Column #19, posted 11/4/03

Competition, Education, or Dedication?

This outrage is rather long, and for that I apologize in advance. But it is amusing I think and a great commentary on why education is the way it is.

I received an e-mail invitation (addressed to many alumni of Stuyvesant High School in New York City):

We would also like to invite you and other classmates to "Write One for the (SHS Centennial) Book", to be published by Roundtable Press in 2004, the 100th Anniversary of Stuyvesant HS, 1904-2004. 150 words preferable, about any aspect of your Stuyvesant experience. Please send to Neal Hurwitz. Thank you! Neal

I write on education all the time, as readers of this occasional column well know. As it happens, years before I started this column, on the occasion of my 25th high school reunion, the one and only reunion I have ever attended, I wrote down my views on Stuyvesant. I retrieved it from the archives and sent it to Neal. Neal, in turn, sent it to the publisher of the SHS Centennial Book:


here is a rather quirky piece I wrote after our 25th reunion; don't know that it fits

Thanks! and let's see... I like it a lot...
Dear Susan: My classmate Roger Schank '62 is at Carnegie Mellon West and is a nationally-known educator... innovator, etc. This is my era... and he tells it very well... from his point of view... Everyone should read Nick Lemann's The Big Test BTW... about ETS... Thanks, Neal

Here is what I wrote. After that is when the fun begins:

Competition or Bust
Roger C. Schank

I had never had any interest in attending any high school or college reunions before, but this was my twenty-fifth reunion, and I had gone to a very special high school. I began to wonder what had become of my classmates. There were very few specific people who I remembered, so I wasn't looking for long lost friends. Rather, I was wondering about education.

I graduated 322 in a class of 678 in 1962 from Stuyvesant High School. Stuyvesant is one of the two science high schools run by the City of New York. You must pass an entrance examination to get in, and, as a result, the school has only very bright, fairly well motivated, students. In short, it isn't your average public high school in New York, and, in 1962, when the children of the Sputnik era where graduating high school, a special science high school was a very attractive idea, and Stuyvesant was a very competitive place. It was tough to get in and tough, for kids who were used to being the best, to even be among the best. In fact, I have always felt that the competition and general level of intellectual intensity was higher at Stuyvesant than it was amongst my classmates at the college I attended, the other graduate students who went to graduate school with me, and even among the faculty members at the two universities where I have taught.

I didn't go back to Stuyvesant eagerly. I was curious, but also a little intimidated. I wasn't one of the winners in high school. I had not done especially well academically, or socially, or athletically. Things improved for me in all respects after high school, so I had no great love of Stuyvesant or any great need to go back. I didn't even have a need to show off my accomplishments because there was really no one who would remember me well enough to care.

I went to find out why high school had been so terrible for me and what had become of the kids who were successes in high school. I also went to try and understand something I had heard myself say a few months earlier. I had been thinking about moving to New York and the question of schools came up. A friend of mine suggested that Stuyvesant would be a good place for my daughter, that it was reputed to be as good as some of the private schools in the city. I was horrified and found myself saying that that was what we had come from and I had no intention of moving my family back where it had started. What did I mean? Did this child of lower middle class Brooklyn now believe that it was important to go to school with only upper class kids? I had to find out what I meant.

What we do at school

School ought to be a place where one goes to learn. That's simple to say and simple to believe. But, in fact, schools, for reasons both good and bad, are much more than just places to learn. They are also microcosms of future societies, where one encounters one's peers and begins the process of functioning with them that lasts, in one form or another, all one's life. The interaction that takes place has the potential to influence the rest of your life, in social and behavioral terms, since you learn how to relate to your peers and what works best for you.

The problem is in the competition. In some arenas of life, it is important to be competitive. When there is only so much meat, the strongest animal eats best. In times of limited resources, the ability to compete is quite important. Also, competition can bring out the best in you. I believe in competitive sports because one learns there to push oneself to one's limits under stressful situations, and that is a good skill to have.

But, education is not a sport and it is not a limited resource. Why then, the competition? The answer very simply is that the system is set up that way. Students in high school compete to get into Harvard and Yale. At Stuyvesant, we knew that Harvard and Yale would take a small number of us, maybe between five and fifteen apiece. But, there were over six hundred in our class. To win this competition, awards had to be won, top positions on teams and student government had to be won, the extra point on the exam had to be fought for, and, one had better figure out how to get 800 on the SAT's.

