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A Way Of Thinking About Diversity

I spent a couple of days last week in Natchitoches, La., at my old high school, the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts.  [1] It’s a residential high school for gifted and talented sophomores, juniors, and seniors. LSMSA opened its doors 30 years ago this fall. I was in the first class. The two years I spent there (we didn’t have a sophomore class then) were the real turning point in my life, the first time I felt truly at home in the world. Like many of my classmates, I can’t say enough good things about this school, and how it changed my life and my prospects for the better. It is astonishing to me that this school exists at all, much less in Louisiana, a state not especially known for its devotion to state-supported education. When I think about all the astonishing things LSMSA still achieves for its students, even in this long drought of state funding, and given that its faculty salaries are in the bottom one-third of Louisiana high school teachers overall — well, the Louisiana School looks something like a miracle.

On the drive back home, I was listening to NPR and heard an interview with the journalist Angie Holan [2], who won a Pulitzer Prize for her work on the PolitiFact project. Angie is a 1990 graduate of LSMSA. A Pulitzer Prize winner! That interview was a nice confirmation of the importance of the school’s work. Other friends from the school are at or near the top of their fields in the military, the academy, and technology. One of the guys in the class just behind mine is now working on the next generation of the Internet. An immigrant kid from the New Orleans area, and now he’s on a team building something that will benefit the world. You hear things like that over and over from the LSMSA alumni community.

What brought me back last week was a project I’m working on for the school’s Foundation. [3] I shot videotaped interviews with a number of current students, talking to them about their experiences. It was a great experience, not only because these kids are so smart, mature, and full of enthusiasm, but also because I could look across the generational divide and see young people who were just like me and my classmates — and who had found, at LSMSA, their place in the world.

I interviewed a diverse range of students — black, white, Asian, kids from all over the state, introverts and extroverts, kids who were oriented towards math and science, kids who were arts-focused, and even a boy who came to the school as a math-science devotee, but who discovered there a special love for vocal performance. Being among the students, I could see the same kind of diversity we had when we were there. Several students told me that one of the best things about LSMSA is how they were exposed to kids who had different backgrounds and beliefs, and had learned to be in community with them.

change_me

I discerned that what united this highly diverse group of high schoolers was their common experience of having been smart kids in schools where the community was often unsupportive (or insufficiently supportive) of intellectual pursuits, and where the things that made them distinctive also, in many cases, set them apart from the larger group, and made them objects of marginalization, even opprobrium. This is a semi-fancy way of saying that at their old schools, they were penalized in a number of ways, passive and active, for being smart and interested in ideas and learning, and at LSMSA, they aren’t. The very thing that made many (but not all) kids outsiders at their old schools make them insiders now.

It’s hard to emphasize the power of this, emotionally and psychologically. It was very much my own experience, and I know it was the experience of many, many classmates. I’ve read journalistic accounts of how African-American students who attend historically black colleges feel so much more at home there, and able to achieve academically in ways they may not be able to at a school in which they’re in the minority, simply because of all the unavoidable social anxiety they must endure as a minority. I don’t think I really got that before I thought of it in terms of my LSMSA experience. I do recall that when the Harvey Milk School [4] for gay kids opened in New York City years ago, I instantly understood why a school like that is necessary. To feel that you can let your guard down, that you don’t have to walk around trying to hide your interest in ideas, or your geekiness, frees you to do extraordinary things. You used to wilt; now you bloom.

Once, in college, I found myself in an argument with a friend who thought the whole idea of LSMSA was intolerably elitist. In his view, no special accommodation should be made for academically or artistically gifted kids. They should be kept with the larger group so they don’t get above themselves. He was really adamant and rigid about his egalitarianism, speaking as if giftedness were like money. He thought that the common good, as he conceived it, would not permit the existence of a place like LSMSA.

Clearly I thought he was wrong then, and I am convinced today that this argument is wrong, though educational egalitarianism of this sort remains a powerful sentiment. It makes more sense to me to think of the common good regarding education as bringing out the best in everyone. That is, if we really seek the common good, we would strive to provide schooling (within practical limits, of course) that helps students most fully express and develop their own capabilities. I’m in favor of performing arts high schools, of math-science high schools, and the like (though I would love to see humanities high schools as well), as well as trade-school-style high schools. By compelling kids to go through a one size fits all program, they hold everybody back academically, and in some cases may even cause a level of social anxiety that inhibits learning.

