Our Modern Choices: Engineered or Free-Range Kids?

A recent post on the NACAC listserv was shocking in its obtuseness and demonstrates how blind many of us have become as we supposedly try to be of service to students. The request to fellow listers was as follows:

I am working on college planning with two intellectually bright high school juniors who are very unmotivated about preparing for an SAT test. They come from very high income families and their parents have hired very expensive individual SAT tutors. I personally know that their tutors relate well to high school students and have remarkable records for helping students to significantly improve their SAT scores. These two students are extremely resistant about seeing the tutors on a regular basis and doing outside practice assignments. I have reviewed the student’s PSAT scores with each student and their parents, and the students have ideas about colleges they would like to apply to—and could easily be realistic–with SAT scores that are somewhat higher than their PSAT scores. Learning and emotional disabilities, and ADD have been ruled out. I see the above situation as more of a parent/discipline issue rather than a college planning issue, but at the same time would be most appreciative of any suggestions for getting these students more motivated.

To summarize: Two “intellectually bright” juniors from “high income” families are “unmotivated” about spending time prepping for the SAT with “very expensive” tutors. This resistance led initially to worries that they had “learning or emotional disabilities” or attention deficit disorder. The family is desperately seeking ways to get these non-conformists to submit to SAT prep.

Has it come to this? Are students who prefer not to waste their time on SAT prep now threatened, like refuseniks, with being branded as mentally unstable? Are they to be diagnosed by “experts” who classify them as unbalanced because of their refusal to submit to the idiocy of test prep? Has the execrable advice of writers like Judith Wissner-Gross, which basically demands that students be engineered by their parents for college (and not just any college, damn it!) from the time they can fill in a test bubble, finally taken over the college process? Will we start sending these nonconformists to testing gulags where they are re-educated to embrace the charms of the College Board?

I cheer these “intellectually bright” students and hope they get some support from the testing underground, which will provide them with safe haven and copies of “The Origin of Species,” “Huckleberry Finn,” Mozart’s piano concertos, and “The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit,” to get them through this trying period in their lives. (To find out more about the testing underground, go to any public library and get lost in the stacks near the Byzantine history section. They’ll find you.) If I were a college, I’d admit them right now simply for their audacity.

Contrast this insidious effort to “re-educate” these smart kids with an amazing story that appeared in today’s Chicago Tribune. It is the story of two parents who sent six kids to Northern Illinois University, all of whom went on to receive Ph.D.s and all of whom are now leaders in their fields. How did this happen? What music did Mrs. Sereno (for that is her name) play to those babies in her womb? What tapes or tutors or special schools did she drive her kids to so that they would rise into the world of genius? How often did she drill them in their cribs to know their timestables and the capitals of the world? How many summer programs did she enroll them in? Did she write a book telling me how to do it all? Most important, how did she teach them to get past all the stupid kids who stood in their way to success? (One child, Paul, is a world-famous paleontologist at the University of Chicago who has contributed vast amounts of knowledge to the field; his brothers and sisters are all neurological researchers working for universities in England, Scotland, Oregon, Texas, and Kansas.)

Mrs. Sereno’s diabolical plan amounts to this: “We encouraged the idea that learning was exciting…I know how butterflies have sex, because we made a mating chamber for them so the kids could see all the stages of moth and butterfly life. We had slime mold growing upstairs. We had art in the house and a kiln for firing pottery. They all played instruments, though only two of them had any talent. I wanted my kids to go out and have their own adventures, to learn to fly on their own.” So, her children were what we might call “free-range” kids, with plenty of support from mom and dad. There was lots of give and take, plenty of love, and what sounds like a happy chaos encircling the family.

Paul did not do well in high school and in elementary school teachers wanted to hold him back. Perhaps he was like one of those intelligent kids who know instinctively that SAT prep, endless worksheets and things like them are gigantic wastes of time and antithetical to everything that makes education interesting. As he says in the article, “I didn’t do well with the structured way things are taught in school. I liked the more free-form, hands-on way of learning, like we did at home.” Imagine that! Kids trying to learn on their own! Running around as their curiosity and interest lead them!

It scares people now when kids are like that–there’s no way to measure “outcomes,” no number that can be used to sum up progress, no “metrics” to gauge how each step is evaluated. You sort of have to leave things to chance, inspiration, and a love of learning (which test prep decidedly is not) and that’s never going to get your kids into the Ivy League! They might end up at Northern Illinois, for God’s sake! And then what would happen to them!!!!!

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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One Response to Our Modern Choices: Engineered or Free-Range Kids?

  1. Shelley says:

    Will, there are lots of people in education who feel, as you do, that we need to work to support students’ love of learning. There are plenty of parents for whom that’s a top priority as well. The challenge is helping folks find other like-minded souls so that we can help move our schools forward. I’m following Scott McLeod, Will Richardson, and Steve Hargadon (among others!) on these issues; who are the folks you’d recommend learning from?

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