Soldiers of Academia – Part Two – Efficacy

“Soldiers of Academia” is my phrase for children molded from birth, Spartan-style, by competitive parents hoping to secure admission to the Ivy Leagues.  As described in the previous article, this was effective a generation ago, though perhaps did not result in happier children.  

Today, there is a second problem:  the Soldiers of Academia regimen may have become a false promise, even for those who are solely interested in external measures of success (money, alumni bumper stickers, etc.).

The causes of this new change?  Increasing competition and declining return on investment.

Increasing competition

The Soldier’s competitive funnel begins in first grade, with millions of children competing for just a couple thousand Ivy League spots a decade later. Twenty years ago, few people thought of primary school in this way, so the few who took the Soldier approach could easily outdistance non-Soldiers to grab all the spots at Harvard.

Just one problem now: everyone knows the Soldier model worked. K-6 math and chess tutoring is available in every city. The pool of qualified applicants is exploding. It’s reasonable to expect that, by 2020, your 17-year-old Latin-speaking, Rachmaninoff-playing chessmaster may not seem very special to the Harvard admissions board.

Under those conditions, just as most people would consider it irrational to spend 100% of their childhood preparing for an NBA career, parents may no longer want to bet everything on this particular type of academic boot camp.  The expected value is too low.

Declining return on investment

Even if you beat the odds and get into the Ivy League, today’s payoff is lower. The cost of top-tier private college has risen much faster than inflation, while professional real income per work hour has stagnated.

If you doubt this, interview someone who has just gone to his 20-year high school reunion. Inquire about how his classmates have made out. You may be surprised, as I was, to find the very best students in their high school class are not consistently the most financially secure. Often the opposite.

Top students go to private undergraduate and graduate schools, incurring debts of $150k to $350k. Educational choices (graduate school) and high debt then guide them into professional jobs with high pay, but extremely long work hours (management consulting, investment banking, law, medicine, etc.), which in turn delay marriage and home ownership well into one’s 30’s.

By their 20-year reunion, at age 38, many have no family (either still single or age-induced infertility), just getting out of debt, just thinking about a first house, and so forth.

In contrast, sensible second-tier students go to state schools, incur little debt, settle down early, buy homes, and by age 38 are well on their way to financial security.

I’m not saying, “don’t try for the Ivy League.” But it does make sense to reevaluate the range of possible outcomes, and their probabilities, before sacrificing your child’s joie de vivre in a do-or-die, decade-long rush at the Harvard admissions committee.

Of course, some teaching pressure is well warranted. Everyone applies at least some to help their child to read, write, swim, ride a bike. But there is a point past which this mode of learning is less efficient than intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic fulfillment can produce a good payoff in all conditions. After laying an appropriate groundwork, if you can encourage your child to find something he loves, and to seek marketable applications of that love, your child will probably become highly accomplished at something unexpected. College admissions boards LOVE this, because their dull job is rendered briefly interesting by a quirky candidate. But even failing the run at Harvard, your child will learn early how to seek fulfillment while making a good living, so the Harvard stamp becomes less critical.

My current favorite examples of classical education followed by intrinsic fulfillment are this guy, and also this guy. Call it goofy if you will, but speaking as a guitarist, I can say this is impressive.

Summary: compared to 20 years ago, a decade-long academic push is much less likely to get you into Harvard, and, even if successful, has a lower payoff. As a result, it would seem parents are better off laying a very broad educational groundwork, then letting the child pursue something meaningful and marketable.

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