Academically, this kind of thing goes both ways. When I arrived at LSMSA, the school seemed to be under the impression that gifted students are equally gifted in all areas. I had made all As in my old school, and wasn’t bad at math. But suddenly I found myself sharing classroom space with juniors who were extraordinarily good at math. I was a Honda Accord of mathematics, having to share a track with Ferraris and Lamborghinis. I shut down. If the teacher had slowed down enough to accommodate me, she would have dramatically shortchanged the others. But I couldn’t keep up, at all, and, to my discredit, gave up.

Anyway, as a traditional conservative, I agree with diversity as defined by Russell Kirk: “Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” Actually, that doesn’t really define diversity as much as it is defines an attitude toward diversity. My objection to “diversity” as it is typically conceived in contemporary discourse is that it is a sham diversity. It is willing to accept all flavors of diversity, as long as they’re vanilla. In my field, journalism, you look across a newsroom that appears diverse, according to skin color, gender, and the usual categories, and you find a group of people who look differently, but who embody a remarkable uniformity in thought. Yet they don’t fully understand the contours of the epistemic bubble in which they live and move and have their being, in part because they have been taught that “diversity” means a particular thing — and it’s a narrow construct. It presupposes a fundamental ideological unity, one that is masked by the appearance of heterogeneity.

Well, you can’t have a real community without some underlying unity, which is to say that diversity can never be truly open-ended. I am impressed by the diversity of LSMSA: that it has achieved real diversity built around the unifying principle of collective commitment to the educational mission. But why, you might ask, could that not work in a standard school? Because, I think, not every student there is dedicated to the educational mission, and the concomitant value of esteeming intellectual achievement. The one thing you notice about LSMSA is that there is so much natural order in the school, especially in the classroom. When I went back to visit my old school after my first six weeks at LSMSA, I was startled to see how much time and effort my old teachers had to spend getting disruptive students to sit down and shut up. It made more sense to me, then, why it was not cool to be into books and ideas and good grades at my old school. I suppose high school jackasses, like the poor, we will always have with us, but I’ve wondered if those disruptive kids might have been less so if our educational system had been set up, like in the Netherlands, with various tracks better suited to their capabilities. Why should kids who had no aptitude for higher-level English or mathematics, and no future in college, have been compelled to sit through those classes? They would have been better off in classes taught at their level, and so would the kids who were there to learn, not goof off.

The point I hope you’ll take away is one that is the value of uniformity in building an environment conducive to flourishing in certain missions. I understand why we have black colleges from a historical point of view, but they are hard to reconcile with our liberal way of thinking (which is not to say that actual liberals object to them at all, only that liberals are hypocritical). And yet, I’m glad these schools exist, because I have been inside the experience of struggling to learn in an environment where I felt like an outsider, and was under constant emotional and social pressure. I can empathize with a black student who, for whatever reason, felt the same way, and I am glad that there are institutions that exist to serve those students. Same with women’s colleges, and religious colleges. We are not machines, but organisms; we cannot all thrive equally in the same soil. Because of the light it casts on the meaning(s) of diversity, it is interesting to me to reflect that I had more in common with black kids in my class at LSMSA than I did with most white kids in my classes at my old public school, and would have preferred to have been in a racial or cultural minority at LSMSA than in the majority at another school, because I experienced the school and its culture as a nurturing environment.

 

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28 Comments To "A Way Of Thinking About Diversity"

#1 Comment By Texasaggiemom On January 21, 2013 @ 11:23 am

You know, I was intrigued by the argument with your friend. I bet if you asked him if everyone should be able to play varsity football with equal playing time in the name of egalitarianism, he would be totally against that. For some reason, we can reward excellence and superior ability when it comes to sports and fine arts (to a degree), but when it comes to academic ability, everyone should be equal.

#2 Comment By M_Young On January 21, 2013 @ 11:30 am

If I went from your testimony or that of Sharon Astyk, I’d think that High School in the US was a sort of Lord of the Flies.

