Photo by Olivia Meehan
Photo by Olivia Meehan

Is Urban Educating Us?

The writer William Deresiewicz says that today’s students are not only overworked, but aimless. Could he be right?

February 4, 2016

Each day at Urban, my peers leave me in awe. They have diverse interests, take advanced classes, speak multiple languages, and hold the future in their palms. They dance so quickly to the rhythm of the school day that they often collide in the stairwell. They have the grace to immediately forgive and forget. They navigate winding corridors of possibility with the ease of a London taxicab driver.

Our campus is a glass-gilded repository of mastery: gleaming laptops, dexterous note taking, precise geometry, unfailing self-assurance. Within its walls, we can boast a prodigious collective résumé. Dozens of clubs, scores of classes, hundreds of students. We are not perfect, but every day we come closer. Everything is possible. Or so it seems.

An elite education, despite its boundless promises, may close more doors than it opens. There are the restrictive expectations of perfection: the A grade, the letter of admission, the job interview. There are the sacrifices: sleep, idle time, and unquantifiable exploration. There is the fear that despite the countless thousands in tuition dollars and the countless hours of meticulous work, we will fall short.

In his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz puts it bluntly: “Look beneath the façade of affable confidence … that today’s elite students have learned to project, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”

In the book, Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale, argues that elite students are “excellent sheep”: “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” They devote their entire lives to the “race we have made of childhood”: final exams, college admissions, lofty careers, gold stars. And yet, they are unaware of where the finish line might be, and what lies beyond the racetrack.

Our education system, according to Deresiewicz, has failed to imbue “them with the sense that something larger is at stake.” These students lack intellectual curiosity, idealistic verve, and the courage to question. Instead, they hew closely to society’s definition of success. Elite students get good grades, play sports, lead a club or two, beat the college admissions odds, and eventually land a job in a lofty, well-paying field. They use their privilege not to better the world, but for their own profit. Education has been reduced to an investment in a future career. It is moving from the realm of the spiritual into the realm of the quantifiable, the “neoliberal arts.” Students have become cogs in the precise machinery of the information age.

The cost of conformity is the constant pall of pressure. There is pressure to get good grades, to find a “passion,” to be ceaselessly productive, and to attain a happy life, whatever that means. This mentality, ironically, leads to neglect. Late nights, glazed eyes, the book unread, the friends who never have free time. A recent New York Times op-ed on this subject cited unprecedented rates of depression (54 percent) and anxiety (80 percent) among students at one Fremont high school. Elite students lead lives of glittering success, but their souls have been smothered by the demands of the world.

The mindless careerism of today’s students, Deresiewicz argues, is antithetical to what education should be. He writes, “Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP.” When a system of education trains only the productive employee within us, it devalues the most profound aspects of human life.

Deresiewicz denounces the idea that education must have a measurable return on investment: “What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake.” Education, he believes, should nurture the self in its wild entirety. It should ease, rather than amplify, the dehumanizing pressures of the world. It should inculcate citizenship, build community, and provide space for free, pleasurable inquiry. It should teach us that a person’s value is independent from professional accolades or economic solvency. In other words, education should attend to life’s most fundamental questions – those that, more than any others, are worth asking for their own sake.

So, are Urban students the soulless robots that Deresiewicz describes? The short answer, I think we can agree, is no. In my experience, students here are curious about the world. They can sustain substantive conversations, and are proudly independent. Institutional choices like the block schedule, the focus on depth over breadth, and the grading policy substantiate Urban’s progressive reputation.

However, for me, Excellent Sheep’s power lay in the resonance of recognition. The pressure that Deresiewicz describes has always been there – even at Urban. For instance, I am reluctant to quit an activity that doesn’t interest me. Sometimes, I stay up far too late doing homework for any true learning to take place. On my most recent course report, I looked at the letter grades before reading anything else. And not long ago, I heard a friend agonize over the fact that, at 15 years old, he does have a polished mental picture of the person he is destined to be.

