Yesterday an IB2 student wandered into my office and, as often happens with Grade 12 students, within minutes, he began to fill me in on his university plans. He is a good student. He has a terrific list of schools, and he has a very positive relationship with his university counselor. Despite all that he has going for him, the more he talked about these very competitive universities, the more his affect seemed to sag. He seemed to get smaller right in front of my eyes. Even though he has all kinds of personal strengths — and he is a wonderful, wonderful boy — his slumping shoulders suggested a fear that some Admissions Director might find him somehow lacking.
In his new book “Excellent Sheep,” William Deresiewicz claims there is actually a danger in a becoming a “HYPSter” his acronym for Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford students. According to Mr. Deresiewicz, these institutions are breeding grounds for timid-minded students who are people pleasing, risk-averse, gold star searching, credential accumulators. Deresiewicz doesn’t blame the students; he sees them as victims of an out of whack admissions system that rewards those who jump through mind-numbing academic hoops, without ever giving themselves the opportunity to grapple with life’s important questions, questions such as, “What does it mean to live a good life?” or “How can I define success on my own terms?”
It is easy enough to take shots at snooty schools and their insanely competitive admissions’ standards, but I wonder if some of Deresiewicz criticism might ring true for us? In our personal quest for the illusive 7, do we, too, overlook what is important? If education is more than an elaborate training exercise, if it’s more than a search for power and prestige, do we pause often enough to ask ourselves what we are being educated for? What is the real purpose of the pilgrimage we begin today?
A few years ago, another Grade 12 boy told me that he had worked very hard to get into UCC; that he worked very hard while he was here to get into a competitive university; that he would continue to work very hard in university in order to get a job; where, you guessed it, he would work very hard, so that he could eventually be in a position to send his own son to UCC where he expected he would, in turn, work very hard. Why, he asked, was he doing all of this?
It’s worth noting that one hundred years ago, the Great War, the “war to end all wars” began. It’s been described as “the great seminal catastrophe of the 20th century.” I’d like to show you a short clip, taken from the movie “Chariots of Fire” as a way to respond to some of those important questions. Here’s the context: World War I has just ended, and former soldiers have now returned as new students at Cambridge, a HYPSTER school if ever there was one! This scene is of the opening banquet, where the headmaster delivers a short speech during which he addresses issues of purpose. The scene may remind boarders of last night’s dinner, if only we had had the Blue Notes serenading us in the Upper Dining Hall!)
A few observations: The clip begins with a shot of a great board, which honours the Cambridge old boys who had died between 1914-1918. That board may remind you of our own memorial plaques on display in the main foyer, where we honour the UCC old boys who made the same ultimate sacrifice, at the same time, for the same noble cause.
The headmaster then gives a short but profoundly eloquent speech, as all heads of schools want to do, of course on a regular basis. He begins by describing the old boys who had died, “boys who were full of honesty, and goodness, zeal, vigor, and intellectual promise. The flower of a generation. The glory of England and all that England stands for.”
The headmaster’s words, by the way, also describe you. You might bristle a bit at being described as “the flower of a generation” but that’s what you are. We don’t believe the admissions office made a mistake with your application. There were lots of bright and talented boys, boys with great promise who desperately wanted to be here in Laidlaw Hall with you this morning. For many good reasons, you are the fortunate few who have been blessed with this extraordinary opportunity. And we have great hopes for you.
Which leads me, at long last, to my takeaway, which echoes the headmaster’s final word of advice to his new students. “Let me exhort you. Let each of you discover where your true chance at greatness lies.”
A proper British school head would not have felt comfortable with language like “ignite curiosity, imagination, and passion” but that’s really what he is saying. “Discover where your true chance at greatness lies.” Find what makes your heart sing. Follow your bliss. Discover where time disappears. However you want to parse this sentiment, I hope that as you begin to explore the worlds and wonders of chemistry, Copernicus, soccer, and Shakespeare, this year you will find – not just hoops to jump through or gold stars to collect, but I hope you will find what excites you. “Seize this chance. Rejoice in it, and let no power or persuasion deter you in your task.”