Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

The Obsession With "Best"

(Posted by Valerie Strauss, guest blogger)

Now "they" have invaded summer school.

What was once a place for kids forced to take extra classes has become the cool place for those who want to keep studying--not necessarily out of love for it but so they can take even harder classes in the fall. Why? To boost their college applications, of course. Read all about it in reporter Ian Shapira's story in today's Post.

I will give up on my lonely notion that perhaps kids do not have to spend summer with every single minute planned and stuffed with as many activities as they have during the school year. (I won't say that many of us managed to grow up without jam-packed summers, and heaven forbid kids should have to learn how to entertain themselves sometimes.)

But the article pointed out this, too: Just when you think there is no real way for academic competitiveness to increase, you learn you are wrong. If a kid didn't go to the right nursery school to get them into the Ivy League, then certainly sweating it out in accelerated classes in the heat of summer will do it for them.

There is, to be sure, something wonderful about young people who want--or are pushed by their parents' ambitions--to work excrutiatingly hard to improve themselves. But it is worth asking what they are working toward and under what assumptions they are laboring.

I heard a group of teenager boys talking the other day about college, and they turned to a girl to ask her about Harvard University, she apparently seen as an expert because two family members had gone. "Well, it's the best school in the country," she started.

Well, actually, for lots of kids--in fact most--it probably isn't. And the notion that there is a "best" of pretty much anything can be corroding to young people.

As an education reporter, I get asked a lot about what I think the "best" schools are, or whether private schools are better than public. Clearly some schools do better at educating students than others, but, boring as it sounds, there is no "best" for everyone, and perhaps for anyone. There are lots of great schools of all types, and, more to the point, kids are different and need different things. The idea that everybody who isn't going to Harvard has already missed "the best" boat is scary.

This Ivy League obsession seems to me bigger here in the Washington D.C. area--which boasts the most highly educated population of any metropolitan region of the country--but perhaps it is as suffocating in other places. Anybody out there want to tell us?

By Valerie Strauss |  August 7, 2006; 12:22 PM ET
Previous: Taking the Waters | Next: Do We Only Sort-Of Believe in Global Warming?


Please email us to report offensive comments.

Thank you for writing this. I went to an Ivy League school and frankly I don't see how that makes me a better person than the folks I work with who went to Virginia Tech or George Mason. It was a great experience and it probably has opened some doors for me over the years, but it's not the be-all and end-all.

Two of my friends from college got married and had a couple of kids. One day when the kids were in pre-school, their mother told me she didn't know what she would do if her children turned out not to be geniuses. (Seriously, I'm quoting here.) I told her I'd be more concerned with whether or not they were happy.

Posted by: Ivy grad | August 7, 2006 12:55 PM

What's the 'best' school for one isn't best for another. Not just personalities, etc., but also majors. Even the so-called experts rank schools by areas of concentration. For example, in international business, Thunderbird in Arizona and South Carolina have been rated high, but that can vary by year, and the rankins can be entirely different in other ares. I have a B.A. from UCLA and a Masters from the University of Maryland University College. I did visit Harvard once. Harvard is well known, but there are tons of others that are good. Who's to say that William and Mary College, George Washington, Georgetown, University of Maryland, University of Virginia, etc., aren't just as good (whatever that means).

Posted by: Steve | August 7, 2006 1:10 PM

I don't think this is nothing to say.

There's always been this "best" for my child...and now it's turn into "best" for me.

The "me" generation still lives and will continue.

One result of this kind of life continues to support the "have" and the "have nots", which in fact will continue to feed the beast of prejudice.

Posted by: Frankey | August 7, 2006 1:17 PM

I'm really glad I just missed out of this obessive-compulsive behavior the area has with "best" everything when I was in high school. And on the off chance there are any high schoolers out there, rest assured, its ok! I never took AP, I went to a wonderful college no one has ever heard of where the profs were committed to TEACHING and actually getting to know their students (in fact, I keep in contact with several of them), and after a few years off, decided to head back to school for my masters at American U. Just because Harvard prints stuff in crimson ink doesn't make it the greatest thing ever.

Posted by: Robin | August 7, 2006 1:37 PM

Honestly, with the job competition that exists today for recent college grads, it does not really matter where they went for their undergraduate education. Graduate educational programs are becoming the norm, not the exception. Someone from a public state school with an exceptional GPA can get into the "best" graduate schools without any problems. Let kids be kids, and let them live life for themselves.

