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Over that same period, per-pupil spending in the United States soared 21 percent—with nearly all of those many tens of billions of new dollars spent on hiring those extra teachers. Not long ago, I sat down with one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. He began by talking about his childhood in Minneapolis. He would go up and down the streets of his neighborhood at the beginning of every winter, he said, getting commitments from people who wanted their driveways and sidewalks cleared of snow.
Then he would contract out each job to other children in the neighborhood. He paid his workers the moment the job was done, with cash on hand, and collected from the families later because he learned that was the surest way to get his crew to work hard. He had eight, sometimes nine, kids on the payroll. In the fall, he would switch to raking leaves.
This was in the s. That would be the equivalent today of five thousand dollars. But to earn it and save it and defer gratification—then you learn to value it differently. His father was a product of the Depression, and talked plainly about money. The man from Hollywood said that if he wanted something—a new pair of running shoes, say, or a bicycle—his father would tell him he had to pay half.
If he left the lights on, his father would show him the electric bill. But if you need lights for working—twenty-four hours a day—no problem. It was hard, physical labor. He was treated like any other employee. It was awful.
It was dirty. It was hard. It was boring. It was putting scrap metal in barrels. I worked there from May fifteenth through Labor Day. I think, looking back, my father wanted me to work there because he knew that if I worked there, I would want to escape.
I would be motivated to do something more. He organized student charter flights to Europe. He went to see basketball games with his friend and sat in terrible seats—obstructed by a pillar—and wondered what it would be like to sit in the premium seats courtside. He went to business school and law school in New York, and lived in a bad neighborhood in Brooklyn to save money.
After graduation, he got a job in Hollywood, which led to a bigger job, and then to an even bigger job, and side deals and prizes and a string of extraordinary successes—to the point where he now has a house in Beverly Hills the size of an airplane hangar, his own jet, a Ferrari in the garage, and a gate in front of his seemingly never-ending driveway that looks like it was shipped over from some medieval castle in Europe.
He understood money. And he understood money because he felt he had been given a thorough education in its value and function back home on the streets of Minneapolis. I wanted to aspire to have different things. I learned it. It was kind of like trial and error. I liked the juice of it. I got some self-esteem from it.
I felt more control over my life. He had children that he loved very dearly. Like any parent, he wanted to provide for them, to give them more than he had. But he had created a giant contradiction, and he knew it.
He was successful because he had learned the long and hard way about the value of money and the meaning of work and the joy and fulfillment that come from making your own way in the world. Children of multimillionaires in Hollywood do not rake the leaves of their neighbors in Beverly Hills.
Their fathers do not wave the electricity bill angrily at them if they leave the lights on. They do not sit in a basketball arena behind a pillar and wonder what it would be like to sit courtside. They live courtside. He was a man who had made a great name for himself. One of his brothers had taken over the family scrap- metal business and prospered. Another of his brothers had become a doctor and built a thriving medical practice.
His father had produced three sons who were fulfilled and motivated and who had accomplished something for themselves in the world. And his point was that it was going to be harder for him, as a man with hundreds of millions of dollars, to be as successful in raising his children as his father had been back in a mixed neighborhood of Minneapolis. The man from Hollywood is not the first person to have had this revelation.
It is something, I think, that most of us understand intuitively. There is an important principle that guides our thinking about the relationship between parenting and money—and that principle is that more is not always better. It is hard to be a good parent if you have too little money. That much is obvious. Poverty is exhausting and stressful. If you are a working single parent, trying to pay your rent and feed and clothe your family and manage a long and difficult commute to a physically demanding job, it is hard to provide your children with the kind of consistent love and attention and discipline that makes for a healthy home.
But no one would ever say that it is always true that the more money you have, the better parent you can be. What is that point? The scholars who research happiness suggest that more money stops making people happier at a family income of around seventy-five thousand dollars a year. If your family makes seventy-five thousand and your neighbor makes a hundred thousand, that extra twenty-five thousand a year means that your neighbor can drive a nicer car and go out to eat slightly more often.