Maybe SoCal in the mid 1980s was a special place, but the smartest guy in our school (going by SAT and academic performance), was also one of the most popular, and a one time top 20 swimmer. We had our smart kid track (AP and Honors classes), most of us ended up at a UC, with a few going to Stanford or an Ivy. (A ‘Latino’ kid with lower test scores than the swimmer mentioned above got into Harvard, he didn’t), or USC (where the swimmer went). We had our regular academic prep students, who generally went to a state with a few getting into UC (that wouldn’t happen today). And there were the other kids, in ‘business education’ or shop classes, or whatever. Never did I feel out of place, everyone had their own niche. If anything, it was the ‘shop class’ kids who hung out on ‘smokers hill’ that were out of place.

Perhaps you can only get this experience in a fairly large (1200 student for a 3 year school) suburban high school.

[Note from Rod: You might be onto something. I noticed that the kids who came from big city high schools were far less conflicted about the schools they had left behind, while many of us from small-town or rural high schools washed ashore as if from a shipwreck. I figured that those schools were so big that square pegs found a niche relatively easily. — RD]

#3 Comment By Thomas Andrews On January 21, 2013 @ 11:38 am

Well done. I appreciate it when you post such thoughtful comments.
I went to school in a time when one was expected to learn.
My parents and grandparents were so upset when I brought home a ‘B’ in calculus, I had a tutor and summer-school and no fun at all until that came back up to an ‘A’.
And stayed there.

My children went to school at the very end of funding for the natural sciences. They all excelled, but had they not, their mother and I and our parents would have made sure they did.

My grandchildren had to be moved to get into good schools and we ended up moving the Chicago branch to private schools to ensure they were as well educated as I had been, their father and mother before them.

My great-grandchildren are all in private schools, mostly financed by me (what, you didn’t see the bubble fixin’ to burst in the late 2000’s?) and those private schools aren’t the ‘feel good’ kind, they’re the kind which expect excellence and accept nothing less than the most a child can give.

Our public school system is a disaster. We need to rethink the basics. I coached a granddaughter through her GMATs not too long back. Took them for the fun of it. We both had scores which Columbia wanted to see. That’s the value of good education – mine from the 1940/50s, hers from private schools in the 1980/90s.

#4 Comment By Helen On January 21, 2013 @ 11:54 am

M_Young, when I was a kid, at least (I am 41), school was basically Lord of the Flies for smart kids.

I do think bigger schools combat this. That’s why I’m deeply suspicious of the “small is better” ethos in education. A small school can be great if it’s supportive of you, but it can be a living hell if it’s not.

#5 Comment By k On January 21, 2013 @ 11:59 am

I feel SO strongly on this topic that I can’t even begin to calm myself enough to comment on the points I might like. Just wanted to thank you for posting it.

#6 Comment By Clare Krishan On January 21, 2013 @ 12:24 pm

Overwrought sentimental mediocrity seems to be the order of the age, if this morning’s proceedings at the Capitol are anything to go by – cringe-worthy logorrhoea* that assaulted the ears live (unlikely to be improved by transcription into print). Rev. Leon got pipped at the post: the Pope tweeted the Micah quote in Latin
[5]
yesterday already.

* Did LCMSA not teach precis, or are you planning on submitting this posting’s approx. 2,000 words to syndication?

(and now posting privately, to get around TAC’s rewarding our end-of-year $50 donation with an IP block — wazzupwithat?)

#7 Comment By MEH 0910 On January 21, 2013 @ 12:55 pm

Because of the light it casts on the meaning(s) of diversity, it is interesting to me to reflect that I had more in common with black kids in my class at LSMSA than I did with most white kids in my classes at my old public school, and would have preferred to have been in a racial or cultural minority at LSMSA than in the majority at another school, because I experienced the school and its culture as a nurturing environment.

[6]:

Every person subscribes, with different degrees of intensity, to many groups. I’m an American, a native of England (and of Northampton), a Long Islander, a Derbyshire, a Knowles (i.e my mother’s family), a lapsed Episcopalian, a writer, a mathematician, a Yankee supporter, an opera fan, a white person, a Gentile, and so on.

Depending on one’s immediate circumstances, one or other (or none) of one’s identities might be to the fore–might be “salient.” In a room full of Nigerian mathematicians, my mathematician identity would be salient. Hurrying along a street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at 2 a.m., on the other hand, my white-guy identity would be salient. This is basic psychology.

