The New York Times has a very interesting and powerful article today about a controversy at Hunter College High School in New York, an “elite” school for “gifted” students. In his graduation speech, senior Justin Hudson challenged his peers and the school to look beyond the results of a single test taken for admission to Hunter (the only criterion) and address the larger issues facing them. He said,
I feel guilty because I don’t deserve any of this. And neither do any of you. We received an outstanding education at no charge based solely on our performance on a test we took when we were eleven year olds, or four year olds. We received superior teachers and additional resources based on our status as “gifted”, while kids who naturally needed those resources much more than us wallowed in the mire of a broken system. And now, we stand on the precipice of our lives, in control of our lives, based purely and simply on luck and circumstance. If you truly believe that the demographics of Hunter represent the distribution of intelligence in this city, then you must believe that the Upper West Side, Bayside and Flushing are intrinsically more intelligent than the South Bronx, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington Heights, and I refuse to accept that.
It’s his understanding that the educational system is broken that hits hardest. He knows that the lifeboats have rescued him and his peers (Justin is black, by the way, a distinct minority at Hunter College High School, in a city where 70% of high school students are black.) but is acutely aware that many others who were equally likely to benefit from Hunter’s advantages were never able to climb aboard themselves. Like the Titanic’s, our educational lifeboats are too few and our hubris, assuming we don’t really need more, is condemning the rest of the passengers to an icy and lonely demise.
If you believe in educating people at all, you must believe that everyone has the potential to be educated, and that there is no way to quantify or derive an “absolute value” of intelligence in a way that allows us to separate the sheep from the goats academically. Yes, people have different capacities and inclinations, but education means giving everyone the opportunity to create their own futures, not separating them on the basis of one test. Ultimately, we should want to change a system that perpetuates the idea that an easily recognizable “elite” can benefit from all the best it has to offer while the rest can just fend for itself. It’s got nothing to do with “competitiveness” or “creating a workforce” and everything to do with our humanity. As Jonathan Kozol writes, “Childhood is not merely basic training for utilitarian adulthood. It should have some claims upon our mercy, not for its future value to the economic interests of competitive societies but for its present value as a perishable piece of life itself.”