Posted by: Silver Spring | August 7, 2006 1:40 PM

I think that Jay Mathews summarizes this point quite well in "Harvard Schmarvard". With a daughter less than two weeks away from her freshman year in college, we learned the difference between 'the best college' and 'the best college for YOU' while visiting about 10 schools and researching nearly a dozen more.

The most important takeaway? A school's reputation means nothing if it does not offer the program of study you seek or meet qualifications for size and location. Our daughter wanted to pursue a rather unique major that was only offered at a handful of schools in the East and her final choice came down to UNH and Radford. While UNH's program was nominally better, it is 2 1/2 times more expensive than a state school and our daughter really fell in love Radford over the past year.

Does Radford have the cache of Virginia Tech, JMU or UVA? No, but none of these schools offered what she was looking for. What sense does it make to spend four years at a college you really don't like just because it impresses your friends? Thankfully, our daughter has maturity and wisdom that should serve her well in the coming years.

Posted by: Lester Burnham | August 7, 2006 2:06 PM

I grew up in Kansas and went to an Ivy League school. Only 25% of my high school went to college and there were only 5 people out of my class of 350 that went out of state. People thought I did not like my parents or they really wanted to get rid of me. My Ivy League degree did not open any more doors for me in the middle of the country than my sister's degree from KU (in fact hers may have opened more). Moreover, little has changed in the 20 years since I graduate from high school.

Posted by: Arlington | August 7, 2006 2:12 PM

Another Perspective: I graduated from an Ivy League school, took every AP class I could get my hands on in high school, and spent a summer during high school taking classes at a community college in order to strengthen my college applications. As an African American woman who must constantly work 300% harder than others simply to get in the door, I want to caution us not assume that all of these overachieving students are snotty, undersocialized, hyper-competitive brats. Some of us really are just working hard to dig ourselves out of the hole in which history and society has placed us.

Posted by: Ivy League Too | August 7, 2006 2:31 PM

To Ivy League Too:

I doubt in today's age of affirmative action that you had to work 300% harder to get in to an Ivy League school. Let's be realistic and just say that you had to work as hard as everyone else. Your race surely didn't HURT your chances of admission.

Posted by: Ivy League Three | August 7, 2006 2:43 PM

From the age of 14 onward, our daughter worked every summer in the office of a family friend whose business is audience surveys and exhibit consulting for museums. This was strictly a job to our daughter, her great interests were art and drama. She eventually settled on architecture as a field of study, graduated from UVA this past spring and got a job with a firm in Boston, beating out the Ivy competition. One difference maker was her work experience and the recommendation of her former employer. Along with high end residential work, this particular architecture firm designs museums and performance venues! Oh, and the money she saved from all those summers? That went for European travel and study abroad. Never underestimate the value of experience at work or as a volunteer in an adult environment. The strangest things may prove useful at some point in the future.

Posted by: kurosawaguy | August 7, 2006 3:02 PM

To Ivy League Three:

I'm sure her race didn't hurt her chance of admission, but it plays a part in today's work world. AA will get you in the door, but at the end of the day it's the respect we want.

Posted by: Hogboss | August 7, 2006 3:09 PM

Why are kids sacrificing their summers to get ahead in the college race? They are led to believe by parents, peers, schools, and the media that they will be failures if they don't go to the "right" school. While there's a bit of truth to that (mainly the connections obtained) the reality of it all is that the elitism that is associated with going to an Ivy League school is silly. Required reading for parents and employers should be the book "The Chosen" by Jerome Karabel. Karabel diligently reveals how Ivy League schools rose to prominence--not because of their exceptionally gifted students, but because of the perpetuation of privilege of the wealthy class. Think about it, if you're John Rockfeller's son you're not going to have to worry about finding a job and passing on privilege to your kin.

Harvard meant "good family" not "genius" (as it has evolved to mean). And yet, "genius" is kind of a relative term- increasingly it is a title given to students that have had every advantage in education, not those who are naturally gifted. A good book on this topic is "Privilege" by Ross Gregory Douthat (Harvard '02). Douthat's book is a modern day account of a Harvard student that attests to the sense of entitlement of Ivy students and how their egos have been stroked their entire lives. (NOTE: Not to say there are not many exceptions, but it is rather prevelent.) The aristocracy at the Ivies has become the "meritocracy" of the over-acheiving class where students feel they are owed nothing less than profuse praise and perfect grades. Many of these kids lack greater perspective, they lack social skills, and they lack humility. As Douthat attests: morality, equality, and justice are all gray areas when they stand in the way of ego and a resume that says "I as 'educated' at the 'best.'"