Because when the income of parents gets high enough, then parenting starts to be harder again. For most of us, the values of the world we grew up in are not that different from the world we create for our children. Someone like the Hollywood mogul grew up in the Old Country of the middle class, where scarcity was a great motivator and teacher. His father taught him the meaning of money and the virtues of independence and hard work. But his children live in the New World of riches, where the rules are different and baffling.
Wealth contains the seeds of its own destruction. You have a Porsche, and Mom has a Maserati. Sometimes, as a parent, you have to say it only once or twice. But I choose not to. The man from Hollywood had too much money. That was his problem as a parent. He was well past the point where money made things better, and well past the point where money stopped mattering all that much. He was at the point where money starts to make the job of raising normal and well-adjusted children more difficult.
Inverted-U curves are hard to understand. They almost never fail to take us by surprise, and one of the reasons we are so often confused about advantages and disadvantages is that we forget when we are operating in a U-shaped world. In her five-year tenure at the school, she has watched the incoming class dwindle year by year. To a parent, that might seem like good news. But when she thought about it, she had that last curve in mind.
Inverted-U curves have three parts, and each part follows a different logic. The number of students in a class is like the amount of money a parent has. It all depends on where you are on the curve. Israel, for example, has historically had quite large elementary school classes. That means elementary school classes can often have as many as thirty-eight or thirty-nine students. Where there are forty students in a grade, though, the same school could suddenly have two classes of twenty.
If you do a Hoxby-style analysis and compare the academic performance of one of those big classes with a class of twenty, the small class will do better. Thirty-six or thirty-seven students is a lot for any teacher to handle. Israel is on the left side of the inverted-U curve. Now think back to Connecticut. In the schools Hoxby looked at, most of the variation was between class sizes in the mid- to low twenties and those in the high teens.
Somewhere between Israel and Connecticut, in other words, the effects of class size move along the curve to the flat middle—where adding resources to the classroom stops translating into a better experience for children. But a smaller classroom translates to a better outcome only if teachers change their teaching style when given a lower workload.
They just work less. This is only human nature. Would you respond by spending more time with each patient? Or would you simply leave at six-thirty instead of seven-thirty and have dinner with your kids? Now for the crucial question. Can a class be too small, the same way a parent can make too much money? I polled a large number of teachers in the United States and Canada and asked them that question, and teacher after teacher agreed that it can.
Eighteen divides handily into groups of two or three or six—all varying degrees of intimacy in and of themselves. With eighteen students, I can always get to each one of them when I need to. Twenty-four is my second favorite number—the extra six bodies make it even more likely that there will be a dissident among them, a rebel or two to challenge the status quo.
But the trade-off with twenty-four is that it verges on having the energetic mass of an audience instead of a team. And what about the other direction? Drop down six from the perfect eighteen bodies and we have the Last Supper. Twelve is small enough to fit around the holiday dinner table— too intimate for many high schoolers to protect their autonomy on the days they need to, and too easily dominated by the bombast or bully, either of whom could be the teacher herself.
By the time we shrink to six bodies, there is no place to hide at all, and not enough diversity in thought and experience to add the richness that can come from numbers. The small class is, in other words, potentially as difficult for a teacher to manage as the very large class.
In one case, the problem is the number of potential interactions to manage. In the other case, it is the intensity of the potential interactions. There is simply no way for the cantankerous kids to get away from one another. He had recently had a class of thirty-two and hated it. If the numbers get too low, discussion suffers. That seems counterintuitive because I would think that the quiet kids who would hesitate to speak in a class of thirty-two would do so more readily in a class of sixteen.
The quiet ones tend to be quiet regardless. There is also something hard to pin down about energy level. A very small group tends to lack the sort of energy that comes from the friction between people. And a really, really small class? I had a class of nine students in grade-twelve Academic French. It was a nightmare! The economist Jesse Levin has done some fascinating work along these same lines, looking at Dutch schoolchildren. He counted how many peers children had in their class—that is, students at a similar level of academic ability—and found that the number of peers had a surprising correlation with academic performance, particularly for struggling students.
This is the problem with really small classes, Levin argues. When there are too few students in a room, the chances that children are surrounded by a critical mass of other people like them start to get really low. She is the principal of a middle school, teaching children at precisely the age when they begin to make the difficult transition to adolescence.
