Sic Transit Filius Mea

Just Saturday, I referred Josiah to Paul Graham’s terrific hypothetical speech to a real high-school class. We shared our amazed delight at Graham’s perspective; I particularly relished his account of secondary education:

When I discovered that one of our teachers was herself using Cliff’s Notes, it seemed par for the course. Surely it meant nothing to get a good grade in such a class.

In retrospect this was stupid. It was like someone getting fouled in a soccer game and saying, hey, you fouled me, that’s against the rules, and walking off the field in indignation. Fouls happen. The thing to do when you get fouled is not to lose your cool. Just keep playing.

By putting you in this situation, society has fouled you. Yes, as you suspect, a lot of the stuff you learn in your classes is crap. And yes, as you suspect, the college admissions process is largely a charade. But like many fouls, this one was unintentional. . . .

Why does society foul you? Indifference, mainly. There are simply no outside forces pushing high school to be good. The air traffic control system works because planes would crash otherwise. Businesses have to deliver because otherwise competitors would take their customers. But no planes crash if your school sucks, and it has no competitors. High school isn’t evil; it’s random; but random is pretty bad.

Ouch! Graham inspires me both to speak out in defense of teachers, who work conscientiously to attain goals that their culture and their institutions function to sabotage, and to agree that he pretty much captured my own experience of high school. Mine drifted a little toward the evil — having been beaten and hospitalized sours my nostalgic retrospect — but on the whole, “random” characterizes my experience fairly.

So Si and I were tut-tutting about Graham’s essay, when what do you know, this afternoon he got the fat envelope from one of the colleges to which he applied. Still four to go, still his first choice to go, but for the moment we can rest easy that next year, as long as I can get a good price for my extra kidney, he will move away from home.

That means, by the way, that next year Pippa and Bea and I will be on our own. I sense a situation comedy in the making.

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