Stress for Success: How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Ivies?

24 10 2007

How do you take their brand and shut it dow-wn?

How do you find a word that means the Ivies?

The liberal elite, overrated effetes and clowns?

(humming. . .)

Imagine a scholarly debate in which “hundreds of people cheer wildly as some crazy-haired guy calls for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to be shut down. That’s right: closed entirely. Their campuses turned into luxury condos. Their students distributed evenly throughout the colleges of the Big Ten. Their endowments donated to charity, or used to purchase Canada. . .”

Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, staff writers for The New Yorker, did it for entertainment on a recent Saturday night (instead of college football??) — all part of the magazine’s annual literary festival:

Mr. Gladwell . . . asserted that they have come to be valued as “consumption preferences” rather than places where people, you know, go to learn.

But more interesting than the debate itself was the audience reaction. Anti-Ivy proclamations were greeted with enthusiastic whoops. It was as if everyone had finally been given permission to voice their long-held antipathy toward the elite. It was a mob scene, or as close as you’re likely to get at a wine-and-cheese gathering on the Upper West Side.

It’s all part of a current Ivy backlash, according to Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids and Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Ms. Robbins thinks the mystique of the Ivy League is starting to wear thin — even though, as she acknowledges, it’s harder than ever to get into those colleges. . .

Thinking Parents out there may already be familiar with the Colfax family’s 1980s get-into-Harvard bible, “Homeschooling for Excellence: How to take charge of your child’s education and why you absolutely must.” I read it our first year homeschooling, when Favorite Daughter was five. Young Son was a newborn. As a “newbie” I was still swaddled in academic credentials and poring over curriculum standards, worse even than the average new homeschool parent due to my own “stress for success” education.

Like me, the Colfax dad was a derailed academic and activist, making a dramatic lifestyle change that affected his whole family. They did it with a relatively well-funded but nevertheless spartan working ranch dubbed the Shining Moon, pioneering their own learn-at-home path and then writing the book (literally!) on how to send homeschooled sons back east for that coveted Ivy sheepskin.

I doubt the Colfax parents ever saw Harvard and Yale as the real proof of their progeny pudding; they seemed to understand their sons’ “highest and best” education as something that happened completely apart from college, that the life lessons their boys learned at home spell “success” — with or without some ivy imprimateur stamped over their education like a visa stamped in a passport. College as cultural rite of passage is one thing, but college for “right of passage” seems downright anti-American.

The Colfaxes wrote a less well-known book too, “Hard Times in Paradise: An American Family’s Struggle to Carve Out a Homestead in California’s Redwood Mountains.”

From Library Journal’s review:
. . . the Colfaxes had no illusions about country life, and the experiences they recount here are strangely reminiscent of early pioneers: lacking electricity, hauling all water by hand, building a house, being dangerously distant from doctors. Because of their isolation, the Colfaxes began homeschooling their sons and were so successful the boys were snapped up by Ivy League schools.
An underlying theme of the book is that there a happy ending is not guaranteed.
Successful income sources are often fleeting, and reliance on physical labor is adversely affected by their sons’ departures for college and David’s developing heart trouble. A well-told tale of what it takes truly to live off the land.

One of their successful — by any definition — sons recently reflected the life lesson he learned at home on the range before Harvard: life’s real meaning is in the sheep, not the sheepskin!


Grant Colfax. . .now work[ing] as San Francisco’s director of H.I.V. prevention and research, described the sheepdog trials as “a moment where everything seems to be in balance.”

As he stood in front of football bleachers, where more than 1,000 fans cheered the dogs and their handlers at the center of a bowl of bucolic hills, Dr. Colfax said: “It’s what everyone wants America to look like. It’s an illusion we all collectively embrace.”

I think it’s fair to say that doesn’t sound much like the American illusion embraced by the Ivy League . . .

What IS in a name like Harvard, Yale, Princeton? Entitlement, privilege, status, the life lesson that wealth and leisure define success? At best a sense of noblesse oblige to all the little people left behind? What do whole generations learn from the culture of aspiring to be accepted by such a name, literally from wanting and then being found wanting? (Compare that universal lesson to the very best learning Harvard could hope to give the few, the chosen, the accepted and enrolled — does the effect balance out in society’s favor, or not so much?)

See “School Socialization Should Shame Us All”:

Everything about college campus life — from getting in to getting along, to getting through, to getting a job through those social contacts — imposes this same lesson by institutional design and with institutional support, and college presidents must’ve learned it as well as any silly sorority girl or rejected chubbette.

Maybe better! – some university presidents are in practice shamelessly playing for institutional reputation, recruiting by rankings, weeding and culling and shuffling students like playing cards for the next bet, grasping for the top and misrepresenting the truth, all for institutional glorification bigger to them than the import of any individual students underserved, unserved or downright devastated by the “lesson” —

Howard Gardner makes the point less offensively, but he’s saying the same thing. Presidents have lost their way no less than status-focused sorority recruiters . . .

I heard part of the Dave Ramsey radio show last night in which he told off a single mom struggling to support herself and her kids while paying for their activities and sports, and saving for their college. He told her in no uncertain terms the best college education plan would be to start right now preparing her eighth grade son NOT to go Ivy.

