinking and understanding, and it brings us together.”

There are great ways to support the arts and public media now during challenging times. In the long run, though, perhaps the most important thing we can all do is to consistently demonstrate that art’s impact on helping us move up is not abstract and distant but very real and very close to home.