#8 Comment By Elizabeth Anne On January 21, 2013 @ 12:59 pm

Rod, I’m a graduate of the Indiana version of the Louisiana school, and boy, I couldn’t agree with you more. I still miss those days. In the way you can only miss something you’ll never have to do again, true, but miss it nonetheless.

#9 Comment By SusanKG On January 21, 2013 @ 1:06 pm

I agree that small, rural schools can be very challenging for the academically gifted. I also think (counter-intuitively) that kids from those schools are at higher risk for substance abuse. When I went to high school in the ’80s in rural North Dakota, I was one of the few kids who didn’t drink alcohol. And drinking in that time and place was not a glass of Merlot with dinner–it was getting trashed. I always thought things would be even worse in the “big city”, but I don’t think that is true. I live in Seattle, and it is a big enough place with enough things to do that I think there is less social pressure to abuse substances. I think my kids would be at more risk for alcohol (or meth) abuse living where I grew up.

#10 Comment By Anand On January 21, 2013 @ 1:23 pm

Nice post. A few thoughts though…

At some level you argue that the great thing about the diversity of LMSA was that it allowed for people to form a common culture that celebrated and encouraged achievement. I’d note that both my wife and many of my daughter’s classmates had the same sort of experience at Princeton- the feeling that you describe as having washed ashore from a shipwreck and *finally* being surrounded by folks who understand you.

But the flip side of this is can be a lack of connection with “just plain folks”. I’d argue that this is what you see in newsroom culture. It could be even argued that this lack of connection among my fellow Ivy classmates played a significant role in the financial crisis. Epistemic closure isn’t just about politics- it’s about how well one’s culture works in the real world.

How to balance excellence and elitism isn’t simple. For me faith has been a big part of it…

#11 Comment By Consequences On January 21, 2013 @ 1:39 pm

[I figured that those schools were so big that square pegs found a niche relatively easily. — RD]

That niche is anonymity and isolation, and even it is only available to those who can drift around unnoticed.

#12 Comment By RB On January 21, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

BYU admission standards are lighter for out-of-state applicants, so kids who grow up outside the Western Mormon Corridor have the opportunity to live in an LDS-saturated environment.

My brothers and I went to middle and high school in Marin County, CA. If there were more than a few other LDS kids at your school that weren’t your siblings, you were lucky; if you escaped the hostility of a teacher who disliked Mormonism, you were also lucky. We’d been singled out for our beliefs when we lived on the East Coast and in the Midwest, but it was the exception and not the rule. Marin County was more uniformly hostile.

So most of us looked forward to attending BYU or other church schools after graduation. Not only would it be a novel break from being the minority, but it would also would provide a vast increase in LDS dating opportunities.

#13 Comment By sk On January 21, 2013 @ 2:29 pm

Interesting idea, and I’m not going to argue that its wrong. But you have to accept that your arguments for ‘specialty’ schools (black colleges, women’s colleges, gay high schools, gifted schools) apply equally to other exclusive schools (and more specifically, ‘exclusive’ schools that you would never profess to support).

If black colleges are ok, white colleges are also ok. If gay schools are ok, heterosexual schools are ok. Women’s colleges? Men’s colleges. And so on.

I’m not saying this to ‘catch you,’ or point out some moral hypocricy. I’m actually suggesting that your arguments genuinely do support this type of segregation. If (some) blacks are more comfortable around other blacks, and will perform better when so, then so are (some) whites, and so will (some) whites. Women’s colleges for women who don’t want the distractions of men? Same for men’s colleges, And so on.

I have absolutely no doubt that you will argue against this. I have absolutely no doubt that when you are arguing in favor of a ‘gifted’ high school, you are, without a second thought, arguing for a high school where academic segregation is carried out (and perfectly acceptable), but where gender or race segegration is banned. Your whole last paragraph discussing being more comfortable around gifted blacks than average whites can be seen as a preemptive argument against extending this viewpoint to racial segregation.

Your only way out is to argue that segregation for minorities is acceptable but segregation for majorities is not: in other words, it would be entirely acceptable to have a public gay high school but not a public straight high school (or a black college but not a white college) simply because gays and blacks represent a minority, and minorities have additional burdens because they are minorities, and those additional burdens justify essentially abandoning ‘liberal’ principles.

