Something I really ought to do sometime soon is to go on a nice little lecture tour of the US. I could schedule myself at women's clubs, houses of worship, the odd Marriot; nothing too large, I think, as I'd want to keep the setting intimate. I've got a few skills as a speaker, and I don't despair of persuading a person or two. I'll title my lecture, "There Is No Such Thing as a "Best School"; There Is Only the "Best School for You"
Where I tutor, HarvardYalePrinceton is one word, and is usually the first answer when you ask "So where are you thinking of applying, if you have an idea yet?" I always have to ask,(because I do have a mean streak)"Why Harvard? What about it appeals to you?"
"Oh, well, it's the best. It opens doors. And you can network." This answer is so very common. I have never seen Harvard, so I amuse myself with a surreal picture of a campus done in Georgian Architecture in Technicolor with doors in the unlikeliest of places -- in a tree trunk, in a cloud formation indicated by nothing but a knob in crystal, between one building and the next -- populated by people who attach elastic strings to one another and yet are able to make it to a class or two during the semester.
Sometimes I do get a different answer. An occasional student will announce that a smaller, less known place is right for him or her. In those cases, the explanation goes, "Well, I had a chance to take a summer course there, and I liked the campus and the professor, and the students there were really cool." It might be a variation on that theme. The student might have spent a weekend. She might have done a search or read a brochure. Invariably, the student had an interest, possibly a passion, and that school loved her or him for her talent and spirit and wanted to do its best to nurture that talent, spirit, passion.
Oh happy student. I wish they all could be so lucky.
At no time did that student talk of the prestige, the familial legacy, the opportunity to meet the right sort of people. He spoke only of what he and the college could do together. She spoke only of how happy she was to be in such a place. When I think of my one alum, Evan, who did such a search and found such a place, I drop a tear or two. His mother knew that her son had learning differences and respected them. They found a school that would also respect them and my boy has straight A's and does wonderful things with that school community. No one dumbs a thing down for him, before you out with that little meanness. They just encourage him to use strategies that make the work as do-able for him as it is for anyone else.
I think of other families and their determination to have their children be in any prestigious school, regardless of fit, and wonder how they can treat children that way. A child strictly instructed to hide her dyslexia in shame so she can "network" at a private day school will not learn to cope, will not "get over" the differences that make a printed page a vision of hell for her. At a school designed and structured for children with learning differences, a specialist will teach her strategies and let her learn to love information and respect her own qualities and abilities, and thus she finds the path to "the best schools".
Maybe even to Harvard. I hear they do have some good courses there.
My lecture will be brilliant. I will dream out loud of a world where all talents and passions are given their due respect. I will exhort parents to look at the beautiful individuals they've been lent by Whatever Higher Power that Exists Out There, and to seek out the schools that will respect what they have to give back to the world. I will lance at one stroke the inflated blivvet of vanity, assumption and prejudice that says that there are a few "top tier" schools where only the elite may go, and that the rest are barely adequate institutions where one might maunder about fecklessly for a few years before trying to find a place in middle management.
If I am lucky, one or two people might listen. They might suddenly take a good look at their offspring and say "but what can he really do? what does she really want?" They might even watch a man walking along the side of the highway to his second (or third) job and say "Thank God, for without him I'd have nothing in my house or on my plate". Or they might look at a young woman behind a cash register and think, "God bless her, for she does a needed task and does it with a smile."
My lecture would be quite satisfying in one respect. I'd stop feeding that puffed-up blivvet with the vanity of a three digit number that is supposed to confirm that there is an inherent "something" about the student that makes him or her more worthy of better education. I'd at least be doing something to make it more possible that we'd really look at what better education is, and resolve to offer it to anyone who would like to have it.