Last week we attended the high school graduation ceremony at Holland Hall school. For those not familiar with it, Holland Hall is a private school in Tulsa. Of the several private schools in Tulsa, Holland Hall is one of the oldest, probably the most prestigious, and likely the most expensive. We attended the Eighty-ninth Commencement Exercises because we have good friends whose oldest daughter was in the graduating class. Karla was the “friend in faith” to her and her year younger sister when they went through confirmation at our church. The younger sister is also a student at Holland Hall and is scheduled to graduate next year. Their mother, with whom we sang with in our church choir, teaches at Holland Hall. This was the first time we had attended Commencement exercise there. (Our youngest child graduated from Jenks High School in Tulsa a few years ago. Jenks has perhaps the best academic reputation among local public schools.)
There were several things that impressed me about the ceremonies and the graduating class at Holland Hall. The first thing was the size of the class – 75 students listed in the program. Until last week, the 90 that I graduated with at a small town high school in central Florida was the smallest I had ever seen. Our son’s class at Jenks had more than 500 I think. Then there was the diversity: the mix of males and females seemed to be about even and the racial/ethnic mix was probably not too much different from the general Tulsa population. The Tulsa population is about 12% black – there were about 7 or 8 in the graduating class, and the student speaker selected to make one of the student address was obviously Asian/American. Her student address was outstanding. She was an excellent speaker and her remarks were very well thought out. There were serious parts, but enough humor to keep everyone awake and entertained. She talked about YOLO. (For us old folks, she explained that means “you only live once”.) Her point seemed to be that we should make the most out of every opportunity to do good and productive things that make a difference in the world. But we should not forget to have fun at the same time.
The teacher picked to make the faculty address was impressive and entertaining as well. He had 8 points to remember as we go through life. These included things like: Have honesty and integrity; don’t develop a feeling of entitlement, we need to work to earn what we need and want; things may not always be easy, so we have to learn perseverance; hard work can be its own reward; etc. The only thing I might have added to his list was “have fun”. But he really didn’t need to say that since his whole presentation was full of fun including a humorous song at the end that he had written. He sang accompanied by a graduating student and another faculty member who played guitars.
But the most impressive thing about this class is that all 75 graduating seniors had a college or university listed with their name in the program. 100% of the graduating class planned to attend a four-year college – impressive. My small high school had about 40% who planned to go somewhere for more education (not necessarily 4 years)and that was considered remarkable at the time. The typical public high school had a much lower percentage. I don’t remember how many in our son’s class at Jenks planned to go on to college, but I doubt that it was much more than half.
In the Tulsa paper the day before the Holland Hall Commencement exercises the The Tulsa World newspaper published a syndicated column by Robert Samuelson (one of my favorite columnist) that said that the”college-for-all” idea has “outlived its usefulness”. He pointed out that in 1940 fewer than 8% of the population had a college degree while today roughly 40% have some sort of college degree. With the GI Bill at the end of WWII, college enrollment jumped from 2.3 million in 1947 to 12.1 million in 1980. Samuelson quotes several studies that would indicate that we have overdone it. We now have more college graduates than we need and many of these graduates have incurred a lot of debt and are having trouble finding jobs. In the meantime, high schools have focused on college prep courses and that has marginalized students who are not interested or suited for college. So Samuelson says, “college-for-all has been a major blunder”. One reference he cites is sociologist James Rosenbaum of Northwestern University who has argued that one size doesn’t fit all. There is, he says, a need to motivate the unmotivated high school students and one way to do that is to make high schools more connected to the job market by making vocational programs more available and accepted as an alternate to college.
So on Tuesday of last week, I read Samuelson’s article and thought he had some good points. On Wednesday we went to Holland Hall graduation and saw what seemed to be the embodiment of the idea of college-for-all. The Holland Hall graduating class seemed to represent a cross-section of the population; all the graduates were going to college and the indications were that all would do well. So what is one to conclude from this? Should public high schools strive to be like Holland Hall? Or does Holland Hall serve only some exceptional niche that may not be obvious? During the last several days I have given this quite a bit of thought. I will share these ideas in more depth in Part 2 of this post, but in the meantime I will leave you with a couple of things to consider.
- Stereotyping is dangerous – people are all different and depending on how we generalize them into groups, the resulting expectations will likely be wrong when applied to individuals, even if the generalizations are valid.
- An individual’s life vocation to be successful should be based on both his/her interest and aptitude. It is likely that neither interest nor aptitude is particularly related to gender, race, or ethnicity.
- I would be the first to say that we need rocket scientists, but we also need plumbers, electricians, and carpenters, etc. And it is likely that we need more plumbers, electricians and carpenters than we need rocket scientists. But they all need to be trained and educated in some manner.
Is the answer to try to get all public schools to be like Holland Hall? Do we really have a national obsession that all children need to go to college. And if so, is Samuelson right in saying we have overdone it? How do we get the right number of people qualified to do the work that needs doing for the benefit of us all? I don’t have all the answers to these questions, but will attempt to share some additional ideas in Part 2 of this.