All this does not make for a healthy environment for learning. This was brought home to me as a kind of voice from the past when the current principal of Stuyvesant addressed the class of 1962 at its reunion. He told us that things had changed at Stuyvesant. Despite the fact that the gym we were standing in was exactly the same undersized, inadequate facility it always had been, but was still the only room where we all could meet, he was telling us of changes. What were the changes? Well, Stuyvesant was now the best high school in the city. No longer were our arch rivals from Bronx Science High School winning all the National Merit awards, Westinghouse awards, and science show awards. In my day we always lost to Bronx Science, but now Stuyvesant consistently won. What accounted for this marked change? What educational reforms had been instituted, what innovative teaching techniques, what motivational methods, what curriculum changes?

None it turned out. The explanation was far simpler, and although the principal didn't state it this way, he did make it quite clear to us what had happened. He began to talk about other changes that had taken place at Stuyvesant. He told us that Stuyvesant was not the "ethnically homogeneous place" that it had been in 1962. (That was his way of saying that it was no longer 95% Jewish.) He proudly announced that there were students from every ethnic background, and he read out statistics that made it clear that the largest ethnic group at Stuyvesant was now Chinese.

A moment of thought about the changing population of New York and the habitats and social advancement of various ethnic groups made it clear why Stuyvesant now was beating Bronx Science. In 1962, Bronx Science was located in the middle of a middle class Jewish area. Today, these families live outside New York City. Stuyvesant on the other hand is a short distance from Chinatown. The Chinese are very competitive and believe strongly in education as did the Jewish students. Stuyvesant was beating Bronx Science because they had more Chinese students and because Bronx Jews now live in Scarsdale.

This principal, I would assume, is seen as doing well because his school is doing well. Other principals of other schools, who are on the wrong side of migration patterns and class mobility amongst ethnic groups, are considered to be bad principals because their schools don't do as well in the school to school competition in SAT tests, etc.

And what does this tell you about Stuyvesant as a school? It makes clear that what was valued, and what is still valued, is winning in the academic competition. The goal isn't learning, it's winning.

The problem of course, is very simple. It actually is possible for everybody to learn. Knowledge is not a scarce resource. There isn't only one piece of knowledge that we must fight over to see who gets it. Knowledge can be shared without giving up any piece of it. Knowledge is not meat.

The True Villain

The real villain in education is naturally whoever causes the competition in the first place. The true villain is Harvard. (Well, I couldn't say it was Yale now could I?) As it turns out, one of the victims is also Harvard (and the students who go there.)

What happens to all these students who have won the competition and get admitted to Harvard and Yale? Do they now become serious learners who become interested in learning, abandoning their prior obsession with the competition for grades? Of course not. They continue to behave in college as they did in high school. Is this bad? Well, if you are interested in education it is. Teachers who have to struggle with unmotivated students or dull students envy teachers at Harvard and Yale. How wonderful it must be to teach bright eager students.

I am sure that Yale is more satisfying to teach at than an inner city high school in terms of intellectual content, but in terms of motivation it's another story. There are, of course, many exceptions to what I am about to say, but it is generally true that a Yale professor must devise ways to get his students to learn that go around the instincts of the students. In other words, the game for a professor is to get students to think in spite of their own instincts and experience that tell them that grades are the issue, not thoughts.

Given the opportunity, a Yale student will, on average, spend time using his intelligence to figure out how to get an A without doing the real work of the course and without thinking, rather than spend the same time thinking and exploring. Once you are grade-oriented in your thinking, it is difficult to stop thinking that way.

This issue actually comes up with graduate students all the time. Quite often a student who is working on his PhD will complain to me about a B he received. What difference does it make, I reply? These students have been getting good grades so systematically all their lives (that is, after all, how you get into the Yale Graduate School), that they have forgotten why they were doing it. Students need good grades to get accepted by the next academic institution they apply to, and by employers after college. But a PhD is the end of the line. There are no more institutions that will look at their transcripts. Employers of people with PhD's never look at grades because recommendations and publications are far more relevant.

Once a graduate student realizes this, unfortunately, it does not change his life. Sometimes it liberates him, but more often it refocuses the competition elsewhere, such as on getting the professor under whom he is working to like him better than the other graduate students he has. Once a competitor always a competitor, I suppose.