They are awkward and self-conscious and anxious about seeming too smart. How do you do that in a half-empty room? Meriden is a middle-and lower-income city in another part of the state. She liked teaching that class. It was one of the best years of her career.
The great struggle for someone teaching math to twelve-and thirteen-year-olds is to make it seem exciting—and twenty-nine kids was exciting. There was more opportunity to vary your experiences. Of course not. DeBrito knew that she was a bit unusual and that the ideal number for most teachers was lower than that. Her point was simply that on the question of class size, we have become obsessed with what is good about small classrooms and oblivious of what can also be good about large classes.
When she thought back to that year in Meriden, DeBrito got a faraway look in her eyes. I like to hear them interact. A half-hour drive up the road from Shepaug Valley, in the town of Lakeville, Connecticut, is a school called Hotchkiss.
It is considered one of the premier private boarding schools in the United States. The school has two lakes, two hockey rinks, four telescopes, a golf course, and twelve pianos. And not just any pianos, but, as the school takes pains to point out, Steinway pianos, the most prestigious piano money can buy.
Twelve students. The same condition that Teresa DeBrito dreads, Hotchkiss—just up the road—advertises as its greatest asset. But the better answer is that Hotchkiss has simply fallen into the trap that wealthy people and wealthy institutions and wealthy countries—all Goliaths—too often fall into: the school assumes that the kinds of things that wealth can buy always translate into real-world advantages.
It is good to be bigger and stronger than your opponent. It is not so good to be so big and strong that you are a sitting duck for a rock fired at miles per hour. The man from Hollywood was not the parent he wanted to be, because he was too rich. Hotchkiss is not the school it wants to be, because its classes are too small. We all assume that being bigger and stronger and richer is always in our best interest. He was one of the oldest and most established members of the group, a handsome and gregarious man in his early thirties who dressed in the height of fashion and charmed all those around him with his energy and humor.
He was among the few who could match wits with Manet; the two shared a fiery spirit and a sharp tongue and would sometimes descend into bitter argument. The moral compass of the group was Camille Pissarro: fiercely political, loyal, and principled. They painted one another and painted next to one another and supported one another emotionally and financially, and today their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world.
But in the s, they were struggling. Monet was broke. Not that Renoir was in any better shape. There were virtually no dealers interested in their paintings. When the art critics mentioned the Impressionists—and there was a small army of art critics in Paris in the s —it was usually to belittle them.
Art played an enormous role in the cultural life of France in the nineteenth century. Painting was regulated by a government department called the Ministry of the Imperial House and the Fine Arts, and it was considered a profession in the same way that medicine or the law is a profession today. At each stage of his education, there would be competitions. Those who did well would win awards and prestigious fellowships, and at the pinnacle of the profession was the Salon, the most important art exhibition in all of Europe.
Every year each of the painters of France submitted two or three of his finest canvases to a jury of experts. The deadline was the first of April. Throughout the next few weeks, the jury would vote on each painting in turn. The best paintings were given medals. The winners were celebrated and saw the value of their paintings soar. The losers limped home and went back to work. For the most part, they knew what they liked, and expected to see what they knew.
The Impressionists had an entirely different idea about what constituted art. They painted everyday life. Their brushstrokes were visible. Their figures were indistinct. To the Salon jury and the crowds thronging the Palais, their work looked amateurish, even shocking. In , the Salon, surprisingly, accepted a painting by Manet of a prostitute, called Olympia, and the painting sent all of Paris into an uproar.
Guards had to be placed around the painting to keep the crowds of spectators at bay. It was almost as bad as not being accepted at all. The Salon was the most important art show in the world. Was it worth it? Night after night, the Impressionists argued over whether they should keep knocking on the Salon door or strike out on their own and stage a show just for themselves.
In the end, the Impressionists made the right choice, which is one of the reasons that their paintings hang in every major art museum in the world. The inverted-U curve reminds us that there is a point at which money and resources stop making our lives better and start making them worse. The story of the Impressionists suggests a second, parallel problem. We strive for the best and attach great importance to getting into the finest institutions we can.
