Intellectual vitality

West Point's Open Letter to High-Achieving High School Students Highlights What's Wrong With High School

This summer, the United States Military Academy at West Point released an "open letter to high-achieving high school students." No doubt West Point released it in the hopes that it would go viral and increase the number of candidates who end up applying this fall, but the letter drives home an unfortunate reality about the high school experience and college admissions, and perhaps what West Point is looking for in applicants.

I’m even more selective than the Ivies. In addition to being academically competitive, qualified applicants must be physically fit, have leadership experience, acquire a congressional nomination and pass a rigorous medical exam just to be considered for admission. So if you’re into history, prestige, academic rigor and competitiveness, then I’ve got what you’re looking for.
— West Point Admissions

West Point emphasize their selectivity, prestige, and competitiveness in the letter. While there is no shortage of high school students who are living their schooling existence for the purpose of outcompeting their peers so they can get into highly selective universities as a marker of their own self worth, there is a severe shortage or young people who are leading remarkable lives. People who lead remarkable lives do not get validation from being tied to certain institutions, or by beating others. People who lead remarkable lives own their lives. They make the relevant decisions about how to spend their time, and they find meaning in the work they do. They value their contributions to society far more than they value how society ranks them relative to same-aged peers at any given moment in time. 

A West Point Cadet at graduation

A West Point Cadet at graduation

West Point is seemingly choosing to pass on trying to appeal to those rare students who choose to lead remarkable lives today. Or maybe they are making a decision to pass on those who can find meaning within their lives without tying it to the prestige of established institutions?

West Point highlights that their alumni include "presidents, generals, governors, astronauts, CEOs, and captains of industry." But they don't talk about the humanitarians, scientists, and artists. They don't highlight the people who make their families and communities better by investing in the people close to home. This open letter sends the message that success is rising to the top of established institutions. Staying within your lane, doing your job very well, but never really challenging the status quo. This open letter is an extension of the high school experience for most "high-achieving" students, where they are told to take the most challenging classes, get the best grades in those classes, and seek out opportunities that will pad the resume, but never really challenge the status quo.

This open letter may bring more applications into West Point this year. That increase in applications would decrease the admissions rate. That would make West Point even more prestigious in the eyes of applicants, parents, high school counselors, and the publications that produce college rankings. And that may be what West Point is looking for. And given what West Point has to offer (an existence within a highly regimented military schooling environment), the extreme costs of attending (five or more years of required military service, and maybe one's life), and what they need graduates to do (obediently work within a hierarchical, slowly changing war machine), perhaps appealing to the desire of many schooled students to have their self-worth validated by being associated with a prestigious institution is the way to go for them.

However, this approach is completely out of step with what the most selective colleges are really looking for in applicants. Most selective colleges are not just looking to improve their admissions statistics. They are also looking for people who lead remarkable lives. They are looking for people who love to learn, who are constantly seeking out opportunities to learn, and who are trying to identify ways that they can contribute to improving the world around them. These rare applicants will raise the level of intellectual inquiry on campus. They are the ones who will dive into the additional readings in the syllabus because it will contribute to their understanding of the topics they are studying. They are the ones who will commit to leading campus organizations, joining research labs, and tutoring others because of the opportunities to help others and for personal growth, not because such activities will help them with future scholarships or graduate school applications. And when they move on from college they will have the courage to not go into the military, or banking, or consulting if they are more drawn to less "prestigious" professions that will ultimately allow them to lead lives of purpose and meaning, and contribute to the human condition.

Unfortunately, very few high school students have the opportunity to lead remarkable lives. The practices and structures (and pressures) of high school simply do not allow time for a remarkable life. And in lieu of a remarkable life lived, colleges are left using one's ability to rise to the top of high school as a proxy for their ability to someday lead a remarkable life. Or at least to be a competent military officer. Unfortunately, what it takes to get to the top of the class (including a focus on achievement and competition) is often incompatible with leading a remarkable life.  

Disclaimer: the author of this blog post graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1999.


Banned Books Week: the Abrome Library

This week is national Banned Books Week, an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. In recognition of Banned Books Week, we wanted to share the thinking behind the building of the Abrome library.

Abrome holds the radical belief that young people should be free to learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it, so long as it does not interfere with or harm anyone else. That learning happens best when Learners have full agency over their education. That dialectical learning greatly enhances one’s education. And that Learners should have access to resources that challenge their beliefs and assumptions.

We do not have classes or curriculum at Abrome, and we do not lecture Learners in order to instill certain values or beliefs. Instead, we give Learners the time and space to engage in learning that is meaningful to them. We focus on creating a culture where intellectual vitality thrives. We encourage Abrome Learners to challenge themselves by seeking critical feedback from their peers, reaching out to people with alternative opinions, and tapping the nearly endless stream of information available over the internet. And while we encourage tapping the resources that are now available due to the increased accessibility of information and connectivity of society, there is still something special about finding a nice, warm, comfortable spot where one can lose themself in a book.

Although we are a new school, we take a lot of pride in our library. In part to promote a love of literature, we have 700 books conveniently spread across multiple bookshelves throughout our space. To promote intellectual vitality and dialectical inquiry, we filled our shelves with challenging books in terms of prose, content, and message. We chose books that were highly relevant in terms of cultural literacy, that are of great historical significance, that promote ideas both virtuous and reprehensible, and that may not otherwise be accessible to Learners at traditional school or public libraries.  