The globe seems to be spinning at an ever-faster rate. Far-flung strands of technology, commerce, and information have intertwined like never before. It is no wonder that in this hypercompetitive world, students and educators are under strain. Schools must address anxiety over our nation’s – and each student’s – place in the 21st century labor market. In Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz astutely traces the pressure on students today to its source: “If you live in a winner-take-all society, you’re going to want your child to be among the winners.”

The competition begins early with the frenzied lottery of college admissions, “the fulcrum on which the system turns.” Elite schools are more selective than ever before, and in this environment, it is numerical comparisons that speak the loudest: grade points, test scores, class ranks, extra commitments. At Yale, applicants are eventually reduced to a single number on a four-point scale. The result, Deresiewicz writes, is the “regimentation of youth.”

High school students are forced to partake in the college admissions rain dance, an “empty set of rituals known only to propitiate the gods.” They take classes that don’t interest them. They start clubs only to stake a claim on “leadership qualities.” Their lives are subsumed by the résumé arms race. Students will jump through any hoop necessary to receive the affirmation of admission. “Like giraffes evolving ever-longer necks,” Deresiewicz writes, “our kids keep getting more and more deformed.”

Campus life itself, Deresiewicz argues, has also become commoditized. College rankings have equated fame, wealth, and graduate income with educational quality. Flashy facilities and glossy brochures have come to substitute challenging ideas. Deresiewicz describes a “mutual nonaggression pact” between students and professors: students tolerate unenthusiastic teaching in exchange for good grades; professors abandon intimate mentorship in order to focus on their research. Even social interaction has been streamlined into “networking”; one student is quoted as saying, “People at Yale do not have time for real relationships.” This existential busyness, Deresiewicz concludes, leaves students with “no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life.”

Absent an inner sense of purpose, students chase society’s empty, materialistic definition of happiness. Deresiewicz criticizes colleges for aiding the conveyer belt approach to fulfillment. Their curricular focus has shifted from the humanities to more “practical,” specialized fields that neglect the soul; the economics major, for instance, has experienced a meteoric rise. Also, career-counseling on campus highlights only the best-paying fields: law, medicine, consulting, and finance. A prestigious career, after all, is another hoop to jump through. Few students, Deresiewicz asserts, are prepared to take the risk of nonconformity.

Excellent Sheep makes the case that societal expectations have stifled challenging ideas, visionary idealism, and learning for its own sake. Its dystopian pronouncements overgeneralize; surely, these things aren’t gone entirely. But the book identifies, convincingly, the educational trends – quantification, specialization, and careerism – sweeping across American schools. Even Urban.

Our school’s core values describe learning as “an active, joyful process of discovery where students are challenged to ask essential questions.” They also “celebrate the vitality of adolescence and the abundant possibilities for intellectual growth and personal achievement” during high school. And they mention the inculcation of “purpose as citizens of the larger community and world.” At least in principle, Urban is certainly devoted to ideal of inquiry as an end in itself.

Urban students don’t necessarily share the school’s vision of education. I sent out a survey last month asking for their personal definitions, and responses varied widely. Some respondents cited concrete benchmarks: being able to read and write, having “a basic understanding in all academic subjects,” or completing high school and college.

Others  asserted that education entails empowerment. Ariane Goldsmith (’16) wrote that education should help students “learn about themselves within the world.” Similarly, Belle Davis (’19) wrote that schools should not “burn them out and make them do busywork.” A particularly incisive response, by Una Lomax-Emrick (’19), suggested that education should instill both independence and the capacity for change: “An educated person is someone who can thoughtfully correct others when they are wrong and can be corrected when they are wrong.”

Students’ disparate visions of education reflect varying ideas of success. Some students defined it as material abundance. Others specified professional accomplishment. Skylar Baker (’18) rejected objective measurements, and instead defined it as contentment: “To look back on your life and smile.” Another student, Caleb Malaer (’18), wrote that to be successful is “to learn and teach as much as you can.”

Every teacher I spoke to envisioned an education more profound and enduring than rote memorization or college preparation. Courtney Rein, English Department Chair, said, “Education is not to get you into Harvard or Stanford. Education is not to make you as much money as you possibly can. Education is not to guarantee a life of comfort and solvency.” Instead, Rein thinks it should teach students to “confront conventional thinking” and to “develop an innate sense of curiosity and a sense of investment and empowerment in” the world.