But rarely do we stop and consider—as the Impressionists did—whether the most prestigious of institutions is always in our best interest. There are many examples of this, but few more telling than the way we think about where to attend university. She went to public schools through high school. Her mother is an accountant and her father works for a technology company. As a child she sang in the church choir and loved to write and draw.
But what really excited her was science. She is a thoughtful and articulate young woman, with a refreshing honesty and directness. And sharks. So for a while I thought I was going to be a veterinarian or an ichthyologist. Eugenie Clark was my hero. She was the first woman diver.
I just thought she was great. My dad met her and was able to give me a signed photo and I was really excited. Science was always a really big part of what I did. She took a political science course at a nearby college while she was still in high school, as well as a multivariant calculus course at the local community college.
She got As in both, as well as an A in every class she took in high school. She got perfect scores on every one of her Advanced Placement pre-college courses. Wesleyan was fun but very small. It is small and exclusive, situated in the middle of a nineteenth-century neighborhood of redbrick Georgian and Colonial buildings on the top of a gently sloping hill.
It might be the most beautiful college campus in the United States. She applied to Brown, with the University of Maryland as her backup. A few months later, she got a letter in the mail. She was in. It was very reassuring. Did Caroline Sacks make the right choice? Most of us would say that she did. When she went on that whirlwind tour with her father, she ranked the colleges she saw, from best to worst. Brown University was number one. The University of Maryland was her backup because it was not in any way as good a school as Brown.
Brown is a member of the Ivy League. It has more resources, more academically able students, more prestige, and more accomplished faculty than the University of Maryland. In the rankings of American colleges published every year by the magazine U. The University of Maryland finishes much farther back in the pack. It was a choice between two very different options, each with its own strengths and drawbacks. The Salon was a lot like an Ivy League school. It was the place where reputations were made.
And what made it special was how selective it was. Rejection was the norm. Getting in was a feat. The Palais was an enormous barn of a building three hundred yards long with a central aisle that was two stories high. A typical Salon might accept three or four thousand paintings, and they were hung in four tiers, starting at ground level and stretching up to the ceiling.
No painter could submit more than three works. The crowds were often overwhelming. The Salon was the Big Pond. But it was very hard to be anything at the Salon but a Little Fish. Pissarro and Monet disagreed with Manet. They thought it made more sense to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond. They could paint whatever they wanted. There would be no competition, no juries, and no medals. Every artist would be treated as an equal. Everyone but Manet was in. The group found space on the Boulevard des Capucines on the top floor of a building that had just been vacated by a photographer.
It was a series of small rooms with red-brown walls. The entrance fee was one franc. In their show, the Impressionists could exhibit as many canvases as they wished and hang them in a way that allowed people to actually see them. Not all of that attention was positive: one joke told was that what the Impressionists were doing was loading a pistol with paint and firing at the canvas.
But that was the second part of the Big Fish—Little Pond bargain. The Big Fish—Little Pond option might be scorned by some on the outside, but Small Ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside. They have all of the support that comes from community and friendship—and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon.
Off by themselves, the Impressionists found a new identity. They felt a new creative freedom, and before long, the outside world began to sit up and take notice. In the history of modern art, there has never been a more important or more famous exhibition. If you tried to buy the paintings in that warren of top-floor rooms today, it would cost you more than a billion dollars.
The lesson of the Impressionists is that there are times and places where it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond than a Little Fish in a Big Pond, where the apparent disadvantage of being an outsider in a marginal world turns out not to be a disadvantage at all. Caroline Sacks faced the same choice. She could be a Big Fish at the University of Maryland, or a Little Fish at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
She chose the Salon over the three rooms on Boulevard des Capucines—and she ended up paying a high price. The trouble for Caroline Sacks began in the spring of her freshman year, when she enrolled in chemistry. She was probably taking too many courses, she realizes now, and doing too many extracurricular activities. She got her grade on her third midterm exam, and her heart sank. She went to talk to the professor. She retook the course in the fall of her sophomore year.
But she barely did any better. She got a low B. She was in shock. And I was taking the class for the second time, this time as a sophomore, and most of the kids in the class were first-semester freshmen. It was pretty disheartening. So I was trying not to be naive about that. The students in her class were competitive. There are people who just think that way and in five minutes are done.