Our books generally fall into a few categories that traditional school libraries also have, and a few that they do not have. Among the categories that our library shares with traditional school libraries are a wide range of children’s literature, classic literature, biographies, domain specific (e.g., mathematics, physics) books, and reference books. Even within these categories, we hold titles that have often been challenged or banned by more traditional school libraries.

Outside of these shared categories, Abrome carries books that are not generally embraced by traditional school libraries. The reasons for their exclusion most often revolve around perceptions of morality, particularly as they relate to or intersect with politics, race, religion, sexuality, gender identity, drugs, or violence.

While 700 does not make for a particularly large library, we are proud of the fact that a good number of these books have been banned in the past. In fact, our library includes every book that has been banned or challenged that the Library of Congress included in their exhibit, “Books that Shaped America” (which includes Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, ironically).

We do not push any of these books on Abrome Learners; we allow them to sit on the shelves waiting to be found. If a Learner stumbles across one and dives in, we are ready to share in their learning, to make suggestions on other books and resources that may be worth seeking out (especially those with alternative viewpoints), and to talk with them about where they can take their learning next.

A selection of the books in the Abrome library that some have considered too controversial for young people, or that have been banned or challenged include:

·       The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain

·       The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley

·       Beloved, Toni Morrison

·       Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, Susan Kuklin

·       Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown

·       The Call of the Wild, Jack London

·       The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

·       The Color Purple, Alice Walker

·       The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx

·       The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck

·       Howl, Allen Ginsberg

·       The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins

·       Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison

·       The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

·       Lolita, Vladmir Nabokov

·       Mein Kampf, Adolph Hitler

·       The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin

·       Our Bodies, Ourselves, Boston Women’s Health Book Collective

·       The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Stephen Chbosky

·       Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi

·       Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, Mao Zedong

·       Rules for Radicals, Saul Alinsky

·       To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

·       Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

·       Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe

·       The Words of Cesar Chavez, Cesar Chavez

Abrome Learners are set up for Success in College Admissions

One of the biggest misconceptions people have about opting out of school is that one cannot get into college without a diploma from an accredited high school. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, for the great majority of people, getting into college, especially a top college, is much easier for those who opt out of school than those who stay in school. While there are select private schools, very affluent public schools, and public magnet and charter schools that tend to send a lot of children to top colleges, these schools are few and far between. Further, they are typically filled with students who tend to come from families that colleges are eager to court (e.g., the very wealthy, politicians, celebrities), or they are filled with the type of students who have always performed exceptionally well on standardized tests and who are willing to work very hard to get top grades in lieu of deeper learning. However, even most of these children would be better off opting out of school if their goal is to gain admittance into highly selective colleges and universities.

Gone are the days when college admissions committees at the top schools (e.g., Harvard, Stanford) were looking for the well-rounded student with a 4.0 GPA, a 1600 SAT, who played three sports and served on student council. Today, the schools are looking for young people who first and foremost have an insatiable desire to identify, understand and solve questions and problems about the world around them. Stanford University uses the term “intellectual vitality” to describe such an orientation. These admissions committees are also looking for people who have superior academic skills, have demonstrated excellence in some manner (e.g., athletics, community organizing, entrepreneurship), and who add substantially to the class profile in terms of personality and diversity.

Students who test into public magnets, or win the lottery into top charter schools are positioned to present themselves as having superior academic skills, but their intense workload makes it extremely hard for them to demonstrate excellence outside of the classroom. Likewise, students who attend the top prep schools are often able to present themselves as having superior academic skills, and they often come from families that the schools are eager to court, but they also have limited time to demonstrate excellence outside of the classroom. In both cases, demonstrating high levels of intellectual vitality is difficult for students even from these “top” high schools. 

Learners at Abrome, however, are able to position themselves much better in the admissions process than their traditional schooled peers.  Without the pressure of earning top grades in a wide variety of subjects, Abrome Learners are able to engage in deep learning in the areas that matter most to them. This results in a much more meaningful understanding and appreciation for the areas they choose to investigate, allowing them to quickly demonstrate excellence in that area, and better prepare themselves for college and post-graduate work. At the same time, Abrome Learners are able to develop superior academic skills by focusing on maximizing literacy and numeracy without having to worry about a GPA.

By freeing themselves of the requirements of traditional schooling, including being assigned to a particular building for about seven hours a day, Abrome Learners have much more time to engage in activities that allow them to do remarkable work in areas they care about, such as creating beautiful works of art, conducting world-class research, or starting businesses or social movements. Most importantly, in the eyes of the admissions committees, because Abrome Learners have full agency over their education, and everything is of their own volition, they are able to clearly demonstrate heightened levels of intellectual vitality through the learning experiences they choose to engage in. This opportunity is one that escapes virtually all traditional schooled students.      

At Abrome, we have no desire to push kids onto a college pathway. However, for those who choose to make college a part of their learning pathways, there is no better place to position oneself for admission into the most selective colleges and universities than the Abrome learning community; even for those who would otherwise attend the top prep schools in the country.