Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Selection Month, Part 3

My favorite movie of all time is Dead Poet's Society.

It's the story that inspired me to become a teacher.

On the first day of class, Mr. Keatings (played by Robin Williams), gives his students a lesson on literature and life that his students will never forget.

Too often we approach the college search/selection process from the Neoclassic School. We seek to do what is most linear (prep school - top tier college - high powered job) and logical (good college + good grades in college > good graduate school = good paying job.) We draw a graph and measure the college's merit in a formulaic way. The x-axis represents the college's prestige. The y-axis represents the college's ranking.

But what are rankings, really? Colleges know that rankings are like sex - they can help successfully market and sell their school. What US News and World Report: The College Edition is to seniors and parents is what Sports Illustrated: The Swimsuit Edition is to libidinous men. Moreover, rankings tends to underscore the binary way we view the world - there are winners and losers; successful people and unsuccessful people; BCS Bowls and Sun Bowls; championship banners and consolation ribbons. I would argue this dualistic worldview derives its potency from our Greco-Roman heritage. We've been conditioned to split the world into two halves and divide people into two categories. We do this in sports. In politics. In religion. In zip codes. In school districts. And on and on..

Now don't get me wrong. First, I love competition. I love winning as much as anyone. And I love cheering for a winner. The fact that my CU Buffs are riding a four year losing streak in football, for example, eats me up. And last year, beating Heritage in basketball - well, I'll be honest, it felt reaaaalllly good!

Second,I grew up in a logocentric family. My dad was of the head chief of our "linear Bottomly tribe" (Air Force Academy > Purdue University > Pilot). I was raised to use common sense and be prudent. I was also raised to understand the value of an education. But it wasn't rankings that ultimately determined my college path. It was a combination of personal reflection and family conversations about the realities we faced. On the reflection side, I realized I wasn't Air Force Academy material. I was a words and ideas guy. Not a numbers and graphs fella like my dad. At the top of my families priorities was affordability. They had invested in my college-prep education; I was largely responsible for funding my college education. Big loans, therefore, were not an option. It didn't make fiscal sense to spend inversely to what I would make professionally as a teacher (I knew early on that putting "Tolkien and Lord of the Rings scholarship" on my resume wouldn't put food on the table.)

Honestly, based on observation of our students, what disturbs me most about rankings is the way that they often stymie reflection. Not long ago, for example, I asked a really smart student, "Why are you interested in Stanford?" He shrugged his shoulders and responded, "Well, because it's prestigious and ranked high." I pressed this student a bit and he acknowledged that he didn't really know why he wanted Stanford, just that it was what anyone of his academic stature should consider.

Our headmaster, Chris Bright, cited in his last blog post an article by Mark Taylor, the chairman of the religious department at Columbia University. The article bemoans the fact that his students, who are like the Casady student I talked with, really don't know why they are at Columbia. Reflecting on this, Taylor writes:

In today’s market-driven economy we constantly hear that choice is the highest good and that competition fuels innovation. But this is not always true. Choice provokes anxiety and competition can quell the imagination and discourage the spirit of experimentation that is necessary for creativity. In a world obsessed with ratings, well-meaning parents all too often train their children to jump through the hoops they think will lead to success.

Part of the problem, I believe personally, is that we have as Wendell Berry puts it, "provided a cure that preserves the disease." We are so driven by success that we have forsaken the heart's deepest hunger, which is to find significance.

For Mr. Keatings, he understood that business, medicine, and law were all noble pursuits and necessary for culture to thrive, but he also understood that we are not robots, but that created in the imago Dei, we were designed with a restless soul that hungers for beauty and truth and relationships and love. Without this form of divine photosynthesis, we will dry up at the roots, wilt, and die.

So my challenge to students and parents as they come down the "September selection" stretch is not that they rip out the rankings from Newsweek. But that they use them as a starting point, not a stopping point. It's time then to do some real soul searching, reflection, and personal examination. It's that time to determine as a family how you measure and rank a school's value. Perhaps "alumni giving" is not as important to you as the retention percentage each year, or the graduate school/job placement percentage upon graduation.

In the end, I hope that you discover that the college selection process can be like falling in love. And when it comes to falling in love, there is no real science to it. When we decide whether or not to marry a person, we don't pull out our calculator or spreadsheet to crunch numbers and fill in cells with datum. We throw caution into the wind. We jump out of a window and yell, "Geronimo!" Because love, in the end, is a mystery. It can not be reduced to utility. The same is true with a radiant and dazzling college match.

I like what Jim Miller, the Dean of Admission at Brown University, tells prospective students about how to navigate the selection process. "Become a 'gutologist'," Miller exclaims, "in other words, go with your gut." I like that. And I would add this: It takes guts to follow your gut, but in the end, it's often when we follow our gut that we feel the deepest sense of peace in our own skin.

So how will you approach the college selection process?

From the Neoclassic School of formulas and graphs?

Or the Romantic School of feelings and guts?