Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Super People

Another sobering op ed in the NYT about the challenge we face as educators and parents preparing our young children to compete in a hypercompetive world:

A BROCHURE arrives in the mail announcing this year's winners of a prestigious fellowship to study abroad. The recipients are allotted a full page each, with a photo and a thick paragraph chronicling their achievements. It's a select group to begin with, but even so, there doesn't seem to be anyone on this list who hasn't mastered at least one musical instrument; helped build a school or hospital in some foreign land; excelled at a sport; attained fluency in two or more languages; had both a major and a minor, sometimes two, usually in unrelated fields (philosophy and molecular science, mathematics and medieval literature); and yet found time — how do they have any? — to enjoy such arduous hobbies as mountain biking and white-water kayaking.

Let's call this species Super Person.

Do we have some anomalous cohort here? Achievement freaks on a scale we haven't seen before? Has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts? And if so, what convergence of historical, social and economic forces has been responsible for the emergence of this new type? Why does Super Person appear among us now?

…Preparing for Super Personhood begins early. "We see kids who've been training from an early age," says Charles Bardes, chairman of admissions at Weill Cornell Medical College. "The bar has been set higher. You have to be at the top of the pile."

…REMEMBER the Dumb Kid in your math class who couldn't understand what a square root was? Gone. Vanished from the earth like the stegosaurus. If your child is at an elite school, there are no dumb kids in his or her math class — only smart and smarter.

Even the most brilliant students have to work harder now to make their nut. The competition for places in the upper tier of higher education is a lot tougher than it was in the 1960s and '70s, when having good grades and SAT scores in the high 1200s was generally sufficient to get you into a respectable college. My contemporaries love to talk about how they would have been turned down by the schools they attended if they were applying today. This is no illusion: 19 percent of applicants were admitted to my Ivy League school for the class of '71; 6 percent were admitted for the class of '15.

…Just as the concentration of wealth at the very top reduces wealth at the bottom, the aggressive hoarding of intellectual capital in the most sought-after colleges and universities has curtailed our investment in less prestigious institutions. There's no curricular trickle-down effect. The educator E. D. Hirsch Jr. has pointed to a trend he labels the Matthew Effect, citing the Biblical injunction: " 'For unto every one that hath shall be given and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.' We've lifted up rich kids beyond their competence," he says, "while the verbal skills of the black underclass continue to decline."

Affluent families can literally buy a better résumé. "In a bad economy, the demographic shift has the potential to reinforce a socio-economic gap," says Todd Breyfogle, who oversaw the honors program at the University of Denver and is now director of seminars at the Aspen Institute. "Only those families who can help their students be more competitive will have students who can get into elite institutions."

Schools are now giving out less scholarship money in the tight economy, favoring students who can pay full freight. Meanwhile, Super People jet off on Mom and Dad's dime to archaeological digs in the Negev desert, when they might once have opted to be counselors in training at Camp Shewahmegon for the summer. And the privilege of laboring as a volunteer in a day care center in Guatemala — "service learning," as it's sometimes called — doesn't come cheap once you tote up the air fare, room and board.  


Super People

Published: October 1, 2011

James Atlas is the president of Atlas & Co., a publishing company. He is at work on a book about biography.

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