Joel Stein tackles elitism in The Awesome Column in last week’s Time Magazine, and he comes off sounding – as was his goal, me thinks – elitist. From his lede:
I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.
Since Stein has no idea where I went to college, this kind of irritates me, although, in the end, he is right: He did go to a better college than I did, unless he went to University of Oregon. If that’s the case, I definitely went to a better college than he did, because I went to Oregon State. (Motto: Joel Stein may be Ivy League, but our basketball coach is the President’s brother-in-law.)
Anyway, the column hit a nerve because, as a laid-off journalist running up the learning curve of becoming a high school English teacher, I’ve had copious concerns about what I’ve seen in classrooms during my training. One of the points Stein brings up in his piece is that the notion that all people are equal in talent and brains is a bunch of bunk. (We are, however, all equally valuable as humans, in spite of what he says in his ending salvo.)
Humans are all different in brains, ability and innate talent. My daughters both have a better eye for design than I do, and the one who has had formal art training is an amazing artist. I can’t even paint my toenails, much less a self portrait that actually looks like a person. We are all blessed (and cursed) in different ways and as Stein points out, when you’re in need of a great brain surgeon, you will absolutely look at where she went to school before agreeing to go under the scalpel.
Let me say it again: We are not all equal in talent and ability. That said, Stein’s veiled argument that Elena Kagan is qualified for the Supreme Court because she went to an Ivy League school lacks some merit since said education alone cannot make up for lack of judicial experience – at least not in my non-Ivy-League opinion.
But I digress. There’s this idea teachers have to fight against in classrooms, and that is that natural ability trumps effort. We work hard with students who say they “just can’t write” or “just can’t do math” to show them that indeed, if they put in the effort, they can do that writing or math. We tell them that Magic Johnson didn’t become Magic Johnson because he was born with great hand-eye coordination; rather, he practiced for hours and weeks and months and years to get as good as he was at his sport.
Still, while effort – lots of it – can make up for some lack of innate ability, someone with a 90 IQ will not be able to catch up with someone with a 140 IQ no matter how many books he reads or math problems he tries to solve. And, as Stein points out, we do children a disservice when we more or less tell them that there is no innate difference. It is simply not true that a person can become anything he wants to be if only he works hard enough. Success will not come at all without hard work, but you cannot become a brain surgeon if you are horrible at science and have hands that naturally shake. You can’t be an astronaut if you are claustrophobic. You cannot be a calculus teacher if you cannot master algebra.
What we need to be telling students is they can get to a good college if they work really hard in high school (and middle school, and elementary school) and that in getting to a good college (or excellent technical school), they will expand the choices of careers open to them. While certain talents and skills are innate, getting the best teachers in the best schools teaches you to do the best thinking – and sets you on a path you will not travel if you have lousy teachers in a lousy college (or high school, technical school, etc.).
Which is why, dear readers, we need to work a heck of a lot harder to get the best K-12 teachers into the worst schools to turn around more of the students who have been convinced they will never succeed. We need the best teachers with the most educationally needy students to help more students get into the best colleges so they can become snarky columnists like Stein or, better yet, brain surgeons.