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Teens, philosophers deconstruct 'college rat race'

Palo Alto teens 'play Socrates' in radio show to be aired this fall

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Is there a deeper meaning to the college rat race?

Students from Gunn and Palo Alto high schools pondered that question in a discussion with three Stanford University professors in a recent recording for the radio show "Philosophy Talk."

The discussion at Palo Alto High School, expected to be broadcast this fall, was part admissions strategy and part philosophy, mixed with some Stanford insider news and a large dose of youthful idealism.

The teens, mostly juniors about to embark on the college application process, questioned two philosophers -- professors Ken Taylor of Stanford and John Perry, retired from Stanford and now at the University of California at Riverside -- as well as sociologist Mitchell Stevens of Stanford.

The weekly radio show, anchored by Taylor and Perry, aims to bring "the richness of philosophic thought to everyday subjects." It is broadcast Sundays at 10 a.m. and Tuesdays at noon on San Francisco public-radio station KALW, and other outlets across the country.

Noting that colleges work hard to drum up applicants only to turn around and reject them in large numbers, Stevens likened the elite college-admission process to the exclusivity fostered by certain sought-after nightclubs.

"It's the velvet-rope syndrome," he said. "A club is as desirable as the quality of the people it turns away. ... It's one of the primary ways Americans kind of decide who's who."

Stevens spent 18 months working in admissions for an unnamed New England college before writing "Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites," published in 2007 by Harvard University Press. He is now an associate professor in the Stanford School of Education.

Perry cited the "vicious circle" of colleges pumping up applications to boost their perceived selectivity, leading to "higher prestige, which means higher application numbers -- you get the idea," he said.

He advocated what he said is strong educational value in community colleges and state university systems, not just elite institutions.

"Why is there such intense competition over the relatively few spots in the so-called elite colleges and universities?" he wondered.

Taylor marveled at the "extraordinary obsession with pedigree and prestige" in American society. "The reason colleges want to be part of the selectivity is that they're selling themselves as a ticket into the elite class," he said.

"They're not just selling research and knowledge, they're selling prestige -- that's a branding thing.

"I bet some of the students in this audience believe the college you go to will make an enormous difference in the rest of your life," he said, motioning to several hundred Gunn and Paly students assembled in Haymarket Theatre.

Smelling hypocrisy in the elite admissions process, students questioned everything from the fairness of preferences for "legacy" and affirmative-action applicants to the marketing strategies of colleges.

"If the admissions offices are looking for the true person inside, but at the same time pushing and creating pressure on us to create this false identity, how is this paradox and hypocrisy affecting the future generations of America?" one asked.

Another asked, "We talk about how the best colleges aren't always the most prestigious ones, so how do we find the best colleges for ourselves and get past all the self-promotion of colleges trying to hike up their applicant rate?"

Another student wondered whether student stress would decrease if colleges ignored extracurriculars and assessed applicants on academics alone, cutting the pressure on them to rack up extensive extracurricular resumes.

The irony, said Taylor, who has sat on a Stanford committee that advises on admission policies, is that colleges truly do want students to be themselves, not robots.

"They really are searching for authenticity -- they really, really are," he said. "But they tell people that, and people don't believe them. They (applicants) think they're looking for a resume.

"Admissions officers are doing their darndest to see through resume-building."

Taylor said there even have been discussions about limiting the number of Advanced Placement classes the admissions office would consider, adding he did not know whether that would actually happen.

"Students come to college with nine, 10, 12 AP courses. Why? Because they think it's going to distinguish them. Stanford is wondering if we can do something to ratchet down the pressure."

More people began trying to "cross the velvet rope" than ever before after elite schools opened themselves to women and minorities in the 1970s, Stevens said.

"Admission to the elite class is no longer guaranteed just by birth or circumstance -- it's a highly competitive thing," Taylor said.

"I don't know if elites are good things or bad things, but they're inevitable things and, if we're going to have them, it's so much more preferable that they be diverse."

Perry and Taylor said they both have advocated for experimentation with a lottery admission system for students who meet a certain threshold.

The student questioners were assembled by teachers Lucy Filppu of Paly and Jordan Huizing of Gunn. Filppu teaches the junior Humanities course at Paly and Huizing a similar course called Philosophy and Literature at Gunn. Students read Plato and Aristotle and study world religions, finishing, at Paly, with Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

"The college rat race is so prevalent and raises so many issue as to who owns your learning, and what does it mean to be an active participant in your own sense of knowledge," Filppu said.

"I think the students love the idea that they can kind of be Socrates and question the status quo and ask, 'What does it mean to be an individual as well as all those test scores?'"

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Posted by Member
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on May 26, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Thank you to the dedicated teachers who put this phenomenal opportunity together for our young people. Now, more than ever, our youth needs to be questioning the future they want to inherit. We need all the gadflies in Athens that we can get!

