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People in this country get to where they get because they either work hard or they don’t; they sink or they swim, the wheat gets separated from the chaff, right? In New York, the nation’s largest city and my hometown, students are subjected to a sort of intellectual segregation from as young an age as four, replete with separate classrooms, teachers, and even entire schools for the city’s “gifted and talented.” At every academic level, students are packaged into schools and programs pre-fitted for their “cognitive ability,” culminating in the Standardized High School Admissions Test — a high-stakes entrance exam for eighth-graders pining for a spot in one of the city’s specialized high schools.
Stuyvesant High School, my alma mater, is the most selective of these schools with an acceptance rate lower than Harvard’s. Stuyvesant administers more Advanced Placement exams than any other high school in the world and in recent years about a quarter of its students go on to the Ivy League or other selective colleges. Elite universities, in the American imagination, represent the apotheosis of success in the meritocratic jeremiad of the American high school student. However, the journey to Harvard is just as much part of the Harvard experience as an undergraduate’s four years here.
To explore this aspect of the Harvard experience, I spoke with two of my high school’s valedictorians — the past three are all students at Harvard College — about their respective journeys and conceptions of merit.
While the two valedictorians were exceedingly humble, their stories of Stuyvesant betrayed the uglier side of an academic culture consumed by competition.
Matteo N. Wong ’22, a Crimson Magazine chair studying History & Literature, described his journey to Stuyvesant and Harvard beginning with his parents navigating the labyrinthine patchwork of Brooklyn’s public elementary and middle schools. Victoria Wong ’24 (no relation to Matteo), who plans to study Molecular and Cellular Biology, took advantage of her middle school’s free test-prep program as well as private test-prep the summer before the SHSAT. While it’s common for students to begin studying for the test starting earlier, their paths to Stuyvesant were decidedly less structured. In the end, both future valedictorians scored only a few points higher than the cutoff score.
Matteo told me the story of his freshman biology teacher competing with another teacher to “see who could give harder tests and lower scores.” This eventually meant students would be tested on material that had never been taught. Naturally, Matteo studied up on the textbook in advance to prepare — only to have his teacher announce that someone had “ruined the curve.”
Matteo and Victoria managed to succeed in this environment antithetical to learning not because of the intensity of the competition but in spite of it. Matteo’s thought process went as follows: “I was just like this is the game, these are the rules. I’m on the playing field, like I’m going to just do as best as I can.” In the end, this is what they said “meritocracy” boils down to. It’s not necessarily about being the smartest (although this might be some more humility), but about absorbing a set of rules and committing oneself to playing — no matter the personal sacrifice.
It was normal to see students having breakdowns in the hallways over a test grade or to come to class one day to find out one of your friends had been checked into a psychiatric institution or simply left the school entirely.
Matteo said he vividly remembers the school’s administration showing students a triangle with vertices marked: “Sleep, Social life, and Academics” and being told to choose two, as a pivotal moment in his academic career. Victoria also noted the “Stuyvesant triangle,” and as an upperclassman, she regularly received only two to three hours of sleep per night. Victoria remembers “crying with [her] mom” after receiving all her classes’ syllabi on the first day of school (I, on the other hand, cried in my bathtub).
Like Victoria and Matteo, I went to Stuyvesant because I was inspired to learn, only to be confronted by an institutional culture that was oftentimes indifferent to learning and insistent on competing for the sake of competition — a sort of academic Hunger Games in which the highest performing eighth-graders in the nation’s largest city compete to see who leaves with a ticket to an elite college, and which ones are left with permanently damaged self-esteem at a critical juncture in their development.
For all our talk of merit and egalitarianism, our schools betray the deeply hierarchical and unforgiving character of not only our educational infrastructure but our society at large. And while our economy self-corrects when it outpaces its limits, students suffer the consequences of schools that push them beyond their limits.
Victoria and Matteo represent the synthesis of our meritocratic machine, conveying its triumphs and pitfalls. While I don’t think I could name more industrious and motivated students, the travesty is not that our schools have valedictorians but that they have casualties: the emotional costs that young people will carry with themselves for the rest of their lives.
Gordon J. Ebanks ’24 is a Crimson Editorial editor. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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