I spent my last four years of high school at St. George's, an exclusive British-style boys' school in Vancouver, and graduated in 1986. It was a good education, academically rigorous. Teachers there taught me to write, and offered me the opportunity to travel as far as Russia and Italy. But, especially after returning for a day with one of my daughters for my 20th reunion in 2006, something seemed amiss—aside from the obvious absence of girls. Jen's recent post about her 10th high school reunion got me thinking about my uneasiness again.
A recent article in The American Scholar called "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" (via Jason Kottke) put a finger on it. The article focuses on America and its elite education system, the high-end elementary and high schools that feed into universities and later exclusive business and political organizations. Here's how author William Deresiewicz starts out:
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work.
That's what I sensed in part while I was at my Canadian elite school too, even though I wanted to be there. It was what really struck me 20 years later: how isolated, inward-looking, and self-congratulatory it is (and was) as an institution. While it certainly has outreach programs and encourages students to travel and be charitable and so on, it's easy to graduate feeling entitled to something, or everything.
And it can be something of a shock to go into a big public university, as I did, and find out just how many people are way, way smarter than you, in all sorts of ways. Then to discover, beyond that, those who are smarter and more creative and more interesting still, but who never went to university at all.
St. George's has always been a very good school—and it's happy to tell you so. But, as in Deresiewicz's Yale University:
Only a small minority [of students] have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself [which is] not conducive to searchers.
I'm no great intellectual vagabond, but seeing a bigger world beyond academics or business or law or medicine has been important to me. The most impressive, and the smartest, people I've met have been those who flourished outside the educational and business elites my high school was part of.
There's a tradition at private schools that encourages generations to attend, as part of a true Old Boys' network: students grow up, and then send their own kids, who later send theirs. But even if I had sons instead of daughters, I don't think I'd send them to my old high school. Which is a bit sad.