Geoff Ruth, the academic dean, told me that high school is meant “to teach students how to think and learn independently.” Jonathan Howland, the dean of faculty, wrote that schools should “awaken, inspire, inform, challenge, and support” their students. Clarke Weatherspoon, 9th/10th grade dean, said, “The purpose of education is to provide someone with the means to freedom. … They can seek out a life that they see fit for them.”

Scott Nelson, an Urban math teacher, identified multiple roles of education: “One is to train people to work in society.” The other is “to change society. To make it better.” He elaborated, “To be educated improves your human experience. Both for yourself and your peers.” Which of these definitions is Urban more faithful to?

Frances Evens, a drama teacher here, told me about some homework she assigned to the Peer Ed theater class: simply, to do nothing for 15 minutes and to be conscious of how they felt. When they returned the next day, they were “shocked.” Evens said, “One student said she could only stand it for eight minutes before she picked up her cell phone. … Doing nothing was immensely challenging and made them anxious.”

That exercise is only one illustration of the suffocating busyness Evens sees at this school. She told me that our days are primarily “driven by the schedule and the expectations,” rather than by deeper, more important questions. “Like suddenly, it’s Grandparents Day! Or, it’s a short week so you have to do all your homework by this day! Or, now it’s the end of the term, and different classes are going to have exams on the same day,” she said. “You’re just driven constantly to meet the next demand. And what do kids do? You binge-watch Netflix for 48 hours on the weekend. It causes this extreme reaction to the demands and the lack of time.

Evens wondered whether there is space for truly boundless inquiry here. “The wandering mind is the mind that actually makes amazing discoveries, is the mind that creates beautiful things. It’s not a mind that’s just responding to task after task, but open to free thought,” she said. “Is there time at the Urban School to let the mind wander? … I’m not sure.”

Nelson, the math teacher, explained this growing pressure on students as a shift towards the vocational definition of education. “The school responds to changes in the culture and the social structure, and particularly in response to its clients, if you think of the students and their families as clients. They pay for this, right?” he said. “People perceive that it’s harder to get into college, that jobs are harder to get, that this more technical education is important.”

Nelson told me that the resulting pressure has an adverse effect on learning. “Students have become motivated more externally than intrinsically in this transition,” he said. “When students only are taking math to get a good grade on the SAT or taking calculus because they need it for college, they are missing the joy and the beauty of calculus. And that creates stress, and stress gets in the way of education.

No one I know believes that Urban students are truly vapid, aimless, or ruthlessly competitive. There are traces of the “excellent sheep” mentality here – résumé stacking, grade-related stress, perfectionism – but students are genuinely curious. The pressure that Deresiewicz describes is more a matter of external demands consuming time that is better spent elsewhere. The sheer number of commitments overwhelms the pleasure that we should take in each one, and leaves scant time for kids to simply be kids.

Nelson told a story that encapsulated our education system’s misdirected energy: “I had a student five or ten years ago who was a very accomplished student and a very accomplished athlete. Good soccer player. And I said one day, ‘Do you like playing soccer? Do you love soccer?’ She said, ‘Nobody’s ever asked me that question.’ ”

While our school is not immune from the pressure of the outside world, Ruth, the academic dean, told me that it “does a really good job of having its curriculum be driven by what we think is most important for students, instead of these external factors.”

One way it does this is the structure of our schedule. Ruth said, “Our long class periods, and only four at a time, help anchor kids in those classes that they’re in, instead of feeling scattered all over the place.” Similarly, the depth over breadth curriculum encourages students to construct their own understanding. They explore different methods of solving math problems, approach scientific questions using different procedures, piece together arguments using historical sources, and exchange interpretations of literature in class discussions. Information isn’t simply regurgitated for a test.

This school also retains a great deal of curricular independence. Teachers conceive their own courses, rather than teaching to an AP test or following a textbook. Nelson spoke passionately about the math curriculum: “Our courses and pedagogy are almost entirely designed to teach students to think mathematically. It’s not results-oriented. We don’t do SAT-prep math. We’re not test-driven. We’re not externally driven.”

