A Crowded World

2010 October 11
by david

In last week’s NY Times, David Brooks writes that “In 1952, two-thirds of Harvard applicants were admitted.” Unimaginable in a time when Harvard publishes its acceptance rate as 8%. Incidentally, Brooks’ Op-Ed column is an interesting take on how one of the themes of the movie, “The Social Network,” is Harvard’s shift from a Wasp-dominated old boy network to a meritocracy.

Not long ago I saw a “CBS Sunday Morning” episode about Stagedoor Manor, a camp for kids who wanted to become Broadway performers. (To see it on YouTube, click here. Stagedoor Manor Summer Camp ) What struck me was the drastic change in the ratio of applicants to openings at the camp over the last 30 years. When the camp started in the 70s, boys had to be recruited to apply to the camp. Now there’s a long waiting list every year. In those days, there were fewer than a dozen performing arts camps in the US; now there are over 800. (Most likely all have wait lists.) And the admissions standards are no doubt much higher than they used to be. There are many more kids who want to be Broadway performers and they’ve all been singing, dancing and acting for much longer than they used to. Obviously, your chances of succeeding in one of the creative professions is lower than ever. Back in the days of The Beatles, there were only a handful of rock bands in the world. The Beatles have endured not because there wasn’t much competition back then but because John and Paul were songwriting geniuses.)

stagedoorIt’s obvious that our world is becoming increasingly competitive and the anecdotal evidence cited above could be supported by thousands of other examples. What does this mean for our kids? That the opportunities we found as college applicants and college grads are going to be much harder to obtain. Wherever you look, the growth in number of applicants is far outpacing any increase in the number of opportunities. This was the case even before the onset of the Great Recession and I feel for the legions of recent grads who are currently under- or unemployed.

This is analogous to what’s happening to our country as a whole in a globalized economy. Much has been written about how rapidly the US’s economic and cultural dominance of the world is coming to an end. One of the causes is the decline of our education system and how it’s affecting our competitiveness. This is the topic of “Waiting for Superman,” now in theaters. I have only seen excerpts and they are depressing.

What’s the conclusion? We need to prepare our kids to compete in the face of worsening odds. But how far do we go? My father in law is a football coach and tell stories about the kids whose parents hire personal trainers and private coaches for them at early ages. This puts them further ahead of other, well-rounded kids in the competition to make the team or get scholarships. And, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in Outliers, success that early become is self perpetuating. If you want to get to the top in your chosen field, you need to start early and dedicate yourself single-mindedly. But the opportunity cost of excelling at a sport or pursuit is that you end up, by definition, not well rounded. Is Tiger Woods an example of someone with enormous talent who was pushed too hard by his father and is now paying the price for personal immaturity?

We urgently need to reform our public education system so that opportunities are not just available to the well-off who can afford private education. Otherwise, within the US,  the gulf will continue to widen between the oft-discussed two classes: the rich and everybody else. We also need to reform our public education system because that is the only way our country will remain competitive. And finally, it’s more important than ever to help our kids become grounded and well balanced. Otherwise we risk turning them into either entitled monsters or bitter also-rans.

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