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Posted by perfume
a resident of Midtown
on May 26, 2011 at 11:06 pm

The whole system is broken.Everyone wants to send his kids to elite colleges,while every year the State issues thousands of thousands H-1B visas to foreign skilled workers.What does it mean? It means our colleges do not prepare our students to work in the real world.What do those extra curriculums do,nothing.It does nothing to prepare our students to work in a competitive work place,nothing,except stress in high schools.Our "supermodel" does not work.

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Posted by Hal Plotkin
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2011 at 8:25 am

Thank you for this excellent and timely article, Chris. I've been concerned about these issues for a very long time -- and I am convinced that the related social pathologies are at the root of many of our most pressing economic, social and national problems. As I wrote (here: Web Link) "...the procedures used to determine who gets into a given college, and who does not, teach a lesson in exclusion that undermines everything else the professors might cover. If you tell some people they are better than others, they eventually start believing it. The societal consequences of this system are even more telling than the problems created for students. It's little wonder...that our policy makers -- most of whom were deemed worthy of receiving a good college education -- don't really understand why there are so many homeless on our streets...."

In recent times, we've seen these pathologies play out in the crisis of leadership in so many of the major institutions that have damaged our national prospects, from the corporate boards that placed no value whatsoever on exercising any allegiance to fellow American employees, or Wall Street, which elevated contempt for the capacity of others into a business model. Gee, wheresoever did they get the idea that would work?

Having grown up in town, I know Palo Alto is a ground zero for these powerful social forces.

But students, listen up, because here is the GOOD NEWS: you already have the power to change these realities right in your own hands. You can look for educational institutions with admission policies that are consistent with your own beliefs and values. And you can engage in more meaningful and authentic ways to distinguish yourself, through service to others, for example, or advocacy and leadership in areas where important voices are weak, or by helping to build new products or even new companies. And as long as you stay positive, keep moving forward and learn as much as you can, every one of your dreams about who you might become and what you might be able to do can come true no matter what college you attend.

I know. Last week, I found myself giving directions to some folks who were lost in the hall outside one of the conference rooms where my colleagues and I often meet. In the White House.

Hal Plotkin
Graduate of Foothill College and San Jose State University

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Posted by 2cents
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 27, 2011 at 9:17 am

Thank you for raising these issues and giving a forum for discussion. Not only do students try to take too many difficult classes, they are also trying too hard to rack up community service points. Not just the ivies expect this, but also our UC's do too.

Some of the above comments are telling students they can fix this -- the power to change this lies with the student. I don't buy that advice and I don't think that's much help at all. Those students who know they are smart enough and capable enough aren't going to give up trying for the golden ring. Now you are adding shame on them for wanting to try to get to the elite colleges.

The onus of this process is the admissions expectations. That's what needs to be changed -- go to a lottery system. Have a certain level that must be met and then put those students in a lottery. If the ivies are serious about not getting robots, that's the way to go for true diversity and opportunity.

Many students would then know they were good enough to get into that elite university. And, then maybe they could have a normal teen life and have time to explore their interests instead of trying to be president of some club and going to Africa to feed the poor in order to impress the admissions officers.

Sure, it is important students know there are many universities out there with excellent programs that might not be on their "A" list. But if we really want to see the stress levels on our students change, the admissions process has to change.

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Posted by Hal Plotkin
a resident of another community
on May 27, 2011 at 11:11 am

I've also long thought an admission lottery system like the one suggested in this article would, at very least, be a worthwhile experiment. One result: it would help shift the public conversation away from dog eat dog concerns about "who gets in and why" toward more active consideration of the systemic reforms that could make high-quality higher education opportunities more universally available. I certainly agree that shame and humiliation should have no place in the education system at any stage. But young people need to know that their future is not determined by the receipt of any thin or fat envelope.

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Posted by refreshed
a resident of Gunn High School
on May 27, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Refreshing article and commentary. Of course, the wonderful Miss Huizing is involved in this timely project. Now if we could just get a moratorium on name-dropping in Palo Alto. That would be something!

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 27, 2011 at 12:49 pm

The hard thing to understand is that the best students are getting multiple offers from colleges while equally good students don't get a chance. Each student can only accept one offer and since each college will only make a certain number of offers to each high school. There is an unfairness about this when some students are applying to 20+ schools.

A system whereby these unaccepted offers can be transferred into the same high school would really help.

Like this comment
Posted by Local gurl
a resident of Greenmeadow
on May 27, 2011 at 2:49 pm

My son pushed himself to go to a four year college instead of a community college right out of high school not because it was the best choice for him (it wasn't, by the way) but because it wasn't "cool" to tell his classmates that he was going to a JC. It was perceived as a failure, when, in fact, ANY child who continues his or her education is a success.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Palo Alto
on May 28, 2011 at 4:27 pm

Paul Losch is a registered user.

One of my kids attends a "Little Ivy," which is the cluster of mainly New England based liberal arts colleges.

