Making Your Kid Super and Using Education to Hedge Your Bets

Okay, admittedly, this is going to be a more cynical reflection than the title of the post suggests.

Two recent op-ed columns are worth reading back to back: Bill Keller’s The University of Wherever,” about the unsustainability of today’s expensive university educations, and James Atlas’“Super People,”on young adults with over-the-top lists of achievements for college and graduate school applications.

Atlas marvels at the resumes of young adults who have worked in orphanages around the world and founded farmer’s markets in lower-income neighborhoods, all while learning several languages and playing multiple instruments. He wonders, “has our hysterically competitive, education-obsessed society finally outdone itself in its tireless efforts to produce winners whose abilities are literally off the charts?”

Atlas’ column links the over-achievement of today’s young adults with “helicopter parents,” particularly mothers who give up careers to manage their children’s prospects for future economic success. But actually, he does more than blame the mothers, a familiar theme in many articles about what’s wrong with today’s children. The article subtly raises the deeper moral dilemma that this new “species” of “super people” represents. Even as wealthy young people have been striving to become hyper-competent to compete for fewer and fewer desirable positions at the top, those young people from the lowest socioeconomic levels suffer greater declines in verbal and math skills compared to earlier generations. So those with privilege focus on making sure that they’re able to access the best, while those without are less competitive even for the positions their parents might once have held.

Even the hopes we once held out about the “leveling” potential of the Internet are now fading. Maybe once we would have celebrated the ways that university professors could make their content accessible to those who otherwise would have little means to gain the insights of higher education. Access to outstanding university-level education could be accessible for more than just the “Super People” that Atlas discussed in his column. But NYT columnist Bill Keller seems a little more skeptical.

Keller talks about a Stanford faculty member who’s made his lectures available worldwide and for free. Stanford’s Sebastian Thrun offers a course titled, “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence.” Keller notes that after the New York Times ran a piece about this offering, online enrollments in the course grew to 130,000. Certainly, this indexes a desire for outstanding education about a significant topic, and demonstrates that the Internet can make it available to those who couldn’t go to Stanford. But does it solve the fundamental problem of shrinking access to “the top”?

In Keller’s article, Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun is quoted as criticizing the traditional university as “insanely uneconomical.” After all, he says, he can provide “free” education to whoever wants it at a fraction of the cost (never mind the fact that Stanford is paying him to create this “free” content for those who are actually paying $50,000 a year to receive it in a classroom).

What’s interesting in Keller’s article is that this description of “free” university education gets examined in relation to the question of whether or not its offerings will undermine traditional brick-and-mortar schools. After all, he cautions, higher education remains one of the last of the desirable U.S. “exports,” a point on which he cites both Thrun as well as Stanford’s president. Sure, the Internet makes it free, these experts as well as the article’s author seem to suggest. Just as long as it enhances, rather than undermines, the pedigree of a Stanford degree. “We” in the U.S. need to maintain our space at “the top,” after all. Wow, are we collectively nervous about that. And rightly so.

It’s kind of funny how much Thrun, the Stanford professor, sounds like a grown-up version of the earnest Super People young adults Atlas reviewed. Can you imagine having 130,000 sign up for your college course? When he talks about wanting to make his course available “for free,” he sounds as if he is being generous and populist – until you consider the fact that the added value he brings to the university (even through “free” students auditing his class) actually, and maybe ironically, guarantees his own “spot at the top.”

We in the U.S. sure do love — and loathe — these stories of individual greatness. Sure, we all want fairness. But when it comes down to it, parents want whatever will give their kids an edge over others. We are profoundly competitive. Our current economic strife didn’t cause this competitiveness, but it certainly has brought it to the fore.

But as we focus our energies on competing, what might we be losing? If there are “winners” and “losers,” are we ok with the fact that we can no longer ignore the huge discrepancies between “winners” and “losers” that have a lot more to do with luck of birth than with giftedness, drive, or education? Or perhaps I should ask, how long will we be ok with this? Isn’t this fundamentally the opposite of the U.S. dream of a society of equal opportunity?

I feel like we as parents are so nervous about the future of our own kids that sometimes, we fail to see the ways in which that future is inextricably bound up with the future of *all* kids. Maybe not thinking about that inevitable connection, actually, has become a central strategy in how we’re hedging our bets. Because if we thought about it, we might have to change what we’re doing as parents. We might have to think less about “us” and “them” and more about shared futures and win-win (rather than win/lose) scenarios. And we just might have to examine our assumptions about what makes a kid “super” to begin with.

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