But your arguments for that abandonment (“if we really seek the common good, we would strive to provide schooling (within practical limits, of course) that helps students most fully express and develop their own capabilities”) may apply to individuals within majorities (straight and/or white and/or male or whatever) just as well as minorities.

sk

#14 Comment By Curle On January 21, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

A great article. And the addition of the Derbyshire quote by MEH 0910 was icing on the cake.

I moved around a lot. Attended a variety of schools and ended up at a prep school much like the one you describe. We were one of the largest feeder schools to Stanford the year I graduated. Having previously had a mixed experienced with public schools including unbelievably bad (bused in a mid-South city — horrible work ethic among many of the fellow students); borderline unbelievably bad (minority student in a public school in a region where everyone who was white or Asian and could sent their children to private schools did so leaving only the unambitious or really poor Asians, a smattering of whites and Polynesians — again, surrounded by an unambitious lot); a white suburban HS where the jocks ruled but kids were above average in ambition and discipline); and finally the really great experience of attending a prep school were 95% or more of the students were really ambitious and disciplined regardless of race.

I didn’t happen to appreciate sitting in a classroom for hours on end listening to a teacher try and coax a lazy and uninterested student struggle with answering an easy question. And though I would defend myself vigorously, nor did I appreciate having to think about which brute wanted to alleviate boredom through some act of intimidation or other thuggery in the periods between classes. That was my experience with the public schools previously described as bad or unbelievably bad (though the thuggery only applied to the high school experience not the busing experience).

Contrary to the state of Texas’ assertions in Gruttner, I don’t think that racial diversity or sufficient quantities of racial diversity lead to robust classroom discussions. Diversity itself won’t achieve such ends, only knowledge, ambition and academic discipline are likely to help achieve the desired robustness. And, that is only going to occur in environments of similarly situated, i.e., ambitious and disciplined students.

#15 Comment By Consequences On January 21, 2013 @ 2:54 pm

sk,

Harvey Milk does not restrict attendance to LGBT kids. Whites attend Morehouse. Very, very few minority-centered educational institutions exclude others. Quite a few majority-centered educational institutions did. Some of those which continue to do so — such as the candidate law school Rod’s all worried about — seek to do so explicitly in their rules.

#16 Comment By Consequences On January 21, 2013 @ 3:29 pm

And speaking of diversity and exclusion.

[7]

#17 Comment By Tyro On January 21, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

I discerned that what united this highly diverse group of high schoolers was their common experience of having been smart kids in schools where the community was often unsupportive (or insufficiently supportive) of intellectual pursuits, and where the things that made them distinctive also, in many cases, set them apart from the larger group, and made them objects of marginalization, even opprobrium. This is a semi-fancy way of saying that at their old schools, they were penalized in a number of ways, passive and active, for being smart and interested in ideas and learning, and at LSMSA, they aren’t. The very thing that made many (but not all) kids outsiders at their old schools make them insiders now.

My skepticism of conservatism has always been rooted in a belief that the “conservative” way of things is in line with the way life worked at these rural high schools. You achieve merit via success in football (and only football, and only a few positions in football) or by coming from a well-off family (and only if that success was achieved through business connections in the town). Having other interests, achievements, or ambitions is considered to be a form of rebellion which does not give due deference to the hierarchy– people need to “know their place.” Anything else is just saying, “You think you’re better than me!” In conservatopia, you would either be born into the blessed class or make an effort to ingratiate yourself with the blessed class in order to be like them, at which point you would be granted the appropriate accolades from the right people.

David Frum commented regarding his book on conservatism, “Dead Right”, that conservatism was all about creating carrots and sticks to ensure everyone imprints on the habits of the hierarchy, saying “we don’t think the most valuable and important parts of the human personality are those that are expressed by eccentricity.” The conservative high school is once in which intellectualism and academic ambition is considered an eccentricity which needs to be ostracized.

Branching off from your thread about journalism, I would say what killed hope of real “diversity” in newsrooms (because, honestly, when were newsrooms ever more diverse than they are now?) was, ironically, meritocracy. The number of aspiring journalists is so high and the number of spots so small, that selection is “by merit.” Which means you went to an elite college (which you were accepted to because you went to an elite high school), you had a willingness and ability to work for free as an intern for many years, and this gave you entry into the land of high stakes journalism.

