Tiger Moms, Drop-Outs, and Credentialism (oh my!)

Now here’s a controversial news item: Peter Thiel, famous for having founded PayPal and investing early in facebook, and now a billionaire, is paying young entrepreneurs to drop out of school. His Thiel Foundation has just named 24 “fellows” under 20 who are recipients of $100 000 and mentoring opportunities with high-powered and successful entrepreneurs in order to launch a profitable initiative. They are all drop-outs (of college or high school), a requirement for the prize.

His logic is that many would-be students of elite schools would be better off going right out into the world to generate “significant wealth,” rather than learn about the theories behind what others have said and done and invented. And while I would never blindly advocate that anyone drop out of school, given the prevailing societal opinion about education and the very real value of exposure to new ways of thinking, his initiative is perhaps a useful antidote to those who do blindly advocate more schooling as the solution to all of society’s ills. Education is a wonderful thing – I would even say that it is the key to solving many of the world’s great scourges, such as intolerance, authoritarianism, and the solid grip of misinformation. In a way, Thiel is saying that it is the ideas and the work behind them to make them successful that counts, not the name of one’s alma mater (or even the existence of one).

Credentialism – in the form of collecting degrees and designations from acclaimed institutions – has become a powerful shorthand for measuring societal status. It is iron-clad in an aura of meritocracy, because in theory only the best are able and would choose to obtain a degree or three at the world’s (and especially America’s) finest educational institutions. But, as with all shorthands, a focus on credentials alone as a stand-in for intellectual or societal worth fails is insufficient and at times unfair.

The education situation in many developed countries is drastic. Every year, millions of the world’s best students vie for a place in one of the mere hundreds of top institutions, trying to best each other in any way possible. A recent issue of the Atlantic explores the phenomenon in depth as part of an extended look at the “tiger mom” debate brought about by the now-infamous book by Amy Chua (there is a good write-up on it here, in case you live under a rock and missed it). Much of the furore over the book was caused by the implicit challenge of Chua’s winner-take-all style of parenting. In refusing to give in to her daughters’ tears, frustration, exhaustion, and in some cases disturbing behaviour (biting the piano?), Chua claims she paved the way to their happiness by allowing them to know what they were capable of.  More recently, her eldest daughter’s acceptance to Harvard has renewed the wave of anxious hang-wringing by “Western” parents who think they aren’t pushing their children hard enough to get into good schools and assure their futures.

But are the hours of heartache, rebellions and tooth marks on family instruments worth it? Is pushing a child to his or her limit, encouraging activities like building orphanages in Africa, chairing the local youth orchestra, and volunteering as an assistant surgeon on weekends in order to secure a spot at the Ivies the key to lifelong success and happiness? Is it even likely to yeild a coveted admission letter? Not really, according to what Caitlin Flanigan writes in response to Chua’s book:

Elite-college admissions offices drive professional-class parents crazy because in many respects they do not operate as meritocracies. Consider, for example, those students admitted via one of the two programs that stand as strange mirror opposites: those that give preferential treatment to the sons and daughters of alumni, and those that extend it to the children of unrepresented minorities. The latter practice suggests that generations of injustice and prejudice can be redressed by admission to a fancy college, the former that generations of inclusion and privilege demand their own special prize; the two philosophies would seem to cancel one another out, but each has its place in the larger system.

In fact, when you account for all of the “hooked” seats in the freshman class—spaces specifically set aside for kids who have some kind of recruited talent or family connection or who come from an underrepresented minority group—you accomplish, at the most selective colleges, two things: you fill a large percentage of the class (some researchers believe the figure is as high as 60 percent), and you do so with kids whose average grades and scores are significantly lower than your ideal. Now it’s time to swing a meritocracy into place; the caliber of the class is at stake. All of the unhooked students are now going to be thrown into a hypercompetitive pool, the likes of which the layperson can’t imagine. As daunting as the median grades and test scores of the typical Princeton admittee may appear, those statistics have taken into account all of the legacies and volleyball players and rich people’s children who pushed the averages down.

