01 August 2008


Some people are way smarter

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.

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I went to Vancouver College for Grade 8, and the air of entitlement and history and legacy was thick.

It was uncomfortable, so I left for St Pats, a co-ed school with an East Van vibe.

Much more communal, laid back, and friendly.

I dont think I'd send my son there either, the religious teaching is pointless in this modern world, and the resources for extra curricular and real world classes just aren't present.
This is very, very true. Both of my parents taught at a university, and I think in my youth I probably assumed that being in a university was a good unofficial measure of intelligence.

It took me years to start to appreciate the difference kinds of intelligence, and I have since been in awe of people who skipped or bypassed the academic system entirely but think more creatively than anyone I know with a degree, or have incredibly keen observational skills, or are adept at dealing with people in a way that I can only dream of.

I'm very lucky to have had some of the experiences I have, and to have had access to good education... but I have learned - on my own - that there's more to life than just book-learnin'.
Well, I grew up in a neighbourhood where the people with skilled trades or supervisor jobs were the ones who had a leg up on everybody else. And I didn't really get how to communicate with them then and I don't really get it now. I worked in a curling rink and a bingo hall in high school and I was still not very good at the small talk. When I moved to the city to go to university, it was I breathed for the first time.

That being said, I've always found that people from middle class and upper middle class backgrounds have a definite sense of entitlement. They actually expect to make six figure incomes and be VPs and own houses in Vancouver and all that. They had expectations at 18 that I didn't have till my mid 30s.
I am Saints class of 2008.
Yes, a sense of entitlement persists. But Lifers shell out at least 200k over the course of their Saints schooling (I wasn't one of them), and their parents do expect something in terms of return on investment.

This year, we had an astoundating 16 applications admitted to the Richard Ivey school of business, which is heavily skewed toward private schools.

and buzz bishop, VC is entitled? are you kidding me? Saints boys regularly make fun of VC being the poorer (and Celtic, as opposed to Anglo-Saxon) cousin. The sense of legacy and entitlement at VC is joke compared to proper British-model rugby-playing schools.