Urban recently began revealing letter grades at the end of each trimester, but its evaluations still deemphasize quantification. “We’re not giving the bucket grade on assignments that is the narrowest version of the narrowest description of how a student is doing. We give them much more complex rubrics and feedback,” Rein told me. Jonathan Howland pointed out how Urban eschews “superficial measures of worthiness and success” like academic prizes and class ranks.

An institution’s stated values are important, but it is teachers who determine the reality of each school day. And everyone I talked to believes, in the words of Evens, that Urban educators are “dedicated and passionate about what they do.” They are eager to both challenge and support their students. Emma Draisin (’18) wrote, “Every teacher I’ve had I believe wanted me to succeed.” And Nelson said that educators animate Urban’s core values: “Our teachers came to this school because they wanted to be at a school that deemphasized grades and competition and emphasized real learning.”

Urban’s diverse academic and extracurricular offerings attempt to nurture the whole self: “the athlete, the artist, the sibling, the citizen. Not just the mathematician,” in Nelson’s words. Flexible schedules allow students to take classes that excite them. Nontraditional learning is valued, too: community service, student-led clubs, the arts program, outdoor education. Evens told me that these things, along with depth of academic inquiry, construct an education that “connects with the soul of the student.” Skylar Baker wrote that an Urban education is not just academic, but social and emotional as well. Rein referred to it as “the fire that stays lit.”

Every teacher I spoke to avowed a deep commitment to the profound, ineffable idea of education. The dehumanizing pressure of conformity instead emanates from the broader culture and economy. Rein said that while Urban tries to fulfill its values, “we’re going against a huge tidal wave in the form of parental expectations, societal expectations, the system that we work within, which is a private school system where a lot of success is evaluated on the basis of where people go to college or how much money they end up making.”

No matter how progressive Urban’s philosophy is, it cannot shelter students from the pressures of adulthood. “People are going to graduate from college; they’re going to need to pay their rent. They’re going to need to clothe themselves. The material reality of the world is you need to take care of yourself,” Weatherspoon said. He believes that “there’s absolutely nothing Urban can do as a school to eliminate that pressure” except for instilling a sense of inner purpose. In the same vein, Rein told me, “We live in a capitalist world. I want some of our graduates to be able to participate in that and shift it and use that system in a way that’s beneficial and in adherence to their values. So we can’t graduate students who are cut off.”

Ruth, the academic dean, told me that Urban tries to “facilitate the external quantification of students without it taking over their lives.” The curriculum values depth over breadth, but grades are still given. The school offers test preparation and college counseling. It acknowledges that like it or not, selective admissions committees see calculus as a gatekeeper class. It’s a balancing act.

“We’re trying to be both the outstanding, academic, college-prep school and we’re trying to be the humanistic, human, caring, loving, nurturing Urban School,” said Nelson. “We put even more pressure on students than maybe a regular academic institution because we ask them to be good citizens. We ask them to think about values. … It’s a beautiful addition, but more is more.”

In Excellent Sheep, the college admissions process is described as the engine of the soul-crushing regimentation of childhood. So recently, I talked to Lauren Gersick, a college counselor here. She told me that in the beginning, the counselors “really try to break open what the definition of a good college is,” because they believe higher education should not be about fame or wealth or certain prestigious institutions.

“I always try to talk about the college process as the first step towards a post-academic life,” Gersick said. “It’s not a training ground for college; it’s a training ground for: How do you live your life as an ethical, engaged, intellectually committed, curious person? Life doesn’t stop. School does. So if you’re just working to get to Yale, of course you’re going to have some sort of existential crisis when you get into Yale. Because then you’ve arrived – now what?”

The choices students make during the college process aren’t really about skills or career or success. They’re about building a self. “All these outside agencies or forces can lend superficial meaning to your life, but really, you have to wake up with you every day,” Gersick told me. I asked her whether the deliberative reflection of the college process here dispels society’s lifeless, rigid definition of success. She replied, “We try really hard. We’re one office, and this is a whole culture in the United States.”

Photo: Olivia Meehan

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