The Wrong Route to SuccessYonoson Rosenblum
Will your ego trip drive your child off a cliff?
Wednesday, March 27, 2019
've been thinking a lot about Clifford Saper lately. For those who don't know, Dr. Clifford Saper, MD, PhD, is the James Jackson Putnam Professor of Neurology at Harvard University and head of the department of neurology at Beth Deaconess Medical Center. He is one of the 100 most-cited neurologists in America.
Clifford also happens to have been a very bright, if slightly nerdy, high school (and Hebrew school) friend of mine. We both applied to the University of Chicago; we were both accepted; I went, he didn't. His parents decided, if memory serves, that the cost of a private university was too high and that he could receive an excellent science education at the University of Illinois.
His parents would seem to have been right. Clifford did not suffer in any way professionally by not having attended the University of Chicago. Admittedly, a named professorship at Harvard does not quite carry the cachet of being a Mishpacha columnist. But somehow I doubt Clifford would have envied me too much had I been successful in reestablishing contact on a recent visit to Boston.
Dr. Saper's experience turns out to be consistent with every study of the subject. To take one example: Boston Latin is the most selective high school in Boston, and its graduates generally score very high on the SATs and other standardized tests. But when Boston Latin graduates are compared to those who applied to the school, with comparable grades and test scores, but were not accepted, the latter group did just as well on the SATs. Harvard professor Albert-Laszlo Barabasi summarized the results in The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success. "Boston Latin kids do perform better when compared to their counterparts. What the data tells us, however, is that the difference is not because the school enhances their performance. It is because high achievers continue to excel no matter what education a school offers."
Research firm Mathematica conducted two studies, one in 2002 and the other in 2011, comparing students at Ivy League schools to those who were accepted, but elected not to attend those same schools. There was no difference in their earnings. The Ivy Leaguers often attained higher-paying first jobs, but the group of those who elected not to attend quickly caught up.
It gets even worse. Heather Mac Donald in City Journal notes that it is not even clear whether students at elite schools are any more knowledgeable when they leave than when they enter. In his book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Professor Richard Arum cites a 2007 study commissioned by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that showed students at Princeton, Yale, Duke, Cornell, and Berkeley scoring lower on an undemanding American history test as seniors than when they had entered as freshmen.
WHAT GOT ME THINKING about Clifford and the value of an elite education was the unveiling last week by federal prosecutors in Boston of indictments against a list of rich and famous people snared in Operation Varsity Blue. Wealthy parents forked over $25 million to William Singer, from 2011 to 2018, to get their children into prestigious schools by foul means or fouler. Those means ranged from paying officials at corrupt testing centers to correct their children's wrong answers on standardized tests, to paying others to just take the tests for them, to bribing sports coaches to identify their progeny as high-quality athletic recruits for sports they did not even play.
As is always the case when prominent individuals are caught doing something immoral or illegal, the first question one asks is: What could they have possibly been thinking? Did they ever think about the consequences of being exposed? The famous actress mothers involved did irreparable damage to their careers and face prison terms, at worst, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, at best. A managing partner at a prestigious most prestigious law firms, and one of the country's leading "dealmakers," faces both disbarment and prison.
Their children hardly needed the connections that go with attending an Ivy League school; they were born with those connections. And in the case of the daughter of one of the actresses, who already had two million YouTube followers and a lucrative career as a "beauty products influencer," her mother may have killed the golden goose, as makers of those products shun any connection to her daughter, now tainted by scandal.
That daughter had already shared with her followers, "I don't really care about school, as you guys all know," though she was looking forward to the parties and football games at USC. How could her parents have imagined that they were helping their not-academically-inclined daughter by buying her way into a school for which her own grades and test scores would not have qualified her? They and all the other parents involved were setting up their children for precisely the type of failure documented by Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor in Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It's Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won't Admit It.
The only possible beneficiaries of the scheme were the parents seeking the status of being able to say their children attend elite schools. And all they got for their efforts was humiliation.
IS THERE A LESSON here for Orthodox parents beyond "calculate the 'reward' of the aveirah (sin) against its loss"? I think there is, and it goes back to the story of my high school friend Clifford Saper.
If you insist on your child going to college, don't be obsessed with the prestige of the school over such other factors as remaining in a Jewish/religious environment and even being able to continue learning while going to college in the evenings.
I still remember a rosh yeshivah friend of mine being threatened by a parent that if his son stayed for a second year after high school and then went to Yeshiva University, he would go to the New York Times and denounce the yeshivah as a cult. The fact that an older brother had gone to an Ivy League school, where he quickly abandoned all religious observance, did not prevent the father from harboring the same dream of an Ivy League education for his second son.
But as the studies show, and my friend Clifford's career demonstrates, if your child is bright enough to flourish in an elite university, he or she will not be hampered in life by going to Touro or Brooklyn College or Towson State at night. And if it is exposure to great teachers that you want for him or her, there are a multitude of online courses available today, taught by the most outstanding professors in America, either for free or for a very small fraction of the cost of an Ivy League education, which today runs over a quarter of a million dollars.
All they'll miss out on will be the drinking parties, co-ed dorms, and political (and often anti-religious) indoctrination.
WHILE I HAVE NOT yet heard of a parent willing to pay $500,000 to get a son into Brisk, we are not lacking for analogies to our world. I have seen plenty of fathers move heaven and earth to get their sons into one of the very large and prestigious yeshivos in Eretz Yisrael.
Even if a father succeeds in being able to say his son goes to Chevron — especially if he relies on protektzia to do so — that father's success may come at his son's expense. The bochur might develop much faster in a smaller yeshivah in which he receives more individual attention and can form a personal relationship with his rav. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz"l used to caution that the adage "better the tail of the lion than the head of the fox" does not apply in the early stages of learning, where it is more important that the bochur develop his self-confidence and love of learning.
Once a group of American high school seniors were brought to Rav Elyashiv ztz"l. His gabbai asked for a brachah that the boys get into "the best yeshivah," which Rav Elyashiv pointedly changed to "the best yeshivah for you."
Good advice for all parents: Put the needs of your child before those of your ego.