• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


When Success Gets Scarce

The competitive model.


March 6, 2016

I remember high school, college, and grad school as being academically competitive. Students tried to outshine each other to stand out when the time came for selection to the next level. It felt like a “pyramid” model, and a process of weeding out. Each level was more selective than the one before it. By the end of the sequence, we had a bunch of people who were very good at school, and who were pretty intensely nervous about it.

The “bracket tournament” model, like March Madness, has a distinctly familiar feel to it. Some of us probably heard the story of the college president saying at freshman orientation “Look to your left. Now look to your right. One of you will make it.” It’s a sort of secular Calvinist model - any failings are taken as signs of deeper, underlying flaws in the student. With each level the scrutiny gets finer until only a select few are left standing. We lived in fear of being found out. Rampant “impostor syndrome” was pretty much inevitable.

The model had plenty of issues. Its methods of measurement were narrow, game-able, and often obscure. It left out a lot. It tended to give the winners an unhealthy sense of entitlement. And it hid systemic or structural issues -- race, wealth, the availability of “extra” opportunities -- under a curtain of “meritocracy.” But it was the way things were, and at that age, it seemed inevitable.

Moving from that to institutions that prized “student success” was a culture shock. Suddenly, the onus for student failure was on the professor or the institution, rather than the student. (I should say “in addition to,” but that wasn’t how it felt at the time.) At first, it felt like a betrayal. But over time, the upside became apparent. The world is a much bigger place than grad school, and a good thing, too.

The Boy is a freshman in high school now, and he’s suddenly making the opposite move. He’s going from the “everyone can succeed!” model of elementary and middle schools to the more competitive high school model. Suddenly, teams have “tryouts” and “cuts.” Not everybody gets to be in the Honors class. Strata are starting to take definable shape.

Both models have truth in them. Yes, the world is a big place with lots of different ways to succeed, including many we haven’t thought of yet. (When I was TB’s age, “google” was just a cute name for a big number.) And to the extent that we’re talking about relatively basic skills, I don’t see the point of a zero-sum model. The more people who can write clearly, use mathematical reasoning, and know something about the history of the world, the better. I see no point at all in hoarding those skills, or confining them to a select few.  

But it’s also true that the world is a competitive place. Most kids who play baseball will never play in the majors. Skills that everyone has aren’t worth a lot in the marketplace, precisely because everybody has them. You make your mark by being better at something than most other people. That involves accepting that other people will be better than you at many things. It’s a hard lesson, but a necessary one. Finding that niche takes time, and a frustrating process of trial and error; in the absence of “error,” you’ll never find it.  

TB is making the adjustment as well as I could ask. But it’s still hard to watch. Until recently, in his world, success was there for everybody. Now, and abruptly, it has become scarce.

American culture loves to create winners and losers. (I suspect that his, well, liberal use of the term “losers” is part of Donald Trump’s appeal.) We consider the division “realistic,” even when it has to be contrived with great effort. As Jim Gaffigan noted, we live in a culture in which people compete on television to see who makes the best cupcakes, missing the point that when someone makes cupcakes, everyone wins.

Community colleges fight an uphill cultural battle, because they lean more in the direction of success for all. To the rest of the culture, that seems suspect. At one point, it did to me, too.  

Success in any given realm may have to be scarce. But I’m happy to contribute, however indirectly, to developing realms nobody has thought of yet.


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