Then there are people who through an amazing amount of hard work trained themselves to think that way. I worked so hard and I never got it down. She was miserable and angry. The tragic part was that Sacks loved science. As she talked about her abandonment of her first love, she mourned all the courses she would have loved to take but now never would—physiology, infectious disease, biology, math. And I want to study them, and I read up on them all the time, and I draw them in my sketchbook and label all the different parts of them and talk about where they live and what they do.
She never wanted to be an organic chemist. It was just a course. Lots of people find organic chemistry impossible. If you were to rank all the students in the world who are taking organic chemistry, Sacks would probably be in the 99th percentile. She was comparing herself to her fellow students at Brown. She was a Little Fish in one of the deepest and most competitive ponds in the country—and the experience of comparing herself to all the other brilliant fish shattered her confidence.
Stouffer was commissioned by the U. Army to examine the attitudes and morale of American soldiers, and he ended up studying half a million men and women, looking at everything from how soldiers viewed their commanding officers to how black soldiers felt they were being treated to how difficult soldiers found it to serve in isolated outposts.
But one set of questions Stouffer asked stood out. He quizzed both soldiers serving in the Military Police and those serving in the Air Corps the forerunner of the Air Force about how good a job they thought their service did in recognizing and promoting people of ability. The answer was clear.
Military Policemen had a far more positive view of their organization than did enlisted men in the Air Corps. On the face of it, that made no sense. The Air Corps had one of the best. The chance of an enlisted man rising to officer status in the Air Corps was twice that of a soldier in the Military Police. So, why on earth would the Military Policemen be more satisfied?
The answer, Stouffer famously explained, is that Military Policemen compared themselves only to other Military Policemen. And if you got a promotion in the Military Police, that was such a rare event that you were very happy. His chance of getting promoted to officer was greater than 50 percent.
If he had failed to earn a rating while the majority had succeeded, he had more reason to feel a sense of personal frustration, which could be expressed as criticism of the promotion system. This is one of those observations that is both obvious and upon exploration deeply profound, and it explains all kinds of otherwise puzzling observations. Which do you think, for example, has a higher suicide rate: countries whose citizens declare themselves to be very happy, such as Switzerland, Denmark, Iceland, the Netherlands, and Canada?
Answer: the so-called happy countries. But can you imagine how difficult it must be to be depressed in a country where everyone else has a big smile on their face? It is what human beings do. We compare ourselves to those in the same situation as ourselves, which means that students in an elite school— except, perhaps, those at the very top of the class—are going to face a burden that they would not face in a less competitive atmosphere.
Citizens of happy countries have higher suicide rates than citizens of unhappy countries, because they look at the smiling faces around them and the contrast is too great. Students who would be at the top of their class at a good school can easily fall to the bottom of a really good school. Students who would feel that they have mastered a subject at a good school can have the feeling that they are falling farther and farther behind in a really good school.
And that feeling—as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be —matters. The Big Fish—Little Pond theory was pioneered by the psychologist Herbert Marsh, and to Marsh, most parents and students make their school choices for the wrong reasons.
The reality is that it is going to be mixed. The tests to get into them were incredibly competitive. So the Sydney Morning Herald—the big newspaper there—would always call me up whenever they were holding their entrance examinations. It would happen every year, and there was always this pressure to say something new. You should be measuring the parents. What happened to Caroline Sacks is all too common. More than half of all American students who start out in science, technology, and math programs or STEM, as they are known drop out after their first or second year.
Even though a science degree is just about the most valuable asset a young person can have in the modern economy, large numbers of would-be STEM majors end up switching into the arts, where academic standards are less demanding and the coursework less competitive.
Here are all the Hartwick STEM majors divided into three groups—top third, middle third, and bottom third—according to their test scores in mathematics. The scores are from the SAT, the exam used by many American colleges as an admissions test. The mathematics section of the test is out of points. The bottom third end up earning only The students who come into Hartwick with the poorest levels of math ability are dropping out of math and science in droves.
