Recently I was involved in a conversation with friend who made the off-handed statement that his son “likes to dive.” That was it, “my son likes to dive.” Because of this love, the father and wife were taking their son to the pool each day so he could dive. I found the statement of my friend refreshing because it was not accompanied by what I term the “world class standards” conversation. We all have experienced such a conversation. It occurs anytime an adult is provided the opportunity to describe the gifts of a family member or some other relationship. The conversation typically begins with an activity that a child appears to enjoy at an early age. Parents or close relationships view the proclivities of their offspring as a sign of great things to come. Today a child likes to dive, likes to hit a ball, likes to run, likes to play chess, likes to sing; and tomorrow, parents will find themselves proudly sitting in stadiums with thousands of other people cheering the achievements of their son or daughter.
For parents, close relatives, and unfortunately those who should know better (i.e. educators and coaches) kids just aren’t encouraged to simply like to dive, or like to play baseball, or like to ski or like to read. In our contemporary “culture of excellence” kids are expected to transform a proclivity into a world-class skill. A skill that has the potential for adulation or cash value.
Even the most sensible parents seem to lose a sense of proportion if their son or daughter displays a spurt of giftedness somewhere in their youth. Such a display of talent is a call to action. Parents quickly respond to the “call” by seeking out the best camps and coaches that will provide the knowledge and skills necessary for their son or daughter to become world class athletes or scholars.
In addition to providing the best talent and environments to support their child, parents engage in intense political and social maneuverings to make sure that their son or daughter is “selected” for competitive venues (i.e. traveling teams) that will further develop and exhibit innate abilities.
One does not have to read the sports pages or, for that matter, the front pages of any newspaper to understand the “upsides” and “downsides” of this pursuit of excellence. The upsides for select individuals are apparent. Americans are willing to pay a lot of money and spent a great deal of time attending, watching, and talking about professional and collegial athletics. For the athlete who has attained world class status the financial and social rewards are enormous.
The “downsides” of pursuing excellence are as well known as the upsides — they are just in different sections of the newspaper. The most obvious dyfunctionality of such a pursuit is the single-mindedness required of the adults and young people who decide to journey down the road of excellence. To be truly world class demands a 24 – 7 commitment. There is no time in one’s schedule to pursue other interests or experiences. The narrowness can result in poor moral, financial, or social choices that ultimately end badly for the wunderkind. In addition to questionable life-style choices, the physical and mental toll of becoming world class can be literally “crippling.”
As a tragic as the personal toll of a narrow pursuit of excellence might be, the concern I have as an educator is how our society’s infatuation with athletics and to a lesser extent, academic excellence is distorting the values and goals of our institutions of learning. Principals as well as university presidents will tell you privately that they are spending far too much time on issues associated with athletics and far too little time with issues associated with teaching and learning. At the end of day, when you count up the number of athletes or scholars served by varsity or gifted programs, a very small percentage of the student population consumes a great deal of time and resources. What we all know in schools is that our “feeder” programs are founded on a pyramid concept of participation. Such a system encourages wide participation at an early age — the bottom of pyramid — and understands that only a few will remain at the end — the top of the pyramid. Every year, for example, thousands of young boys and girls participate in community baseball or softball leagues. By the junior year in high school there are only twenty boys and girls left who are playing varsity baseball or softball. Along the way a lot has happened to all the young people who “liked to dive.” This is how the system works; this is how the pursuit of excellence works.
As educators should we be satisfied with this outcome? After all alumni, board members, and those parent groups that have a voice in a community like to have winning teams and a gifted program for their son or daughter. From a school administrator’s viewpoint, to oppose the “pyramid” structure of athletics or academics appears to be un-American. After all that is how the real world works. But does it?
Societies that are dynamic or continue to grow have the ability to replace the pyramid picture of excellence with a concentric circle of personal best. The latter picture provides young people with many levels of participation in activities that they have an interest in and are allowed to develop — what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow experiences.” The concentric circles recognize that some young people will become more expert in an activity — they will gravitate to the center of the circle. Those of us, however, who are less talented, are still permitted to participate in the expanding circles of the activity rather than being given our walking papers at an early age.