As a college student with friends at Harvard, Yale, Princeton etc. as well as state schools and "2nd tiers" I think about how if I were an employer I would rather hire many of those not at the Ivies due to not only their intelligence, balance, and perspective, but also their personalities and people skills. And yet, the prejudice perpetuates until you get down to job performance.

The overacheiving mentality of kids worses by the day as college admissions become more competitive, its gone beyond "generation me" to "generation superme." From snorting Adderal to taking summer school classes, society as a whole needs a reality check if we think this is the path to a well-functioning population. There's a fine line between "motivated" and "psychotic" these days.

Posted by: Washington DC | August 7, 2006 4:03 PM

kurosawaguy, it's hard to take you seriously when you trot out UVa as the counter-example. UVa is the "public Ivy"

like all things we Americans want to quantify then compare, where you earned your BA or BS (or MA, JD, PhD, MD, etc) is more complicated and nuanced than Ivy vs. not-Ivy. But as far as getting someone to take a second look at your resume, it certainly helps to have a school that someone recognizes (i.e., Harvard) instead of a school that someone may not recognize. Not always, but sometimes.

Of course, I used to work for a company that refused to hire Harvard grads because they had two bad experiences and decided to avoid the school altogether. So maybe it's not just the US News and World Report reputation of your school, but the more personal and day-to-day experience that a prospective employer has with grads for your school.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 7, 2006 4:09 PM

My husband and I went to Ivy League schools and have masters degrees and frankly could care less where our child goes to college. She is smart enough, I suppose, but at age eleven she mans a lemonade stand instead of attending summer school, plays kickball in the park instead of soccer on a traveling team, and we pull her out of school, on occasion, for a really cool trip. She could get better grades than she does, but her grades are fine, her attitude is great, and we're happy she seems to be developing into a decent human being -- the most important part. And no, she doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up, though her fifth-grade teacher sure did try to get her to commit.

Posted by: Alice | August 7, 2006 4:19 PM

There was once a head of a Washington, DC school who said that his job was to get his students into the Kingdom of Heaven, not the Kingdom of Harvard. Not everyone feels that way about high school, but some still do.

Harvard has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Being the oldest school in the country (the second being a state school that itself could be saddled with a lot of the praise/criticism that Harvard receives, Virginia's own William & Mary) certainly has helped it get out ahead of other schools. At some point, it became known as the best; I'm pretty sure it's been coasting on that reputation for years. But it's still shorthand for the best.

Still, for every person that praises it, you can find at least one that criticizes it. If they're a Yale graduate, that criticism stems mostly from jealousy. If they're from the mid-West, well it probably still stems mostly from jealousy. But Harvard alone doesn't open every door to you. Most sensible employers (that would exclude most law firms and investment banks) realize that a productive work force comes from competent workers, not just those with fancy diplomas hanging on their office walls.

So if you didn't go to Harvard, you can still impress, either by highlighting your UKansas diploma to some company in Lincoln or to a UKansas grad (networking happens for every college; it's not like Harvard is the only school that looks after its own), or by busting your tail at a job, or by having noteworthy internships.

The best advice, which has been repeated extensively above, is to go to the best school for you. Don't fall victim to the Harvard, Yale, Princeton HYPe.

Posted by: DCer | August 7, 2006 4:21 PM

And, oh -- she goes to a mediocre public school in Baltimore. Oh well.

Posted by: Alice | August 7, 2006 4:25 PM

I started typing out a response to this and had an eerie deja vu feeling. Haven't we had this discussion already a few months ago? Or was that somewhere else, like on Achenblog?

Harvard is Harvard. Kansas is Kansas. UCLA is UCLA. and the thousands and thousands of other schools and career paths and opportunities out there are what they are. Alice, if you're confidant that you're doing the right thing for your kid, she'll probably pick up on that and do great things, even if she "only" goes to Villa Julie.

I place the blame for this phenomena (obsessing over colleges) squarely at the feet of the Baby Boomers, whose children were forced to lead the charge on this obsession. Thanks, folks. Way to stick to your idealism and not get caught up with materialism and image in your later years. I'll be doubly appreciative when y'all retire and bankrupt Social Security.