My argument then is that the winners are also the losers, so to speak. Once you win the grade competition in high school, you learn to ask what is expected of you and to do it. This causes Yale students to obsess on knowing what will be on the exam and what exactly is required. Open-ended assignments are feared and exploration without clear grade rewards is a mere hope of a naive professor. So, while the best Yale undergraduates will indeed get into medical and law schools, they may never learn to think, or, to put this another way, school will have not taught them to think. School will have taught them to win by carefully following the rules, not a lesson one necessarily wants one's future leaders to buy.

Naturally, the winners are not the only losers. The losers are also the losers, and in the obvious way. Losing makes one want to quit. And, in fact, that was what was so frightening about my reunion. Out of 678 students, we had 600 losers, maybe more. Even the guy who graduated number 2 must have felt himself to be a loser. People have enough problems of self-worth without beating out almost every other high school student in the City of New York and still feeling like you had lost.

And what became of all these losers? It seemed to me, that most of them had accepted mediocrity and learned to live with it. They had, for the most part, become doctors and lawyers and accountants and teachers and computer programmers. So, in most people's terms they had won. They earned a good living after all. But these were the smartest kids in a very big city who grew up in an era of tremendous prosperity. Where were the tremendous successes that so many of them had expected as they started Stuyvesant High School in 1959? Their possible success was killed off early when the thrill of learning was replaced by the agony of competition.

Neal wrote the following comment on the piece and sent it to other alumni:

Roger does "miss" the main point about Bx Science being #2 now: they became second to Stuy when Stuy admitted girls!!!

The Stuy of the pre- 1970 era is not the same school as the "modern era"... and that is important to me and others for the Book...

Also: as Roger says, the Jews did go to Scarsdale and private schools... which is why we need to hear lots from the new Jewish immigrants in the Book... and the school is almost 50% Asian-American, yes?... I would say that the old school was Jewish-Italian-other 1904-1930s and then more and more Jewish (85%) and by the 70's a new deal... This corresponds with increasing Jewish affluence, moving out of the City (we have less than 1,000,000 Jews in NYC now for the first time in years!--and that is half of the previous high, yes?)

The other person from '62 who "must" be in the book (I have asked him) is Richard Rabinowitz, Pres of American History Workshop, and a Stuy parent... head of ARISTA... the best of the best.

Almost immediately, I was sent a copy of a response that was sent to Neal by the head of ARISTA (the national high school honor society) who was in my graduating class. This is what he wrote:

Neal and others:

I don’t want this reply to be my contribution to the Centennial book, but I thought that Roger Schank’s piece was so misdirected that it deserved some comment. It happens that I did very well at Stuyvesant and went to Harvard and did very well there, and then went on and got a Harvard PhD with an award-winning dissertation. At which point I abandoned academic life for good. Like Roger, I felt that Stuyvesant was intellectually the most challenging educational experience of my life.

I loved the dorm room and dining hall conversations at Harvard but I didn’t think the curriculum or the pedagogy there was particularly inspired, and I did not encourage my son (Stuy ‘88) to go there. When I went back to Cambridge for my 35th reunion two years ago, I spent 28 hours in a continuous conversation with my five roommates and loved the chance to share that time so intimately again. We didn’t even introduce ourselves to any of the other reunioners and did not attend any of the official functions.

My Harvard roommates are all men of accomplishment, but in their late 50’s they are mostly characterized, I think, by a surprising inner peace. They aren’t necessarily the leaders in their respective fields; some have jumped from one kind of work to another; several have been divorced; one is going through a long, drawn-out struggle with cancer. But the great gift they seem to have derived from their Harvard undergraduate education was simply never having had to justify it. It relieved them of an anxiety about intellectual status and that apparently left them free to pursue somewhat eccentric career paths. They have nothing in common with Roger’s stereotype of the competitive student. Furthermore, I don’t think they (or I) ever did.

I worked extremely hard in high school but, frankly, I don’t recall any pressures to be competitive. I came from a family where neither parent had completed high school, and my only sibling had not gone to college. I had never been to a Broadway play, a classical music concert beyond the walls of my school’s auditorium, a ballet, or the opera. I had been to the Metropolitan Museum exactly once, as a 7th-grader researching a school assignment.

