Assailing the “Brick Tower”

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.”

See the article here and read Justin’s speech as a PDF there. Read comments (including mine) here.  I would love to have your comments.

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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 Assailing the “Brick Tower”

  1. BP says:

    I also applaud him. It leads to a deeper discussion about opportunity and preparedness. Is the test a true measure of intelligence/diversity in the city. No. But is that their goal? Do they want the brightest balanced with diversity? Their goal may be get the best and brightest. It’s a measure of a persons ability at a point and time. What it actually does is shines a light on the lack of diversity of education resources in the city… the opportunity and resources to people who are under represented cultures at the school. Money gives opportunity. Money is going to be in the school districts where more affluent people pay taxes. That’s where police protection and services are as well. It’s the opposite of more impoverished neighborhoods where the schools and services (hospitals) will follow suit.

    What do you fix? Make the school change it’s practices for admission or do you increase the opportunity and education resources to the kids from grades 1-6 wherever it is sub par in the city?

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