#18 Comment By Curle On January 21, 2013 @ 5:23 pm

Tyro says:

” The conservative high school is once in which intellectualism and academic ambition is considered an eccentricity which needs to be ostracized.” —————-

That seems a strange attempt to describe a less than optimal HS environment and label it as ‘conservative.’ Given the overwhelming lean of the teacher’s unions towards the D party this assertion seems a little jarring, to say the least. I gather what you really mean is high schools in conservative communities are, in your opinion, less open to academic ambition and eccentricity. I’d challenge you to examine schools serving students from the highest voting D precincts (inner city communities most anywhere) and see how much academic ambition and eccentricity is valued by the student body. If it were the case that academic ambition were valued in these schools one would expect to find more academic achievers coming out of them than tends to be the norm.

#19 Comment By Glaivester On January 21, 2013 @ 5:48 pm

Once, in college, I found myself in an argument with a friend who thought the whole idea of LSMSA was intolerably elitist. In his view, no special accommodation should be made for academically or artistically gifted kids. They should be kept with the larger group so they don’t get above themselves.

Of course, by that reasoning, why was he going to college at all, instead of being with the larger group pf non-college people?

#20 Comment By David J. White On January 21, 2013 @ 5:52 pm

For some reason, we can reward excellence and superior ability when it comes to sports and fine arts (to a degree), but when it comes to academic ability, everyone should be equal.

A corollary to that is that no one ever seems to argue that a sports team representing a city or a college should reflect the racial/ethnic/gender makeup of the city or college, yet we hear this all the time in other contexts.

#21 Comment By Jane On January 21, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

My 1980s middle school and high school were homophobic and transphobic, and so was my 1980s home. My teachers, my parents, and of course the other students would all say prejudiced things as if they were completely natural. There was no safe place.

While other kids were blooming, my energy was consumed in the exhausting daily task of pretending to be a wholly different person, in front of my classmates, teachers, and parents, lest someone discover who I really was.

Absurdly unfair and bad things happen in life and they have no meaning. The lesson I learned, far too late, is that if we can be cheerful, humble, and love others, no matter how outrageous or grotesque their behavior, we’ve accomplished something very, very big.

#22 Comment By Susan P On January 21, 2013 @ 7:56 pm

I graduated from LSMSA and I teach at a small town high school. I am so grateful I had a chance experience LSMSA, and I often reflect on how different it was from the school where I teach. We do have honors classes, but there are no entry requirements or prerequisites to get into them. Students often choose honors because they want to be in class with their friends, or with the “better” students, regardless of their own ability. We are told not to leave anyone behind, and teachers are under enormous pressure to make sure no one fails. Graduation rate is one of the criteria for our school score from the state, after all. As a result, the most academically able kids must spin their wheels while we work with the less able ones, even in honors classes. When I started teaching, I expressed my frustration about this to my assistant principal, who told me that the smart kids were “already advantaged” and they would “pick it up on their own,” so I was expected to teach to the lower level kids, even in the honors classes. I can’t imagine my school is terribly different from many others. I don’t know what the solution is, but the current approach is flawed.

[Note from Rod: Thanks for saying this. I can’t imagine being a teacher today, having to put up with all this idiotic testing and egalitarianism from politicians and administrators. — RD.]

#23 Comment By Chad Rushing On January 21, 2013 @ 9:35 pm

LSMSA Class of 1990 right here … Angie Holan and I graduated together. I had no idea you were a fellow alumni all of this time, Rod.

“The one thing you notice about LSMSA is that there is so much natural order in the school, especially in the classroom. When I went back to visit my old school after my first six weeks at LSMSA, I was startled to see how much time and effort my old teachers had to spend getting disruptive students to sit down and shut up.”

I had very similiar experiences when I would go back and visit my old high school in a rural area. Students were practically climbing the walls there while the teachers tried to teach, but one sharp word from a professor at LSMSA would make the entire class fall in line.

#24 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 21, 2013 @ 9:55 pm

I discerned that what united this highly diverse group of high schoolers was their common experience of having been smart kids in schools where the community was often unsupportive (or insufficiently supportive) of intellectual pursuits, and where the things that made them distinctive also, in many cases, set them apart from the larger group, and made them objects of marginalization, even opprobrium.