Posted by: FD | August 7, 2006 4:32 PM

What is all this about "let kids be kids?" For hundreds of years, families had children to put them to work in the fields, to have them work as chimneysweeps to put food on the table, etc. In most nations of the world, this is still the case!! This modern Western notion of childhood as some sort of a Camelot is constantly cited, and yet is something that is brand-spanking new and very 'weird' by historical and cultural standards. My kids are going to go to summer schools when they are young and have the choice of either summer school or summer jobs when they get older. For the rest of their lives, no matter the profession, they will be expected to work hard and train/test on a continual rigorous basis. I see no need to not teach them the importance of this valuable life lesson at an early age.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 7, 2006 4:55 PM

I went to Bethesda public schools and got accepted to my ivy college of choice. Because I got very sick my senior year of high school I decided, with my parents, to forego my Ivy admission in order to go to Maryland where I'd be closer to home and my doctors.

I was in the honors program and Maryland and loved it, but couldn't get it out of my head that I should be at an Ivy, so I transferred to Columbia my sophomore year. I hated it. The classes, on average, were larger, the pace was slow, the majority of the people on my dorm floor were legacy admissions who bragged about how little work they had to do while still maintaining an A- average. I got myself back to Maryland as quickly as I could. Not only did UMD provide an excellent education (and saved me a hell of a lot of money) but I learned a REALLY important lesson about perceived value, image and from lack of better term "snob appeal."

I moved to California to go to Berkeley for grad school (even us public school folks do make it to grad school!), and find that overall this area has a much healthier attitude towards college admissions than what I experienced in Bethesda (even 15 years ago!). Perhaps it's just the distance between the left coast and the Ivys, or perhaps it's the fact that so many of the UC System schools have good reputations (one friend here has a son who almost certainly will be valedictorian of his class next year. While he's a competitive kid so far he's expressed exactly no interest in a single Ivy school. He'd be thrilled to go to Berkeley and perfectly happy with the idea of UCLA or UCSD), but I hear much fewer horror stories here about overly driven kids and parents than I do from my friends back home.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course--many of the wealthier communities here seem to have the exact same pressures to over achieve as many of the communities there. Which brings up an important point: when you say Ivys are an obsession of the "Washington Area," what you really mean is primarily the "Upper Middle Class Washington Area." I think the obsession has as much to do with two characteristics of today's upper middle class adults-- competitive drive and an over developed sense of status consciousness-- as it has to do with geographic location.

Posted by: Oakland, CA | August 7, 2006 5:01 PM

At least one Ivy doesn't put too much stock in "legacies" anymore. I have like six generations there, and of all the schools I applied to, it was the ONLY one that didn't have a place to list family members who were alums. Even state schools I applied to had a place for that info. Bastards.

I miss the good ol' days when all you needed was family connections to get you all the way to the White House ....

Posted by: FD | August 7, 2006 5:08 PM

Coming from a large metropolis in the center of the country, I can tell you the Ivy obsession is certainly not the same.

Moreover i think the Ivy obsession is mostly a manifestation of parental and student insecurities about class and their own achievement rather than a concern about the quality of education. Having attended a USNews top 15 school and also having taken classes at a second tier school,I feel qualified to speak on the subject. The fact is classes use the same books at both schools. Both schools have good instructors and bad ones.

Lastly, I would venture to say that for most students at top schools, gaining admission should not be looked at as an achievement, but rather the likely product of a lifetime of financial and time investment in lessons, test prep, sports teams, tuition/ cost of living in good school districts, and travel.

I've visited most of the Ivies and little Ivies and the honest truth is that there is shockingly little economic diversity. Even the middle-class kids tend to come from college educated parents.

Posted by: J.K. | August 7, 2006 5:13 PM

oh and another thing. at the second tier school there were about 20,000 students while at the elite school there were several thousand. However you could easily find 5000 students smart enough to fill the elite school. Smart kids are everywhere.

Posted by: J.k. | August 7, 2006 5:16 PM

I'm pretty sure there are studies out there that disprove that going to Harvard necessarily gives you advantages.

But if one more person posts an "I didn't go to Harvard and I turned out fine" response, the Post should officially revoke their right to log on to this website. Your one experience does not disprove a trend or aggregate benefits.

Posted by: WCB | August 7, 2006 5:30 PM

Lots of College kids have learned that a course in the summer is a great, low stress way to grab some credits and lighten your load during the year. I think its fine if high school students do the same thing and reduce some of their stress during the year so that they can get a little sleep and have a little fun. Life's too short not to learn a little and have some fun. Plus high schools often track kids who do well far away from those who cruise. What's so bad about mixing those kids together to learn in the summer. Maybe both groups will learn some valuable lessons from each other. (you can probably tell from my writing that I didn't go to Harvard and attended only public schools and colleges?? Horror.)

