The Drones Club*

When I was young, I looked like a truly hopeless student. In my third grade report card my teacher tried to soften the blows of her other comments by adding “at least he is average in math”. (Could a teacher even write such comments today, and not get fired? I doubt it.) That report card was just one in a long line of dismal assessments of my capabilities, all of them lovingly saved by my mother and returned to me as a set many years later. Boys’ minds are less orderly, and mature more slowly, than girls’ – and mine was right in line with the other boys’, or possibly worse than most.

I didn’t really catch on until the second half of eleventh grade. Apart from anything else, my unimpressive academic record until the tail end of my high school years means that today I would have no chance of getting into Princeton, where I went to college. FWIW, the same would have been the case for my two brothers, who became genuinely interested in their studies when they were even older than I was when I did mine; even so, they also attended prestigious colleges and graduate schools and (more importantly) went on to distinguish themselves in very different fields.

Don’t get me wrong: by the end of our high school years all three of us tested exceptionally well – and we played highly competitive sports and were considered high-potential students by at least some of our teachers. Nobody doubted that we were bright – it was our academic records that were impossibly sketchy by today’s standards. We also weren’t legacy applicants.

I belabor all of that not in the obvious, but I think wrong, vein of implying that educational standards have risen at our prestigious colleges and universities. I think it would be far more accurate to write that standards have changed – and not necessarily in a good way. Nowadays, colleges like the ones we attended look for perfect or near-perfect academic records as well as the highest test scores, adjusted somewhat for different segments of the population that are favored or disfavored for skin-color diversity purposes.


Today’s admissions officers play the yield game. To maintain or improve their schools’ all-important rankings (which are the currency of the college credentialization value, and therefore donor support, sweepstakes), they need to accept and attract a mix of students who have ever-better entering statistics relative to their predecessors and – of even greater concern – better than the applicants’ contemporaries who matriculate at peer schools.

Many argue that the new, much greater emphasis on cumulative GPAs is both fairer and more meritocratic than previously more subjective norms, but I think the new system as a whole is seriously pernicious in its effects for several reasons.

To begin, the college ranking system, which really just got going in 1983 with the initiation of the US News & World Reports college rankings, institutionalizes an educational class system (pun intended) that focuses parents’, students’ and employers’ eyes on the prestige of the credentializing institution rather than on at which school a particular student might learn best, or (later) on what he or she actually learned in college.

What the recent parents-bribing-admissions-officers scandal shows, apart from the immorality of the perpetrators, is that those parents (among many others) care far more about the college label to be stamped on their children’s resumes than they do about what their children learn in college.

US News got it wrong: what should matter about a college is not how good its students were at choosing courses and following classroom instructions before they were accepted and agreed to matriculate, but what they learned in college. (Right now, I’m afraid, the only course one can be sure is taught really well at our top schools is Entitlement 101). And while the raw intelligence of one’s fellow students – loosely measured by standardized test scores – does matter, it’s not reflective of acquired knowledge or wisdom. Many high IQ people are clueless.

Worse, in my view, is the effect that the new system has on our children and, bizarrely, their parents and teachers. What messages are being sent? Take only courses that you know you will ace and, if the teacher has the temerity to give you a bad grade, have your parents raise hell. Gut courses and grade inflation follow – obviating the learning part of education and rendering grades themselves, which once were markers of genuine progress, useless.

When the system rewards only near-perfect records, students can be expected to develop an extreme aversion to taking risks of the sorts that might actually expand their interests or challenge their capabilities. Failure is the best teacher; today’s “successful” students avoid it like the plague, and their actual learning suffers accordingly.

Today’s system rewards those who follow rules and (already) know how to do exactly what’s expected of them. Young people can now graduate from our most prestigious institutions having learned little while there and without having made a real decision in their lives (and no, choosing a major doesn’t count). The ones who got into these schools did so because they did exactly what was expected of them every step of the way; that’s not how people learn to think for themselves.

And finally, the current system objectively favors behaviors that are more characteristic of girls than boys, which I think explains a big part of why our colleges and universities, and so many graduate programs, are quickly becoming female-dominated. It’s great that all doors are open to women, but not great at all that male-pattern behavior is now to be sublimated or disadvantaged. Vive la difference.

The ostensible mission of these schools is to educate young people – to train them in ways that will help them to have happy and productive lives. The current emphasis on institutional rankings and the prestige of the credentials conferred makes how young people jumped through designated hoops in high school seem more important than what they actually learned in high school or college.

Young minds can’t grow without taking risks, making mistakes and learning from those experiences. Our current system punishes those behaviors.

We are training a generation of drones.   

M.H. Johnston

*With apologies to P.G. Wodehouse, whose Drones Club was infinitely less dreary than the one described here.

2 comments to The Drones Club*

  • John Primm, MPM  says:

    Dang, you hit the nail on the head again Mark. My experience in sub teaching at all levels in Fairfax County for 6 years has shown me that education is a pale shadow of what it should be. May God have mercy on our nation.

  • Doug  says:

    Nice piece Mark. I am somewhat fortunate in that my parents never asked nor knew the colleges to which I applied nor were concerned about those with whom I might intermingle. Thank goodness!

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