The fallacy of the best and the brightest

Last week my daughter graduated from Harvard. It’s hard to believe it’s been four years since we dropped her off in the yard, right after her picture was plastered on the cover of Boston Magazine, something we certainly didn’t expect to happen after I was one of several parents interviewed for the article. The graduation was a whirlwind of excitement and emotion, with luncheons, dinners, and much pomp and circumstance.

The day after, I was cleaning out some old boxes and by happenstance came upon something our daughter wrote to me and my husband the December she’d just finished submitting her college applications. It was one of her usual handmade cards, with a lovely note inside that closed like this: “Whatever happens, I am grateful for the way you chose to school me and parent me. After 18 years, I feel like a happy and fulfilled person.”

achievement activity adolescent arms
Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

A parent can’t really get a greater gift than that, especially a homeschooling parent raising and educating kids very much against the grain. As it turned out, our daughter got into a school she really wanted to attend, whose generous financial aid policies made it possible.

Much ado is made about homeschoolers who go to Ivy League colleges, particularly Harvard. Of course it is a wonderful accomplishment, but there’s also a lot of luck involved. As Dean Rakesh Khurana said in his speech at this year’s commencement, if he had to estimate the role luck played in where he landed, he’d say about 85%, conservatively. We all know that many young people who would do great at Harvard get turned away each year. And, of course, there are many more who don’t even apply.

I don’t think that acknowledging the luck and serendipity involved in my daughter’s acceptance to and graduation from Harvard diminishes those things. Rather, it adds a bit of perspective to something that is at once very wonderful and very crazy. Wonderful because the opportunities and resources available at Harvard are extravagant, and the respect and admiration a Harvard degree elicits are significant and enduring, making it like the gift that just keeps on giving. Crazy because of the exact same reasons.

One of the themes I heard in the commencement speeches centered around the idea of belonging, about young people entering Harvard with the fear they don’t belong there, that somehow the admissions department made a mistake, that they can’t possibly be among the “best and brightest.” The theme of belonging I heard in the commencement speeches wasn’t unfamiliar. We also heard it at Visitas, the weekend for admitted families, before my daughter enrolled. As hard as the faculty and administration seem to work to assuage the issue, many students still feel a huge amount of pressure to do well, to succeed, to measure up, an experience certainly not limited to Harvard students. I get it. Growing up isn’t easy, but with our hierarchical views of education, our obsessions with achievement and accomplishment, and our expectations of traditional college and employment trajectories, do we make it harder?

I have three other children, none of whom went to Harvard, which seems perfectly appropriate. Our slow homeschooling style focused on play, curiosity, close family relationships, and enjoying the moment. That each kid found their own unique path fits perfectly with that. My oldest did not go to college at all. Her meandering 20s decade saw her working as a massage therapist with hospice patients and waiting tables before landing a job at a day facility for adults with developmental disabilities, where she now serves as Positive Behavior Support Coordinator. Her lack of a degree from Harvard or anywhere else doesn’t get her oohs and aahs from the general population, nor does it stop her from doing amazing work improving the lives of people that most of the general population doesn’t know or care about. She’s currently pursuing a degree while working, reminding us of the very important fact that it is never too late to go to college. She’s also a mom, and while I don’t expect my children to make the same choice I did when it comes to educating their own kids, it makes me happy that she’s seriously considering homeschooling her son.

My son did enroll in college, but alas, he never finished. After two years at a music school, he quit to go be a musician. My youngest is currently in college at what might be seen as the polar opposite of Harvard, a state school known to cater to working class families, with a majority minority student enrollment. When she visits her sister at Harvard, the differences are stark, adding fuel to the fire of her passion for social justice. I can’t wait to see where it takes her.

Judging people by where they went to school is so ingrained in our society it’s like a disease. Did we really need a major scandal to know that college admissions are out of control? How might our world change if we stopped obsessing so much about what’s on paper and instead cared about who people are? Years ago I read the work of Malidoma Patrice Some, who talked about the symbiotic relationship between the community and the individual. The community’s job is to support the individual in finding and fostering their genius, so that the individual can convey their gifts to benefit the community.  I strove to apply this philosophy to our homeschooling and our family, and to the extent that I could, my wider community, but it’s not always easy in a world where community has become so fragmented and difficult to find.

Getting rid of value judgments helps. When we put those aside, we make room for genuine curiosity about other people, respect for their unique characteristics and trajectories, and acceptance for diverse choices and ways of being. The more we can extend that to kids and young people, the less fear, pressure, and anxiety they’ll absorb about themselves and the future. They’ll focus less on “getting into” esteemed schools, instead making choices based on their abilities, interests, values, and goals. And, perhaps most importantly, they’ll be better able to live in the moment, learning, exploring, and becoming.

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