You know you’re becoming an adult when peer conversations shift from “Where’s the closest Chipotle?” to “Which local elementary school has the best student/teacher ratio?”
Although I’m not enrolling a kindergartner in school next fall, as a teacher, citizen, (and aspiring parent), I often question, “What does a good education even look like?”
My 18-year journey as a student in a traditional public school, charter school, private high school and college on the Eastern Seaboard offers a multilayered perspective on this query.
One takeaway is that strong academics are just a floor — to borrow a legal phrase, a “necessary, but not sufficient” element of what makes a student’s time in a school well spent. Too often we cite a university’s business school or high school’s science department as a mark of educational prowess.
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But counting advanced placement courses and Ph.D.s on faculty doesn’t fully add up to what budding citizens need to thrive in a global economy.
Conventional wisdom places a premium on a school’s prestige and rigorous admission standards as an indicator of success.
This can be a risky bet, because graduates of these highly selective institutions often depart with an impressive diploma and a sheltered perspective of how things work in the real world.
I learned the hard way that my holistic, all-boys high school education (of which I'm very proud) wasn’t the best preparation for dealing with the brilliant young woman in my college freshman seminar who skewered me on the constraints of heteronormative perspectives in dating conversations.
Similarly, my Ivy League liberal arts education wasn’t exactly a blueprint for teaching fifth-graders a conceptually sound lesson in fractional math or tracking assets of wealthy investors at a Wall Street firm.
These experiences and musings have taught me that the most important element in learning is exposure: the ability to offer students a variety of viewpoints in the academic process and the people they’re interacting with along the way.
It’s for this reason that my elementary education in Kansas City Public Schools was, in many ways, most valuable. It allowed me to learn alongside peers with different socioeconomic means, learning styles and religious practices at an early age before prejudice or privilege could take root in my mind.
A good education isn’t relegated to classroom size or international baccalaureate curriculum.
It’s grounded in the versatility of experience. It’s enhanced by field trips, discussions of obscure articles and lunch table conversations with folks who don’t live in your neighborhood.
Education at its best is changing the channel to FOX News or MSNBC to get a different flavor of the day’s headlines or embracing vulnerability and confessing ignorance when discussing cultures, religions and customs. It’s pulling down books at the local library on the history of the N-word and giving a 1980s folk music collectively the same honest listen you’d give to Beyoncé’s latest album.
Looking back, those encounters that challenged me to question the most sacred elements of my worldview, the moments I’ve felt most uncomfortable and unsteady, have been the times when my education brought me its greatest good.
Maybe U.S. News & World Report could develop a metric for the “amount of times one raises eyebrows in class” to better calibrate what students need in today’s multicultural and enigmatic world.
Spencer Hardwick, formerly an institutional sales analyst for Goldman Sachs in New York, teaches fifth grade at the Ewing Marion Kauffman School. Reach him at email@example.com.