This much seems like common sense. Learning the advanced mathematics and physics necessary to become an engineer or scientist is really hard—and only a small number of students clustered at the top of the class are smart enough to handle the material. If getting a science degree is about how smart you are, then virtually everyone at Harvard should end up with a degree—right? At least on paper, there is no one at Harvard who lacks the intellectual firepower to master the coursework.
The students in the bottom third of the Harvard class drop out of math and science just as much as their counterparts in upstate New York. Harvard has the same distribution of science degrees as Hartwick. Think about this for a moment. We have a group of high achievers at Hartwick. Each is studying the same textbooks and wrestling with the same concepts and trying to master the same problem sets in courses like advanced calculus and organic chemistry, and according to test scores, they are of roughly equal academic ability.
But the overwhelming majority of Hartwick All-Stars get what they want and end up as engineers or biologists. Meanwhile, the Harvard Dregs—who go to the far more prestigious school—are so demoralized by their experience that many of them drop out of science entirely and transfer to some nonscience major. What matters, in determining the likelihood of getting a science degree, is not just how smart you are. By the way, this pattern holds true for virtually any school you look at—regardless of its academic quality.
The sociologists Rogers Elliott and Christopher Strenta ran these same numbers for eleven different liberal arts colleges across the United States. By going to Brown, she would benefit from the prestige of the university. She might have more interesting and wealthier peers. The connections she made at school and the brand value of Brown on her diploma might give her a leg up on the job market. These are all classic Big Pond advantages. Brown is the Salon.
But she would be taking a risk. She would dramatically increase her chances of dropping out of science entirely. How large was that risk? Thirty percent! At a time when students with liberal arts degrees struggle to find jobs, students with STEM degrees are almost assured of good careers.
Jobs for people with science and engineering degrees are plentiful and highly paid. Let me give you one more example of the Big Pond in action. It might be even more striking. Suppose you are a university looking to hire the best young academics coming out of graduate school. What should your hiring strategy be? Should you hire only graduates from the most elite graduate schools?
Or should you hire students who finished at the top of their class, regardless of what school they went to? Most universities follow the first strategy. They even make a boast out of it: We hire only graduates of the very top schools. But I hope that by this point you are at least a little bit skeptical of that position. Luckily there is a very simple way to compare those two strategies. In academic economics, there are a handful of economics journals that everyone in the field reads and respects.
The top journals accept only the best and most creative research and economists rate one another according to —for the most part—how many research articles they have published in those elite journals. So what did they find? That the best students from mediocre schools were almost always a better bet than good students from the very best schools.
I realize that this is a deeply counterintuitive fact. The idea that it might not be a good idea for universities to hire from Harvard and MIT seems crazy. I realize that this is a lot of numbers. But just look at the left-hand side—the students who finish in the 99th percentile of their class.
To publish three or four papers in the most prestigious journals at the beginning of your career is quite an accomplishment. These people are really good. That much makes sense. To be the top economics graduate student at MIT or Stanford is an extraordinary achievement.
But then the puzzles start. Look at the 80th percentile column. Schools like MIT and Stanford and Harvard accept somewhere around two dozen PhD students a year, so if you are in the 80th percentile, you are roughly fifth or sixth in your class. These are also extraordinary students. But look at how few papers the 80th percentile publishes! A fraction of the number of the very best students. And by the way, look at the last column—the 55th percentile, the students who are just above average.
They are brilliant enough to make it into one of the most competitive graduate programs in the world, and to finish their studies in the top half of their class. And yet they barely publish anything at all. As professional economists, they can only be considered disappointments.
In the annual U. The first is my own alma mater, the University of Toronto out of a sense of school spirit! The second is Boston University. Do you see what is so fascinating? The very best students at a non—top 30 school—that is, a school so far down the list that someone from the Ivy League would grimace at the thought of even setting foot there—have a publication number of 1. Thus, successful candidates must be hardworking, intelligent, well-trained as undergraduates, savvy and ambitious.
Why is it that the majority of these successful applicants, who were winners and did all the right things up to the time they applied to graduate school, become so unimpressive after they are trained? Are we failing the students, or are the students failing us? The answer, of course, is neither. No one is failing anyone. This is just another version of what happened to Caroline Sacks.
