Ch. 3: Happiness and Success at Stanford and MIT

How well do children educated in today’s schools perform when they enter the nation’s most prestigious universities? How well do test scores and the state-mandated, standardized curriculum predict college success?

Merilee Jones, MIT’s director of admissions, says, “We’re raising a generation of kids trained to please adults…. That’s the big difference with this generation. They’re being judged and graded and analyzed and assessed at every turn. It’s too much pressure for them.”

The faculty tell Jones that many of their students today aren’t as much fun to teach. They no longer come to MIT with the wildly creative ideas and research projects that were formerly more common. The faculty report that the current generation of students “want to do everything right, they want to know exactly what’s on the test. They’re so afraid of failing or stepping out of line that they’re not really good students.”

The child who is taught that his self-worth is attached to an external test result or grade risks becoming emotionally dependent on outward affirmation, and over-focused on test results as a measure of his/her self-worth. That child risks becoming fixated on grades to the detriment of other important, well-rounded factors that contribute to success and happiness in school and life—including an enthusiasm for pursuing wildly creative ideas that may not fall strictly within the boundaries of the curriculum.

Because educators have begun to recognize this, a 4.4 GPA may no longer guarantee admission to a top-flight university. A source in the Stanford admissions office confided that the university now prefers to accept applicants with a 3.9 or 4.0 GPA who are well-rounded as people, having realized that the test-taking superstars too often are deficient in human qualities that more accurately foretell success in school and life.

From an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Perfect scores alone don’t make grade for admission to college of choice” (May 16, 2013):

“A Stanford admissions official said the university considers college board scores, grades, the difficulty of courses, extracurricular activities and achievement outside of school. But it’s the personal essay that differentiates one top student from the next, she said. Princeton asks applicants to ‘tell us your story. Show us what’s special about you.’….

“Stanford had a school record 38,828 applications this year and will admit 1,700 freshmen, including legacy applicants and scholarship athletes. Minneapolis attorney Fred Bruno, a Stanford alumnus and local recruiter for the school, said Stanford could completely fill its freshman class with valedictorians.

“‘When I meet with an applicant, I look for interaction, for presence,’ Bruno said. ‘We assume they have huge credentials. I don’t even ask them about grades. We’re looking at the human side of these kids.’”

Parental praise for grades and test scores may motivate the child, as is of course perfectly natural. But if it becomes an obsessive source of affirmation for the child, it risks sacrificing the development of self-confidence, independence, initiative, and a sure inner sense of his or her goals and purpose in life.

Schools today are training children to be afraid to make mistakes. And as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out in his TED Talk, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” far from enhancing their creative initiative, it may only guarantee that they will never come up with an original idea.

“Kids will take a chance. If they don’t know, they’ll have a go. Am I right? They’re not frightened of being wrong. I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…. And by the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost that capacity. They have become frightened of being wrong. And we run our companies like this. We stigmatize mistakes. And we’re now running national education systems where mistakes are the worst thing you can make. And the result is that we are educating people out of their creative capacities.”

Robinson’s ideas reflect the thinking of Seymour Papert, a South African-born American mathematician, computer scientist, and educator who spent most of his career teaching and researching at MIT. In his famous book, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Papert proposed that a key benefit of teaching kids to program computers is that it teaches them a “bug-fixing approach to life”—they learn that mistakes are an unavoidable and perfectly natural part of the creative process, and should be welcomed gratefully and joyfully as milestones on the path to discovering solutions.

Robinson points out that colleges today are inundated with applications from kids with outstanding grades, and that businesses can now take their pick of applicants with high college GPAs and advanced degrees. Jobs that formerly required a bachelor’s now demand an MS/MA, and jobs that once demanded a master’s now require a Ph.D.

The key differentiators for admission to an elite university today, and for employment at a prestigious company have shifted; they now include such “soft” factors as proven communication skills, high energy, “presence,” and an ability to cooperate and work harmoniously with others.

Young elementary children dance during a Theater Magic performance at Living Wisdom School.

What the teachers at Living Wisdom School do to motivate the children in their academic studies reaches deep into their hearts and encourages the development of these qualities. The Education for Life methods are highly effective at eliciting the child’s natural enthusiasm for learning. The results are evidenced by the children’s test scores, their grades in high school and college, their admission to elite schools, and their careers.

The LWS teachers are trained and strongly encouraged to take the time to become intimately familiar with each child, to gain a deep and full awareness of the child’s natural inclinations and enthusiasms, so that they can understand the internal motivations that the child brings to the classroom.

The teachers build upon these motivators to tailor the child’s education individually. If the child is artistic, the arts may provide a portal through which the teacher can introduce the standard curriculum in math, history, English, and science. If the child is good with his hands but relatively uninterested in academics, the teachers will use the child’s strengths to motivate him/her to learn—perhaps by showing them the indispensable applications of math, science, history, and English to the kind of work the child is inclined to pursue.

The same will be true for the child who is inspired by business, science, the arts, math, or a trade—the LWS teachers will help the child understand that all of these fields are intimately related; that a person cannot be a first-class mathematician without a strong ability to communicate his or her ideas, and without knowing something of the history of mathematics and its applications to other fields such as the sciences. The child may someday find fulfillment in using his or her math skills to help scientists find solutions to deeply meaningful problems.

Perhaps most important for children during the Feeling Years is to teach them that the highest success in every field, as a stunning new study of Google’s top employees revealed (see next chapter), comes to those who can cooperate, who can understand the needs of others and support them, and who relish the joy of working together to accomplish expansive goals.

The Feeling Years are the cradle of success in school and life. Without proper training at this age, the child may lack the refined heart qualities that provide the drive, enthusiasm, moral sense and wisdom to set goals and invest great energy and perseverance in achieving them.

Expansive feelings are the dynamo that drives all noble human achievement. A child who has not had his or her feelings properly encouraged and positively channeled and refined will be less well prepared for the stages of Will Power (age 12‑18) and the Intellect (18-24).

Once the Feeling Years have passed, it may be too late to remediate a deficiency of these valuable feeling-related qualities. At age 12, the child will begin to be more strongly motivated to develop his or her will power, in preparation for independent adult life.

Middle school teacher Gary McSweeney congratulates R.J. at the end-of-year Qualities Ceremony at Living Wisdom School.

Children who have a sure sense of themselves, with positive feelings about their strengths and clear, positive images of what they most deeply desire to accomplish, will be able to enter the Will years of middle school and high school more confidently equipped to succeed than children whose brains have been stuffed with quickly forgotten facts, to the detriment of the feelings of the heart that give life its motive power as well as its meaning and value.

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