In addition to supporting many levels of ideas and skills as source of new ideas and skills in a society, the concentric model of “meritocracy” is able to accommodate both the development of personal meaning as well as public displays of excellence. The personal self represents our privately held knowledge and skills. The public is what we are called upon to do at work or in some other public arena. When one goes public, there is a certain level of knowledge and skills which we must possess to perform our job or participate in civic functions. Our private self, however, is that realm of activities which provide all us with a means of addressing questions of personal meaning and expression. The most fortunate of us are those whose pursuit of personal meaning also provides us with a decent livelihood. Tiger Woods, for example, plays a game that is meaningful to him and also provides him with a very good living.
From an educator’s standpoint what significance do pyramids or concentric circles have to do with schooling? The beliefs, ideas, and practices associated with pyramids support our current emphasis on standards and excellence. A concentric circle also accommodates and encourages standards and excellence, but there is a significant difference. If you develop talent within a pyramid you narrow the levels of excellence and restrict the definition of standards. In a concentric approach, you accept many levels of excellence and expand the definition of standards. Instead of pursuing excellence or a standard, which is at the center of the circle, you are able to pursue many levels of excellence and definitions of standards in the outer rings of the concentric circle.
We all have had experiences participating in a variety of activities (i.e. golf, working out at the local health club, participating in book group, repairing our house) where we know what excellence is and what the standard would look like, but we neither possess the talent, the time, the money, the physiology, to reach that the level of excellence or the standard. Does that mean we stop playing golf, or working out, or reading? I would hope the answer is no —for those of us in schools the answer should be no.
If schools are to support a society that encourages the constant infusion of new ideas and ways to solve problems and at the same time the public and private pursuits of meaning, then we must think very differently about how we view talent in our classrooms. The present call for all students to achieve a standard or to realize excellence will marginalize ideas and approaches to problem solving that exist on the outer periphery of the concentric circle and alienate those who privately think and feel that the current public good is mistaken.
The other approach is to honor the many levels of talents and interests that lie outside the center of what is accepted as the standard of excellence. What would that look like in schools? First, the definition of extracurricular activities would have to be broadened to include all those activities that students have an interest in and would like to pursue at a more complex level. For most schools, this would mean a radical restructuring of budgets, coaching qualifications, and facilities — most schools, unfortunately, have built facilities and employed coaches that align with a pyramid approach to talent development.
Secondly, the definition of achievement must be broadened to include the many levels of growth that occur when individuals pursue something they find intriguing. The current practice of yelling at young people “to be the best” raises the bar so high that most give up or worse develop an antipathy for an activity that might provide an added dimension to their private world.
Increasing the breadth of activities and broadening the definition of achievement would create an inclusive school environment where the talents of all young people are respected and provided an environment to grow. Such an environment would also result in an increase in participation of young people instead of the rapid exclusion of students whose interests conflict with the current sports and activities profile which thrive on a pyramid approach to talent development.
The goal of schooling which is repeatedly announced by educators and parents is preparation for the real world. Of course, the real world for these educators and parents is a pyramid — a lot will try, but only the best will reach the top of pyramid. This is not what John Dewey meant by growth in education. Dewey had an expanded vision of schooling that required schools to grow talent and to grow ideas. For Dewey, just “liking to dive,” was a good beginning. The sacred obligation of schools, from Dewey’s perspective, was to continually work at growing what people like to do or find meaningful —to build on “a good beginning.” Dewey would find the goals of schooling seriously distorted in schools and communities where “liking to dive” was viewed as a terminal activity for most.
Csikszentmihalyi, in his book, The Evolving Self, provides a portrait of what happens to societies that “provide room for growth,” and societies which establish a narrow pathway for young people to find personal meaning and public achievement. The “task of a good society,” according to Csikszentmihalyi “is not to enshrine the creative solutions of the past into permanent institutions; it is, rather to make possible for creativity to keep asserting itself.”