The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them. By the way, do you know what elite institution has recognized this very fact about the dangers of the Big Pond for nearly fifty years? What are the effects of the psychology of feeling average, even in a very able group? Thus did Harvard begin the practice which continues to this day of letting in substantial numbers of gifted athletes who have academic qualifications well below the rest of their classmates.
Exactly the same logic applies to the debate over affirmative action. In the United States, there is an enormous controversy over whether colleges and professional schools should have lower admissions standards for disadvantaged minorities. Supporters of affirmative action say helping minorities get into selective schools is justified given the long history of discrimination. Opponents say that access to selective schools is so important that it ought to be done purely on academic merit.
A group in the middle says that using race as the basis for preference is a mistake—and what we really should be doing is giving preference to people who are poor. What all three groups take for granted is that being able to get into a great school is such an important advantage that the small number of spaces at the top are worth fighting over.
But why on earth are people convinced that places at the top are so valuable that they are worth fighting over? The result? According to the law professor Richard Sander, more than half of all African-American law students in the United States— Remember what Caroline Sacks said? But Brown University made her feel stupid— and if she truly wanted to graduate with a science degree, the best thing for her to do would have been to go down a notch to Maryland.
No sane person would say that the solution to her problems would be for her to go to an even more competitive school like Stanford or MIT. We take promising students like Caroline Sacks—but who happen to be black—and offer to bump them up a notch. And why do we do that? It is something done with the best of intentions, and elite schools often have resources available to help poor students that other schools do not.
Parents still tell their children to go to the best schools they possibly can, on the grounds that the best schools will allow them to do whatever they wish. We take it for granted that the Big Pond expands opportunities, just as we take it for granted that a smaller class is always a better class. And what happens as a result? It means that we make mistakes. It means that we misread battles between underdogs and giants. It means that we underestimate how much freedom there can be in what looks like a disadvantage.
At the time she was applying to college, Caroline Sacks had no idea she was taking that kind of chance with the thing she loved. Now she does. At the end of our talk, I asked her what would have happened if she had chosen instead to go to the University of Maryland—to be, instead, a Big Fish in a Little Pond.
Then I did algebra two in fifth grade and geometry in sixth grade. By the time I got to middle school, I was going to high school for math and for biology, chemistry, and Advanced Placement U. I also went to a local college starting in fifth grade, taking some math, but I did other science in fifth grade as well.
But I did it. I forget how it started. I just wanted to wear a tie one day in first grade and then I just kept doing it. I was a nerd, I guess. His college admission-test scores were nearly perfect. In the first week of school, he walked through Harvard Yard and marveled at his good fortune. Which was a crazy thought, but it was like, oh, yeah, all these people are interesting and smart and amazing and this is going to be a great experience.
I was so enthusiastic. They were artistic geniuses. But they were also possessed of a rare wisdom about the world. They were capable of looking at what the rest of us thought of as a great advantage, and seeing it for what it really was. So what happened to Stephen Randolph at Harvard? I think you can guess the answer. In his third year, he took quantum mechanics. Maybe I felt that I had to be the best at it or be a genius at it for it to make sense for me to continue.
Some people seemed to get it more quickly than I did—and you tend to focus on those people and not the ones who are just as lost as you are. But did he get the education he wanted? Then he laughed, a little ruefully. After graduating, he took a job with a law firm in Manhattan. Harvard cost the world a physicist and gave the world another lawyer. There are a fair number of math and physics majors who end up in tax law.
Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. For when I am weak, then I am strong. If you do a brain scan on a person with dyslexia, the images that are produced seem strange. In certain critical parts of the brain—those that deal with reading and processing words—dyslexics have less gray matter.
As the fetus develops inside the womb, neurons are supposed to travel to the appropriate areas of the brain, taking their places like pieces on a chessboard. But for some reason, the neurons of dyslexics sometimes get lost along the way.
They end up in the wrong place. Some people with reading disorders have neurons lining their ventricles, like passengers stranded in an airport. While an image of the brain is being made, a patient performs a task, and then a neuroscientist looks to see what parts of the brain have been activated in response to that task. If you ask a dyslexic to read when he or she is having a brain scan, the parts that are supposed to light up might not light up at all.