Stuyvesant was replete with blessings for me. I loved the conversations in my home room, a particularly intense group of young intellectuals. (Remember that even within SHS we were homogeneously grouped as entering sophomores.) But the grand thing of Stuyvesant for me in 1959-62 was its invitation to the city. The 4th Avenue bookstores, and the coffeehouses on McDougal Street, and the NYC Ballet at the City Center, and Shaw and Strindberg at the burgeoning Off Broadway theaters. Our English teacher, Mrs. Baron, God bless her soul forever, got us tickets for Broadway shows at $1 each, and I went about four times a week for two years. Though my mother is still at 87 one of the greatest cooks in the history of the US, I didn’t eat dinner at home for months on end during the school week. (Bickfords’ hot plate for 79¢!)

I worked astonishingly hard. I had to sneak into the 42nd Street Library to do research for a paper on the Negro character in American drama (high school students were forbidden to use the research collections), for Mrs. Baron’s class, during hundreds of afternoons, and I kept working on the paper all through senior year until it grew to 300 pages. On Saturdays I schlepped up to Harlem to continue my research at the old Schomburg collection on 135th Street. I went to Brooklyn College at night during our senior year. And I had a job hauling cartons to earn some of the spending money all of this activity cost.

I did more than what was expected because I somehow learned at Stuyvesant that there was a world of learning and intellectual and aesthetic joy beyond the requirements of the classroom, and that was the world I wanted to inhabit. (Of course, I knew it was also a path to upward social mobility, to get beyond the painful experiences of my parents’ generation.) By the time I got to Cambridge in the fall of 1962 I felt that I was way ahead of all the students coming from Andover and Exeter. They, after all, had wasted their adolescence in small New England towns, while I’d had the romp of the Big Apple.

At Harvard I had a pretty mediocre freshman year until I began to see the courses as a chance to explore really interesting stuff for my own benefit, and then, perhaps miraculously, my grades improved. I worked my tail off on a senior thesis about Melville and American psychology, and I was frankly shocked when it was awarded a summa, so unconscious had I been about competing. Competing with whom? With all the scholars working on Melville?

So, I think Roger is wrong to attribute such narrow motivation to students who, in his terms, “win.” I was not number 2 at Stuyvesant but I certainly did not think of myself as a loser, or envious of the people who were ahead of me. If he is bothered by the principal who stresses the numbers of achievers in the current crop of students, rather than the joy of disinterested learning, that is no reason to believe that everyone imbibes that ethos. To be sure, I have always wanted to be “recognized,” though I’ve ironically chosen many paths in my life which insure that nobody is noticing what I’m doing most of the time. But that’s not the same thing as being competitive.

One concluding tale: Many years ago I was invited to a dinner with Alistair McIntyre, the noted British moral philosopher. Over the port and cigars, he announced that “the great English public schools [by which he meant independent schools like Eton and Harrow] were the most democratic educational institutions in the world!” Astonished, all of us looked agape, and he reasoned, “They take children of the most indifferent mental faculties, and after eight or nine years, they are fully competent in Latin and Greek, and maths to the level of calculus.”

Of course, that is what we should be aiming for. Trusting our students, loving them enough to give them our most profound confidence in their capacity to learn, and then sustaining them through all the trials of childhood and adolescence and early adulthood, so that they can burn brightly with the love of learning. Sara Baron did that for me, and Sylvia Brody did, and Henry Jacob, and I will never forget them. If we could make everyone feel as competent and confident as my Harvard roommates, of course, we would all be much enriched. When I taught at Harvard in the late 1960s, I gave all my students “A’s” and then expected them to figure out a way of “earning” it, or feeling as though they did. One or two (of twenty) let themselves down, but I got some amazing results from the others. That’s my experience. (There’s more than a whiff of this, I realize, in Garrison Keillor’s home town, where all children are above average.)

I love our reunions at Stuyvesant. I can’t for the life of me remember more than two or three of these people as teenagers but I love them as adults. They have worked across the dangerous terrains of their lives and still they come back to SHS to share their adolescent silliness and vulnerability. It’s the least competitive environment I know. And I haven’t met any of them who’ve “accepted their mediocrity,” which is of course absurd.

Roger’s argument seems to reduce all students, successful or not, to one-dimensional reflections of the educational system they encounter, as if all that students do is to internalize the judgments and system of judging put forth by their schools and colleges. I think that is profoundly unfair and simplistic. Schools are just not that powerful as totalistic institutions -- and totalistic institutions, as we have come to learn in studies of the Holocaust or of chattel slavery, are never that effective in destroying human autonomy.


