The New York Times recently ran an op-ed piece by James Atlas about people who go to extraordinary lengths to pad their resumes in order to grease the wheels of the college admissions or hiring process. The growing number of such resume-padders, the article points out, are rendering banal the very achievements they covet.
Polymaths or Dilettantes?
How much learning and personal growth actually goes on when students devote their summers and Christmas breaks to padding their resumes? The article states it plainly:
Colleges collude in the push to upgrade talent. “It’s a huge industry,” Mr. Breyfogle says. “Harvard has a whole office devoted to preparing applicants for the Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.” At its worst, this kind of coaching results in candidates who are treated as what he calls “management projects.”
“They’ve been put in the hands of makeover experts who have a stake in making them look better than they are, leveraging their achievement,” Mr. Breyfogle says.
“We are concerned about that,” confirmed Jeff Rickey, head of admissions at St. Lawrence University, whom I tracked down at the National Association for College Admission Counseling conference in New Orleans. “If they joined a club, when did they join it? Maybe they play 15 instruments, but when they list them out, the amount of time they spent on each isn’t that much.” Mr. Breyfogle is also on the alert for résumé stuffing. “They’ve worked at an orphanage in Katmandu, but it turns out it was over Christmas break,” he gave as an example. “It’s easier to be amazing now.” All you need is money.
If the experiences aren’t deep and meaningful, how can the so-called “achievements” be? Resume-padders are dilettantes, not polymaths.
“It’s easier to be amazing now.”
This is the crux of the problem: resume-padders accumulate experiences in order to impress others, instead of working towards expanding their own minds or making a long-term positive impact on the people around them. For these people, the orphanage in Kathmandu or the fifth language learned or the Habitat for Humanity home built is just another way to artificially inflate their value in the eyes of gatekeepers and decision makers.
I don’t necessarily blame the would-be college students who do this. Probably in the majority of cases, winning the altruism or culture or “well-rounded” merit badge is simply another hurdle that overzealous parents and mainstream society have put in the way of what they’re selling to these kids as happiness.
I do, however, blame the adult resume padders and the parents who believe (and try to convince others) that the only way to true happiness and fulfillment in life is to either cheapen or altogether give up on the value of self-directed (and often unglamorous) intellectual pursuits. These people railroad themselves and others into a cookie-cutter life, and then often act quite surprised when they find themselves unfulfilled in their job or regretting their choice of school — or the choice to go to school altogether.
Put Down the Cape. Turn On Your Mind.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with — and often there can be a lot of value in — volunteering in an orphanage in Tibet or learning five languages or volunteering to build houses for the homeless. Learning can only truly be valuable, however, if you do it for its own sake.
Pseudo-intellectual achievements, Ivy-League diplomas, and inflated resumes are only good for impressing people you don’t want arbitrating your life or your choices anyway. The real joy and value of learning comes from pursuing your own interests and goals independently of society’s “merit-badge” system, no matter how those pursuits are valued or rated by gatekeepers and decision makers. No happy and fulfilled person ever got that way by following someone else’s checklist.
Learn slowly and reap the value of your real intellectual achievements. Cultivate your life along with your knowledge, and watch your opportunities for autonomy and self-direction grow.
The Wall Street Journal recently posted a fascinating and excruciatingly sad article about an Ohio woman, Kelley Williams-Bolar, who used her father’s address to get her two daughters placed into a higher-rated public school than the one they were forced to attend. For this heinous crime she was convicted on two felony counts of “education theft” and sentenced to ten days in prison, three years of probation, and 80 hours of community service.
Though the governor of Ohio intervened to reduce Ms. Williams-Bolar’s sentence and overturn the felony convictions — thus allowing her to continue pursuing her teacher’s license (!!!) — parents in three other states are currently awaiting trial on similar charges. The problem is apparently so widespread that companies promising to verify students’ addresses have sprung up. School districts pay these companies to find instances of address misrepresentation, and the companies in turn offer $250 checks to would-be tipsters whose information leads to ferreting out these criminals.
What Constitutes a “Good” School?
According to the Wall Street Journal article, a “good” public school is one in which the majority of students are not failing to make educational progress or read and do math at grade level.
It’s not surprising that “not failing” is the highest ideal that public schools can reach. Public schools force random property-owning strangers to pay into a system whether they have children or not. They force parents to either send children to a particular building each morning or face onerous consequences. They force children to sit down and shut up for hours on end to meet state requirements enacted by people who don’t know the individual children or what is best for them.
Because of the coercive system underlying state schools, the schools and everyone associated with them is primed for failure.
In contrast, a good school is one in which no one is forced to do anything. Random community-members are not forced to pay, parents are not forced to give up their children to strangers for eight hours a day, and children are not forced to sit in rows and conform to “standards” set up by people who don’t know them from Adam.
A good school can be a homeschooling or unschooling situation, a Summerhill-type community of independent learners, a Montessori or Waldorf/Steiner school, to name but a few examples. The only thing that these types of learning situations have in common is that the people in them are free and willing participants. They are not coerced, threatened, bullied, or punished — and to a large but somewhat varying extent, the children are in charge of their own educational progress.
Admittedly, not everyone has the privilege of staying home with and educating their children, or paying considerable sums to send them to a private school that won’t end up mangling their minds. There is a middle ground, however.
The best thing for all children would be to get the state entirely out of education, and allow schools to compete for students. In order to be competitive, schools would have to offer a diverse array of education styles, extracurricular programs, and other incentives to attract students. The schools would not only compete amongst themselves, but they would compete with home education, cooperative learning societies, Summerhill-type education, unschooling, and many other systems that haven’t even been invented yet, but would flourish (to the extent that the children within them flourished) in an open market.
This is the spirit behind what Kelley Williams-Bolar did. When she realized that the schools she was forced to send her children to didn’t educate them properly and had no chance of educating them, she rightly sent her children to a school which she thought to be better. There should be absolutely nothing strange — not to mention illegal — about this.
The Most Important Thing
What all of the articles about Ms. Williams-Bolar’s situation missed is where her daughters are now going to school. The reader is left to assume that the children have been pulled out of the better school that their mother risked her freedom in order to place them in.
That is almost more unjust than jailing their mother.