Posted by: enjoy | August 8, 2006 11:21 AM

"When you say Ivys are an obsession of the 'Washington Area,' what you really mean is primarily the 'Upper Middle Class Washington Area.' I think the obsession has as much to do with two characteristics of today's upper middle class adults -- competitive drive and an overdeveloped sense of status consciousness -- as it has to do with geographic location."

Posted by: Oakland, CA | August 7, 2006 05:01 PM

An accurate comment, that. I can recall some years ago there was something called the "Bethesda college fair," where representatives of the Ivies, Stanford, Northwestern, Duke and other so-called "competitive colleges" had displays and talked with students and parents from Whitman, B-CC, Churchill and Walter Johnson. Parents in the rest of Montgomery County deservedly griped to county school officials about their exclusion -- why were folks from Wheaton or Damascus not able to attend? -- and the event became eligible to all countywide. (Although I sense the Ivies were primarily interested in the well-to-do Bethesda crowd to begin with, since many of those students' parents were probably Ivy grads themselves. Over the past few decades, social mobility has become less and less a priority at Princeton, Yale, Harvard et al.)

Posted by: Vincent | August 8, 2006 1:26 PM


Today's post seems too much like yesterday's. Not only is the post the same, so are all the comments. What do you think this is, Groundhog Day?

Didn't Mark explain that you post at least once a day, not once a week? Come on, you can do it. You're an education reporter and you should be able to learn something new.

Posted by: Dullsville | August 8, 2006 3:19 PM

Today's post is like yesterday's? How do you figure, since the previous blog post was on drinking water?

Posted by: h3 | August 9, 2006 7:06 AM


Wake up and look at the date. The previous blog post, last Friday, was by Marc Fisher, himself.

Posted by: Dullsville | August 9, 2006 12:39 PM

"I'll be doubly appreciative when y'all retire and bankrupt Social Security."

Yo, FD, I don't know about you, but I've paid into SS for 42 years and the retirement age for full benefits keeps going up. If I die before I hit 67 will you put a thank you note and some flowers on my grave?

Posted by: Anonymous | August 9, 2006 2:54 PM

Alice wrote: "My husband and I went to Ivy League schools and have masters degrees and frankly could care less where our child goes to college."

Alice, I think you meant to say "...could NOT care less." "Could care less" means you actually care to some degree.

That notwithstanding, your comment was great and I agree with you wholeheartedly!

And, by the way, folks, a college degree from ANY school doesn't guarantee you a darn thing! It's a person's drive, ambition and IQ that determine their success.

The notion that you're somehow a failure if you didn't go to college is absurd.

Posted by: XYZ in DC | August 10, 2006 9:43 AM

First, in answer to the question posed in the original blog entry: yes, things are the same in other cities, though perhaps not quite as crazy as in the DC area.

Secondly, one thing conspicuously absent in all the comments is any mention of *hard work* as a valuable thing for kids, even these oh-so-special kids, to do during the summer. Although I now have a master's degree and a well-paying job in the IT field, I cleaned the dining area at Burger King, I worked at a farmer's market and picked tomatoes, I "temped" at a warehouse, etc. So did most of the "best and brightest" in my small Ohio town - that's what there was for us. But we did OK. And we learned some humility, some compassion, and some appreciation for our educational opportunities.

I fear that if these privileged kids never have an "ooo gross" job, they are going to take some hard falls when they have to run the copy machine, or answer the phones, or "worse" - since even an Ivy League degree doesn't allow you to skip over "entry level" in most fields.

And Valerie, I like your guest posts. I think you've brought up some important and uncomfortable topics.

Posted by: jill in denver | August 16, 2006 4:00 PM

George W. Bush graduated(M.B.A.) from Harvard. Obviously excellence(of any kind) is not a major consideration at that institution. I think the same can be said for most other overrated institutions. History also suggests that real genius finds institutional education largely irrelevant anyway.

Posted by: Kirk | August 16, 2006 4:38 PM

I attended an Ivy League school and graduated in May 2005. I can tell you from personal experience that it was an excellent education and the name recognition helps a great deal when networking. However, as many have stated before me, ultimatley, employers are hiring a person, and not a school. One's ability to perform, business acumen, and aptitude for success determine their path. However, I did receive one hell of an education and it has opened a lot of doors. Case and point, is an Ivy League education mandatory for success? Absolutley not...but it sure does help.

Posted by: The Truth | August 21, 2006 9:05 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company