Something I learned after visiting there is how many early admission kids get accepted, limiting the available spots for the remaining pool of applicants who await the March decision process.

My kid got in after the waiting list opened up, and likely would have gotten early admission to this school if early admission had been the option. But early admission means your heart and soul truly wants to go to a particular school, which I perceive is not the prevelant thinking among most college applicants.

I do subscribe to the point of view that admissions offices at the elites genuinely attempt to create a "community" with each class they admit. That said, there is much "gaming" going on by the applicants, and those who know the "game" better have a better chance of getting into their target school or schools.

Palo Alto is one of the towns in the country where there is a highly educated set of parents who work the "system" for the advantage of their kids. I sure as hell had nothing close to what my kids had in checking out schools, researching them, and getting counseling at school or from my parents the way my kids, and I perceive many other PA kids, get these days. And that's even before the "gaming" begins.

My experience with my PALY kids is they both found their place at PALY, and had a good experience. Both were well prepared for college, and did well at that level. One was more driven than the other, took more AP courses as a choice, not due to pressure from Dad and Mom. Both did extracurrilars, and had meaningful summer experiences, which counts for a great deal to admissions offices, from what I can tell.

The whole experience is a stew, and the one thing I think my kid's mother and I did well is let our kids find their way, not pressure them to go for a "brand school" if it did not appeal. For example neither liked Harvard, Princeton or Tufts when we went on college visits back east. All fantastic places, but not for everyone.

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Posted by Aaron
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on May 28, 2011 at 4:40 pm

"...when, in fact, ANY child who continues his or her education is a success."

Only a parent of that child could make that statement. The truth is that most American kids will be completely out-competed by the kids of Asian tiger moms. If Palo Alto kids will be trust-finded out of their personal issues, they will continue to survive, economically, but they will be completely swamped out by the (mostly Asian) leaders of the future...and they will not be anywhere near being inside that leadership circle.

There is a ton of make believe going on in Palo Alto.

Like this comment
Posted by Old Palo Alto
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 28, 2011 at 5:22 pm

If one changes their mindset from, 'how do I get ahead,' to 'how do I make the greatest contribution to the world for all I've been given,' it makes life a lot simpler, gratifying, and fulfilling. Ironically, people with this mindset tend to become far more 'successful' in societies' common definition of success.

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Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2011 at 5:44 pm

I think we need to redefine our vision of success.

Some seem to think that success is becoming the leader of a country, or a multi national company, a high powered lawyer, or doctor, etc. Some of these people are the most unhappiest people, who have achieved their success by walking all over those they meet. Not sure why anyone would want to aspire to become like these either for themselves or for their children.

Others tend to think that success is outdoing all their peers by having a string of letters after their name and never doing a day's real work in their lives. Sounds like a lonely way to achieve success.

Others think that working at something enjoyable and enriching, earning enough money to raise a family in comfortable surroundings and being able to pass values that matter on to the next generation is a successful life.

There is a rat race out there full of those trying to outdo one another where the goal is always one step futher ahead and never achieved. I am not sure if this is the success that we really want for our kids.

Teaching our teens to value each other and what they already have should be one of the first priorities. Allowing them to become happy and productive, as well as self-reliant adults in our society is success. It is not the label that makes the person successful, but the way the person lives their life that makes them a success.

Some of the most influential people in the USA today have not started out the way that our kids are being pushed. Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and others all had lives that did not follow the recognized way of getting there. Many unsung and unknown heroes have done the same. Success is a hard word to define.

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Posted by jazz
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jun 1, 2011 at 5:33 am

I want to thank the public that created the state and community colleges.

Gee it must be nice to be a child of privilege and connections.

Few colleges are worth the hundreds of thousands of dollars that many students graduate from smothered with student load debts.

State colleges and community schools can provide a wonderful education to thousands of people across the USA. I took this route and finally ended up here in California because that is where the jobs are in my field.

Now with the internet there are ever expanding ways to learn for a whole lifetime, so why are we bemoaning a time and place when the whole universe of knowledge is available to everyone with access.

I worked full time nights at the age of 16 and went to college full time days because my parents would not pay for my college tuition and they made too much for me to qualify for scholarships I was too naive to know about any other avenues those many years ago. It was a valuable lesson and shows what a little bit of effort and hard work can do.

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Posted by John Perry
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 1, 2011 at 3:50 pm

KALW (91.7), the station that carries Philosophy Talk, is San Francisco's oldest Public Radio station, but not the one with the strongest signal. Car radios pick it up fine, and the radio inside your house probably will to, with a little searching and fine tuning. An alternative is to listen on your computer. If you go to


and follow the links you can get the KALW signal. The Philosophy Talk site will tell you when the program is going to be aired, as soon as we finalize our Fall schedule. Listen and hear your wonderful Paly and Gunn students make insightful and sometimes passionate comments.

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