Of course, I responded:


For someone who is not very competitive, I quote the following:

  • It happens that I did very well at Stuyvesant and went to Harvard and did very well there, and then went on and got a Harvard PhD with an award-winning dissertation.
  • I worked extremely hard in high school.
  • I worked astonishingly hard.
  • I kept working on the paper all through senior year until it grew to 300 pages.
  • I did more than what was expected.
  • I knew it was also a path to upward social mobility, to get beyond the painful experiences of my parents’ generation.
  • By the time I got to Cambridge in the fall of 1962 I felt that I was way ahead of all the students coming from Andover and Exeter.
  • I worked my tail off on a senior thesis about Melville and American psychology, and I was frankly shocked when it was awarded a summa, so unconscious had I been about competing.
  • I have always wanted to be “recognized”...
I was a professor for 35 years, 15 of them at Yale. I knew hundreds of students like you. If you are happy with your life, who am I to object? But, for everyone like you there are thousands unhappy with working their tails off in the way your describe. You may not remember me from high school but I remember you. In order to get into Harvard or Yale a student must accept that the tests are right in what they require one to know and the teachers are right in whatever they ask of you. Harvard and Yale are full of good kids who asked what was expected of them and then did it. I find this sad. It is sad because many smart kids choose to go their own way. They object to memorizing the quadratic formula because someone said they should. It is also sad because the education we provide to the average child uses the same criteria, making others feel like failures who simply should not have been forced to learn algebra or read Melville in the first place.
Richard responded to my response as follows:

It’s clear (but bizarre to me) that you regard every evidence of dedication to work as evidence of competition. My point was precisely that one could work quite hard without regarding oneself as being in a competition with one’s fellows. On what ground do you know what motivates all these Harvard and Yale (or Carnegie) students, or that all kids but the number one kid feel themselves to be losers? I think that you’re dead wrong to say that “In order to get into Harvard or Yale a
student must accept that the tests are right in what they require one to know and the teachers are right in whatever they ask of you.” The kids who went to Harvard with me from Stuyvesant were a truly diverse lot; one had written several operas; another had done a lot of volunteer work in a medical research facility. Another was Al Lopez, who had pretty much brought himself up on the streets of NY without a family to support him. One was the captain of our football team and a terrifically thoughtful guy (who quit football after a semester in Cambridge). None of them, I think, were chiefly distinguished by a knee-jerk respect for the authority of the academic system.

Of course, Roger, the obvious question raised by your essay is how a person so defeated, so accepting of his mediocrity, so hurt by the competitive system around him, comes to achieve a Distinguished Professorship at a major American university. How is it that, withal your difficulties with the system, you have found yourself so triumphant within it? And how is it that I, despite what you would ascribe to me as an obsequious obedience to the ruling authorities of high school and college, have found my own vocation entirely outside the institutional world? People and their educational experiences are more complicated than you acknowledge.

Perhaps you’re thinking of yourself in describing the “smart kids who go their own way.” Fine. Have you been stymied by your independent streak? Did it really cancel out your prospects for advancement? If you were not speaking of yourself, then we are missing your own personal account and I hope you will help us understand how such early defeat can be overcome. If you were, then you’ve left us a mystery and a self-contradiction. I take your success as evidence that all of us have the capacity to come alive to learning at some point in our lives, some earlier and some later, some in one area and some in others. And I take great pleasure in your success, as another instance of the human ability to be surprising. It also adds to my wonder at the complexity of Stuyvesant during our time there.


And, then I responded:
I am concerned with the educational system and what it does to people; I was not writing about myself; I was not defeated by high school merely bored by it; if you wish to know about me or my history feel free to type my name into any search engine -- I am a well known figure; you miss the point however; of course Harvard accepts extraordinary people who have worked very hard (or tries to - many students at Yale are simply quite average in my experience - not the ones who went to places like Stuyvesant of course); you accept that as a criterion and I don't; but I don't care who Harvard accepts; I care about all those people who are getting the message that if you don't behave the way you and your friends did you will not succeed; the high school system is a disaster; the last people who would see this are its successes; and yes, working the way you did in high school is indeed an act of competition, although with what or with whom you were (and are) competing is no business of mine; most people would be astonished and perplexed by a student who wrote a 300 page paper on Melville in high school; you may see this as dedicated but I suspect others might have a different take on it


It is all so sad really. For every one student like Richard there are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands who have a different take on what school should provide and what their reaction to what it provides should be. There are always those who accept whatever game they are told to play and then try as hard as possible to win. Unfortunately, as I said in my essay, this is a good attitude for sports, not for learning.

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