Sounds terrifying, doesn’t it? And what’s more, there is a growing pile of literature that argues it isn’t worth it. These days, people go to university for four main reasons:

  1. To attain practical/vocational knowledge that will tangibly help them get a job.
  2. To attain theoretical or other knowledge that will expand their minds in an area of interest.
  3. To please their parents/society/employers who consider a post-secondary education to be a mandatory status symbol. The better the reputation of the school, the better the status symbol.
  4. To make connections with peers and professors.

The main benefits of a “top-tier” education, as opposed to one from a large public American or Canadian school, lie in the last two, status and connections. Sharing a room with a future Mark Zuckerberg or getting to vacation on the yachts of the rich and famous must be worth the price of admission, right?

William D. Cohan thinks not, writing in the New York Times that getting into an Ivy League school is a “Pyrrhic victory,” with the outcome of having monstrous student debts (from $50 000+ per year fees) and only slight better-than-average job prospects in a glum economy. Many other American schools have astronomical fees, and even relatively cheap Canadian educations place graduates in debt. There is also, as I referred to above, the non-monetary cost of an education at a prestigious school. Whole families are swept up in the hyper-competitive race to the top, where lazy summer vacations and boredom and play are replaced with summer volunteer trips to Kenya, SAT prep courses, and the endless repetition of mastering a musical instrument.

But the saddest part is that it may all be for naught. A sister article in the same Atlantic issue as the above quotation charts the potential life course of many products of tiger-led households:

Harangued by my own Tiger Dad, I grew up believing in crack math skills and followed—at least initially—a stereotypical Chinese path of acing my tests; getting into the world’s most prestigious science university, Caltech (early admission, no less); majoring in the hardest, most rarefied subject, physics … And then what? Almost 50 years old now, some 30 years after graduation, I look at my Caltech classmates and conclude that math whizzes do not take over the world. The true geniuses—the artists of the scientific world—may be unlocking the mysteries of the universe, but the run-of-the-mill really smart overachievers like me? They’re likely to end up in high-class drone work, perfecting new types of crossword-puzzle-oriented screen savers or perhaps (really) tweaking the computer system that controls the flow in beer guns at Applebee’s. As we know, in this tundra-like new economy, even medical degrees, and especially law degrees, may translate into $250,000 of unrecoverable higher-education debt and no job prospects, despite any amount of hard work and discipline.

The reality, of course, is that there is life after graduation, and I imagine that a lot of students and parents who sacrifice their lives perfecting their viola performance and polishing their resumes will get there and wonder what the hell happened — and what to do next. The same is true for all graduates who feel lost after school, and who may have underplayed their social and entrepreneurial skills in favour of tailoring their lives to academic pursuits that will not help them once they have their degrees. And so I support Peter Thiel’s initiative because it addresses the fact that it takes more than a few letters from any school to achieve success in life.

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2 Responses to Tiger Moms, Drop-Outs, and Credentialism (oh my!)

  1. James says:

    Well said. Another result of the blind pursuit of prestigious degrees is education inflation: The market winds up replete with credentialed job-seekers, diminishing the value of a degree to the extent that it becomes price-of-entry for middle-tier jobs. That’s why a Caltech graduate is tuning the taps at Applebee’s — I’m sure the task is not using his abilities to their fullest potential, but if jobs that would challenge his cohort are in short supply, it becomes feasible to hire a certified whiz to do something intellectually menial. Employers prefer the most qualified applicant, so as soon as the market is suffused with people willing to do work that’s below them, remaining competitive means being the most overqualified. Eventually, an MIT magna cum laude could become the standard for a job, when a correspondence course from DeVry would do.

  2. Kathryn Exon Smith says:

    Exactly right, James. The intense competition among many to get into a limited number of great schools just continues up the chain past graduation and into the job market.

    I also endorse the entrepreneurial idea because, really, very few people are handed their dream jobs in life. Some may work very hard for a very long time before realizing that dream jobs don’t exist as they had thought — or not anymore, or it really isn’t what they wanted in the first place. If you want a dream job, you have to create it.

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