Public transportation is an incubator for observations and revelations. At least it is for me.

This morning on the train, I listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s latest Revisionist History podcast, the third in his series on higher education. Suddenly, I was able to articulate my passion for public school, using language I hadn’t had before. Thanks, Revisionist History.

Gladwell was talking about educational philanthropy, and comparing the societal worth of a $100 million donation to “a tiny, almost bankrupt school in South Jersey” to the multi-million dollar donations being handed out to elite American schools.

He set up a dichotomy between “weak link” games and “strong link” games. Soccer, he explained, is a weak link game. Mistakes are so costly, because scoring is so difficult, that a team is only as good as its weakest link. Basketball, on the other hand, is a strong link game. One superstar player can carry the whole team.

American society, says Gladwell, is a weak link game. It takes so many people working in concert to accomplish anything, that we need every link to hold its weight and do its best. So it would make sense, then, to give extra resources to strengthen the weakest links, or to institutions that have an influence over the greatest number of links. For example: the University of California, which Gladwell called “maybe the finest group of public universities in the world.”

Gladwell asks Stanford University President John Hennessy if he would ever consider telling a prospective major donor to give his or her money not to Stanford, which Gladwell compellingly argues has enough (“higher than the output of two Caribbean countries”), but to the University of California, which educates so many more people, so many more links in the chain (238,000 students, versus Stanford’s 16,000), and could really (really!) use the money. Hennessy’s answer?

That would be a hard thing to do, obviously, to turn them away. And I think the other question we’d be asked is ‘how can I have confidence that they’ll use my money well,’ which we’re obviously–as the President of Stanford–not in a position to vouch for.

Like a bolt of lighting, the realization hit me. It’s this attitude that makes me distrustful of private education and an evangelist for public education.

Elite private schools traffic in “the best.” What could be wrong with The Best? Don’t we want our children to have The Best? Here’s the problem as I see it: you get used to The Best and you come to think of it as normal. Which means anything less than The Best, is abnormal. Abnormal is bad and subject to discussions of where it’s gone wrong. And that discussion is a knife’s edge away from assignations of deserving and blame.

I’m not breaking any new ground by suggesting that in America hard work and money are seen as cure-alls. If you don’t have money, you haven’t worked hard enough and you deserve what you get. And so public schools are pathologized and the students within in them written off, and major philanthropists give their millions of dollars to shiner, fancier institutions that seem somehow more deserving of investment.

And there are more ripple effects. One thing I’ve observed in my career is that people who didn’t have to prove themselves to themselves when they were coming up compulsively compare themselves to others in a quest to secure their self-worth. It’s as if this type of person knows they didn’t wholly earn the breaks they got,  so they have to convince themselves they deserved them more than the next guy. And that sense of entitlement usually comes not from what they have, but from what the other person lacks. The other guy is lazy. The other guy is a different religion. The other guy is a different color. The other guy is a girl, or gay, or just generally Less Than.

So that’s my issue with private education. Students who get used to The Best begin to look askance at those they consider Less Than and they carry that with them, consciously or not, through their lives and into all the decisions that they make. They become Strong Link Thinkers, and see the weak links not as deserving of opportunities, but as objectionable liabilities. Which is why the President of Stanford says he can’t guarantee that the University of California is a good investment.

I feel compelled to mention that I was especially eager to hear Gladwell compare UC schools to Stanford, because I am a product of the University of California (*does eight clap*) and my brother is a product of Stanford (*runs nude through fountain*).

To my brother’s credit, he now works in reforming health care and insurance billing transparency, so he’s a strong link working to strengthen the entire chain. But over the course of his educational career, he also spent more than twice as many years in public schools than private.

The day will come when my wife and I have to decide on schools for our own kids. And I’m sure a part of me will look at the facilities and opportunities of our local public schools and begin to compare them to their private counterparts. But I hope I have the fortitude to remind myself that everyone deserves the best education, not just those who can afford it, and I don’t want to perpetuate a system where opportunities are granted based on ability to pay, not eagerness to earn.

 

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