I can sympathize, even to some extent relate… but somehow when it is politically convenient, you uphold the stereotype of the uneducated, anti-intellectual “working class” dude as the real salt of the earth, the paragon of the political center of gravity. It doesn’t quite fit.

I wouldn’t say schools like LSMSA shouldn’t exist. But as someone who was in the most elite Weekly Reader group in 1st and 2nd grade, selected for the science summer school slot, I’m glad I didn’t go to a specialized school or school for gifted students. I had a lot of trouble at middle school, none of it remotely life-threatening, and by the time I reached high school, I had friends with a variety of aptitudes, some of them skilled crafts rather than academic or intellectual, but we had things in common, we found each other’s respective abilities mutually useful, there was some overlap (stage construction and lighting was one).

I’m glad I had that foundational experience rather than learning that safety and fulfillment lay in finding a closed group of people just like me. Even some of those consigned as “dumb kids” in first grade turned out to be good friends when I had a chance to get to know them.

#25 Comment By Alice AN On January 21, 2013 @ 10:52 pm

Seperate – for their own good, of course – was once the condescending explanation for segregation. If you don’t ascribe to the world view that everyone pushing segregation was an evil racist. Some people genuinely believed the negros would be better off seperate, and to a certain extent maybe that was true. But, seperate is never equal.

Who makes the call which child gets sorted into which track in this academic sorting utopia you have in mind? When does this sorting take place? If your child was considered for trade school only, would you be okay with that? Or would you fight to get your child access to the best you can provide? What about the late bloomers? What about the academically gifted child who gets de-railed in their teenage years for a while as is often the case?

I say this as someone who started Medical school at the age of 17 and who was recruited to a gifted children’s school after placing 2nd in a national Math competition. My mother was not too keen on placing me with gifted children though. “She’ll have to live in the real world…”

The best thing about the American education system, in the cases where it works – Hell, the best thing about America – is that everyone gets a fair shot, again and again and again. Just look at England to see the misery of people pidgeon holed into an academic track for the rest of their exams on the basis of an exam taken once at age eleven. Not just
misery, but a hopelessness that kills the soul. Better to be an American, where everything and anything is possible.

#26 Comment By Tyro On January 22, 2013 @ 10:37 am

My mother was not too keen on placing me with gifted children though. “She’ll have to live in the real world…”

If your experience with the “real world” is one in which the mediocre are determined to ensure that no one gets above their station, then what’s the point in that? One has an entire lifetime to deal with “the real world”, and, quite frankly, the whole mindset of, “sure, they are enrolled in difficult classes for high achievers, but they’re not learning about the real world™” is always a hallmark of some kind of jealousy/resentment.

The thing is that in the ideal American world in which we get shot after shot (a good thing!) only works if your attempt to achieve at the highest level runs the risk of failure– where you try to take the hardest classes you can and either achieve at that high level or realize you can’t hack it and start again at a slightly lower level and try to rebuild yourself up. The alternative, where everything caters to the lowest common denominator and the top performers are simply regarded as not needing any attention or — worse — assets to be exploited for the benefit of the teachers, doesn’t really serve the students’ needs.

[Note from Rod: Yes! This! Thank you! — RD]

#27 Comment By RB On January 22, 2013 @ 11:54 am

Jane, the last sentence of your post is absolutely right on. Thank you.

#28 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On January 23, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

the whole mindset of, “sure, they are enrolled in difficult classes for high achievers, but they’re not learning about the real world™” is always a hallmark of some kind of jealousy/resentment.

I detect another brand of jealousy in this remark.

I am in some respects a high achiever, but I’m the one who preferred to live in the real world. In due course, I found that friends who didn’t excel in the same ways I did could appreciate what I was able to do, sometimes for them, and vice versa. If your roof blows off, who are you going to call, a lawyer, or a carpenter? Carpentry, by the way, is skilled work, if its done right.

C.S. Lewis said God wants someone who can do something really excellent to admire it no more, and no less, than if someone else had done it. Our educational system should allow for people to advance, at what they are good at, and to try, even if they ultimately fail. The doesn’t require sorting us into “gifted” and “ungifted” groups.