Head of School Blog: Training Chefs--On the College Admissions Scandal

For many Falmouth Academy teachers and students, the term “spring vacation” is a bit of a misnomer.  Some were elbow deep in the culture and history of Thailand; others were busily “exchanging” with our partner school in Germany.  Some were competing in the South Shore Regional Science Fair and others in the Junior District Music Festival.  And as I peer out my window this chilly “spring” morning, I even see a group of dedicated scholar athletes readying themselves for the coming lacrosse season.  

No matter how busy one happened to be these past few weeks, however, it was impossible not to be troubled when news broke about what is being referred to as “the college admissions scandal.”  In case you’ve been living under a rock (or traveling through Thailand?), I refer to the news that some 50 people were arraigned in federal court as part of a long-running, nationwide conspiracy to gain admission for high-school students to top colleges and universities.  These parents are alleged to have paid six and seven figure sums to have their children admitted to various colleges and universities through various “side doors.”

The story lends itself to any number of critical commentary avenues.  Some columnists have written compellingly about the lengths to which some will go to pass along privilege.  Others have railed against the inherent flaws of the college admissions process and its many loopholes.  Some have lamented the outsized role athletics plays in our society.  Alas, this is a scandal with no shortage of takeaways.

As for me, I found myself asking the question New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in an editorial entitled “The Moral Wages of the College Admissions Mania, asked his readers: “Just what is all this scheming and obsessing with status teaching children?”  

Among his answers: “That nothing in your life is too sacred to be used for gain. That you do what it takes and spend what you must to get what you want. That packaging matters more than substance. That assessments made by outsiders trump any inner voice . . . that success is about precise allegiance to a painstaking script, when just as often it’s about a nimble response to an unforeseen opportunity.”

By most measurements, it has been another successful year in college admissions at FA.  Once again, our students will matriculate to some of the most selective schools in the country; but they will not do so because a parent has gamed the system or because Ms. Manchester (or anyone for that matter) has the college admissions equivalent of the “bat phone,” some secret direct line to the admissions offices of “insert <5% acceptance rate school here.”  No, by virtue of immersing themselves in an environment rich with opportunities within a culture that expects, indeed needs, everyone to participate, our kids, without duplicity or design, grow into the kinds of kids colleges just want more of.

The most crippling message, then, that these parents and countless others just like them are sending their kids is that life is about getting in when really life is about what you do when you get there. Bruni references Barry Schwartz, former Swarthmore professor, who said in an interview just before he retired that his current students “want to be given a clear and unambiguous path to success.  They want a recipe, and that’s the wrong thing to be wanting. Recipes create cooks. They don’t produce chefs.”

Falmouth Academy has hitherto resisted what I refer to as the GPS-ing of education, the notion that if a rubric is sufficiently specific and well-designed, the student’s task can comprise of little more than checking off the boxes, then, voila!  A perfect product.  At its best, education at Falmouth Academy is about process, whether that’s the writing process, the scientific method, the creative process, guess and check, the design process, or the research process.  It’s about digging in with gusto despite knowing that the answers, revelations, and outcomes are not guaranteed.  It is not so much a straight line but a meandering path, or as one-time Stanford admissions official Julie Lythcott-Haims writes, “The point is to prepare the kid for the road, instead of preparing the road for the kid.”

In just the past month, we have heard news of a Falmouth Academy graduate who starred in a Broadway play, one who published a collection of short stories, another who completed her second Iditarod, and two more who shared first prize in the Sub-Seasonal Climate Forecast Rodeo.  Falmouth Academy students are interesting (and interested) kids who grow into interesting adults who do interesting things.  Falmouth Academy graduates chefs.

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