Help him learn that life success is his to earn, that he needs to do well in school AND begin developing the attitudes of thrift, self-discipline, delayed gratification and hard work (real work, not schoolwork) that will put him on a successful path into a public university, ideally with in-state tuition.

His point was that quality college prep should mean your child becomes sufficiently motivated and equipped to earn whatever wages and scholarship support will help him achieve real value from a real education, not just faux value from a fancy sheepskin.

To do that, Ramsey recommends a path that ideally will keep your child close to home and on top of all the costs, undertaken only for the right reasons (not laziness and not the label) and purchased without student loan debt, all leading to good educational value and a happier, more productive future for the whole family.

Homeschool mom and former school board member Kay Brooks took some liberal heat from young collegiate elites, for expressing some kindred thoughts about high school recently. (See also “Breaking News: Kids Bored in Class!”) Nothing about academic education is simple and easy to get the right answers to, even if you’re rather well-educated yourself. It takes real work! 🙂

Speaking of student loans, GOOD magazine has a double-truck graphic showing college loan debtors rising like so many hot air balloons (wonder if that insulting visual pun is intended?) — since the turn of the millennium, the number of graduating seniors $40,000 or more in debt has nearly doubled. The total federal student loan debt is now $492 billion-with-a-B.



8 responses

24 10 2007

“Supporting An Education Habit”:

That’s not a monkey on your back, it’s just an education habit??

Unschooled-into-college Favorite Daughter has been blogging books, movies and personal experience again, this time about creative ways a young person such as herself can pay for one’s own education habits including college, even med school (assuming you get cast for the part of course) . . .

24 10 2007

“Not News That ‘Play’ Works”:

. . .These are the staples in my idea pantry. Learning is fun, not work. Schooling is work, not education.

Favorite Daughter has never been to school (though she now plays at college) precisely because I believe school screws up such lessons as these, and all the hapless folks who receive them. . .

I see dutiful young people turning Heaven into Hell no matter what their circumstances or working conditions, because that’s all they know, because that’s what they’ve been taught by their parents and school and life and society, because they can’t believe in anything else:
“If you think something’s supposed to hurt, you’re less likely to notice if you’re doing it wrong.”

24 10 2007

“Can Unschooled Kids Make the World Less Miserable?”:

. . .Of course, those from more traditional education circles worry that such free-form education could make it difficult for a child to adjust as an adult to the more structured world of college or work.

But Ms. Noddings of Stanford, despite her reservations about unschooling, believes just the opposite.

“Perhaps these kids may help the world be a less miserable and less structured place,” she said. “Perhaps they’ll have something to say against the overly bureaucratic system we have now.”

25 10 2007
Rolfe Schmidt

I have mixed feeling about the Ivies. I’d say the most effective schooling I got was in a grad program at an ivy league school. But this was the structure of the program: here is the library, here are your fellow students, and here is the faculty. We have tea every afternoon, so please come and chat. Some time in the next two years, you’ll need to take a general exam before writing your thesis. Pretty forward-thinking, eh?

I loved the program and found it very effective (even if I did drop out to get married).

With that said, I really don’t think the undergraduate program would have worked for me as well. At the time I had an impression that the school was sort of like a dating service where money gets to meet brains. Money needs to hire brains, and the brains need money. If you were an ambitious networker then you could get a lot out of that environment. If you couldn’t care less about networking then I think you might do better at Caltech, MIT, or Chicago.

We’re talking about tremendous amounts of money here, and I just didn’t think that the education was tremendously better. It is easy to slip through with a pretty mediocre education, you need to be motivated to get a good one. Of course the school can only lead and the student has to do the walking. Why not do it for less at a state school? That sounds like sound advice to me.

25 10 2007

Sounds like how I always imagined the classic Oxford model would be – here’s a very civilized world-class academic environment, and it’s all yours, no one will tell you what you can or can’t read, or think about. Do come by for a chat now and then with some professors whose minds you’re now lucky enough to be near. 🙂

Secretly I think that’s been my ideal for our unschooling and though it’s not Oxford around here, the model hasn’t missed by too much . . .

26 10 2007

Saw this at the Cates’ homeschool blog this morning:

This week Thomas Sowell has a column called Choose Wisely on helping high-school students select an appropriate university. His basic premise is that students will get a better education if they avoid the big name prestigious universities.

27 11 2007
College Admission Advice I’ve Thought Better Than. . . « Cocking A Snook!

[…] “Stress for Success: How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Ivies?” […]

30 09 2008
COLLEGE COSTS: Who Cares, and Why Thinking Parents Care About Who Doesn’t « Cocking A Snook!

[…] Don’t assume it’s just the elite and impossibly pricey privates. Conservative financial adviser Dave Ramsey sensibly preaches public in-state college as a practical value for the middle class — I hear him do it all the time — yet with all his economic expertise, doesn’t seem to notice or care about what’s happening to THOSE costs and why. Public colleges and universities are losing bigtime, and it’s starting to look like a key strategy of the grand elitist “free market” white male ideology McCain’s economic masterminds have been working so hard on for a couple of decades now, to dismantle government and all general public opportunity for those of us they dismiss as just a “nation of whiners.” […]

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