Trickle Down Academic Elitism

Will Fitzhugh:

When [mid-20th century] I was in a private school in Northern California, I won a “gold” medal for first place in a track meet of the Private School Conference of Northern California for the high jump [5’6”]—which I thought was pretty high.

My “peers” in the Bay Area public high schools at the time were already clearing 6 feet, but I was, in fact, not in their league.

As the decades went by, high school students were clearing greater and greater heights, in the same way records were falling in all other sports.

The current boys high school record, set in July 2002, by Andra Manson of Kingston, Jamaica, at a high school in Brenham, Texas, is 7 feet, 7 inches. [high jump, not pole vault].

How did this happen? Well, not by keeping progress in the high jump a secret.

A number of private schools in the Boston area have put an end to all academic prizes and honors, to keep those who don’t get them from feeling bad, but they still keep score in games, and they still report on and give prizes for elite academic performances.

It seems obvious to me that by letting high school athletes know that the record for the high jump was moving up from five feet nothing to 7 feet, 7 inches, some large group of high school athletes decided to work at it and try to jump higher, with real success since 1950.

The Boston Globe has about 150 pages a year on high school sports, highlighting best performances in and results from all manner of athletic competitions. This must fuel ambition in other high school athletes to achieve more themselves, and even to merit mention in the media.

When it comes to high school academic achievement, on the other hand, The Boston Globe seems content to devote one page a year to just the valedictorians at the public high schools in Boston itself [usually half of them were born in another country, it seems].

Why is it that we are comfortable encouraging, supporting, seeking and celebrating elite performance in high school sports, but we seem shy, embarrassed, reluctant, ashamed, and even afraid to encourage, support, and acknowledge—much less celebrate—outstanding academic work by high school students?

Whatever the reasons, it seems likely that what we do will bring us more and better athletic efforts and achievements by high school students, while those students who really do want to achieve at the elite levels in their academic work can just keep all that to themselves, thank you very much. Seems pretty stupid to me, if we want, as we keep saying we want, higher academic achievement in our schools. Just a thought.