The scan looks like an aerial photo of a city during a blackout. Dyslexics use a lot more of the right hemisphere of their brains during reading than normal readers do. The right hemisphere is the conceptual side. Sometimes when a dyslexic reads, every step will be delayed, as if the different parts of the brain responsible for reading were communicating via a weak connection.
See the color. Recognize the color. Attach a name to the color. Say the name. Or say, Listen to the following three sounds: cuh, ah, and tuh. Easy questions for most four-year-olds. Really hard questions for dyslexics. But it is much more profound than that. Dyslexia is a problem in the way people hear and manipulate sounds. The difference between bah and dah is a subtlety in the first 40 milliseconds of the syllable. Human language is based on the assumption that we can pick up that millisecond difference, and the difference between the bah sound and the dah sound can be the difference between getting something right and getting something catastrophically wrong.
So it leads to all these problems in middle school or high school. Then it starts affecting all other subjects in school. How are you going to do on math tests that have a lot of writing in them? Or how do you take an exam in social studies if it takes you two hours to read what they want from you? Maybe you were the cool kid on the playground when you were four.
So you get frustrated. You have very low self-esteem, which leads to an increased rate of depression. Kids with dyslexia are more likely to end up in the juvenile system, because they act up. Now it is time to turn our attention to the other side of the ledger. What do we mean when we call something a disadvantage? Conventional wisdom holds that a disadvantage is something that ought to be avoided—that it is a setback or a difficulty that leaves you worse off than you would be otherwise.
But that is not always the case. Consider, for example, the following puzzle. How much does the ball cost? The right answer must be that the ball costs 5 cents. The setup of the question tempts you to answer One hundred machines take exactly the same amount of time to make widgets as 5 machines take to make 5 widgets. The right answer is 5 minutes. It was invented by the Yale professor Shane Frederick, and it measures your ability to understand when something is more complex than it appears —to move past impulsive answers to deeper, analytic judgments.
Frederick argues that if you want a quick way to sort people according to their level of basic cognitive ability, his little test is almost as useful as tests that have hundreds of items and take several hours to finish. To prove his point, Frederick gave the CRT to students at nine American colleges, and the results track pretty closely with how students from those colleges would rank on more traditional intelligence tests.
Students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, another extraordinarily elite institution, averaged 1. Harvard students scored 1. The CRT is really hard. Make it just a little bit harder. The psychologists Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer tried this a few years ago with a group of undergraduates at Princeton University. First they gave the CRT the normal way, and the students averaged 1.
Then Alter and Oppenheimer printed out the test questions in a font that was really hard to read—a 10 percent gray, point italics Myriad Pro font—so that it looked like this: 1. The average score this time around? Suddenly, the students were doing much better than their counterparts at MIT. Normally we think that we are better at solving problems when they are presented clearly and simply.
But here the opposite happened. A 10 percent gray, point italics Myriad Pro font makes reading really frustrating. You have to squint a little bit and maybe read the sentence twice, and you probably wonder halfway through who on earth thought it was a good idea to print out the test this way. Suddenly you have to work to read the question.
Yet all that extra effort pays off. But that difficulty turned out to be desirable. Not all difficulties have a silver lining, of course. What Caroline Sacks went through, in her organic chemistry class at Brown was an undesirable difficulty. The struggle did not give her a new appreciation of science. It scared her away from science. Books Video icon An illustration of two cells of a film strip.
Video Audio icon An illustration of an audio speaker. Audio Software icon An illustration of a 3. Software Images icon An illustration of two photographs. Images Donate icon An illustration of a heart shape Donate Ellipses icon An illustration of text ellipses.
David and Goliath Movies Preview. It appears your browser does not have it turned on. Please see your browser settings for this feature. EMBED for wordpress. Want more? Advanced embedding details, examples, and help! The story of the film is adapted from the Old Testament: The Philistines declare war on the Israelites and wrench the Arch of the Allience from them.
Saul Orson Welles , the king of Israel, listens meanwhile to the words of the prophets who tell him that the new king will be a young shepard called David. But still David has to fight the enemy in form of their mighty giant Goliath. English dubbed.
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