Go, change the world

-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE
-- ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

The school you go to does not matter - education is less about a school than what you make of it

The final issue of our East Chapel Hill High School student newspaper, the Echo, carried last week a centrespread naming every graduating senior - and where they were headed to next year.

I thought that was a little brutal.

Beside most of the 400-plus names was the name of an institution. Basically, it was the unofficial list of the academically successful and less successful in the school.

A big group of seniors will go to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, as well as other schools in the state system, but there was a healthy array of other destinations: from kids taking gap years and doing service projects to those headed to community colleges, military academies, and tiny liberal arts colleges that I had never heard of.

And yet, what caught the eye of some people?

"One is going to Stanford, one to Yale, two to Harvard, one to Princeton," announced one of my children, who clearly had perused the list closely.

How about the sprinkling of names with Undecided, Army or Work next to them? Well, that means they didn't get in anywhere. Apparently.

I thought there should have been an option for None of Your (Unprintable Word) Business.

I suppose not everyone would disapprove as much as I. Most kids - and their parents - would be happy and excited about graduating and starting the next phase of life.

But I thought when we left Singapore, we'd left the overweening emphasis on academic achievement behind.

And yet I am starting to hear a lot about this school and that school, and how this school is "better" than that one, usually because it is ranked more highly in a publication such as the US News and World Report.

It is not as intense as in Singapore, but there is a similar pressure in Chapel Hill to get good grades so you can get into a good school. It can become a kind of tunnel vision that shuts out all other possibilities. While naming every senior is arguably to celebrate his or her achievement, it can also be grist to the mill of those who are inclined to compare.

Don't misunderstand me. I want my children to go as far in their education as they can. More than that, I want them to dream passionately and chase their dreams fearlessly, to live life to its fullest. If going to a top school could help them achieve that, we'd be right behind them.

But I doubt this is always the case. There will be some children who thrive under stress and some who will wilt in that kind of a hothouse, but blossom in a less competitive, more nurturing place that gives them the space to grow and test themselves. A good fit is surely more important than getting into the most highly ranked school that will take you.

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni addresses just that issue in his book, Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, about what he calls the college admissions mania that befalls a certain privileged demographic in the American population.

Bruni (who went to the University of North Carolina) says the prestigious schools such as the Ivies are getting harder and harder to get into, mainly because more students are applying, both domestically and from overseas. Colleges don't mind, however, because the lower their admittance rate, the higher their ranking.

The fallout is a whole lot of dejection and sense of failure among the vast numbers who are not chosen.

You could understand why if an Ivy League education were a prelude to success.

But when Bruni looked at where the CEOs of the top 10 companies in the Fortune 500 got their undergraduate degrees, he found only one Ivy League school, Dartmouth College. These are the highest revenue-grossing corporations in America, such as Walmart, Exxon Mobil, Chevron, Berkshire Hathaway, Apple and so on.

The other nine went to the University of Arkansas; the University of Texas; the University of California, Davis; the University of Nebraska; Auburn; Texas A&M; the General Motors Institute (now Kettering University); the University of Kansas and the University of Missouri - St Louis.

Expanding his search to the leaders of the top 100 companies, he found a diverse distribution, with about 30 going to elite institutions, a handful going to well- regarded state universities, and about 40 who attended less well-known schools, foreign schools or never even went at all.

It seems there is no need to get hung up on the idea of a prestigious school as the gateway to success.

In any case, many of us in Singapore were spared for a long time the agony of choosing. If you could not afford to go overseas, there really was just the National University of Singapore.

But the winds of change have been blowing, first in the acknowledgement of the many pathways to success, and second in the growing number of those pathways being provided so that as many children will succeed as possible.

Time will tell if these will bring about the corresponding change in mindset. Watching some highly competent young people forging new paths to an enthusiastic reception at the SEA Games, I think it might.

What I don't wish is for my kids to realise that education is less about a school than what they make of it only years later. Would it were every child would know NOW they are not a failure if they are rejected by their top choices or, its corollary, a success if they are accepted.

There are some who do know, or try to. In a discussion in the back seat of my car about school pressure, a 15-year-old mentioned how her mum had gone to a top-notch liberal arts college and her dad to a school that was not as good, but that he had gone on to business school and made savvy investments that freed him to do what he really liked, which was to teach yoga.

What happens after college, the others agreed, is the important thing.

Yesterday, the graduating class of East Chapel Hill High ushered in a new beginning by ending a chapter. My children have a few years before their turn, but I doubt they will hear as pithy a graduation speech as the one their principal gave at the end of middle school some years before.

For both their cohorts, he gave the same advice. "Now, go change the world," he told those 13-year-olds.

I hope they were, all of them, listening.

sharonl@sph.com.sg