Monday, March 15, 2010

Children, Parents, and Merit

As we move into the season of college acceptance (and rejection) letters, anxious seniors tearing open envelopes thick (or thin), my thoughts turn back to that ancient (and tired?) debate about individual merit.

Merit, in the context of school admissions, etc., is, in my view, an interesting and complicated issue that defies simple categories or easy answers.

For example, is the cultured, well rounded, articulate, well travelled high-school senior more meritorious than the daughter of immigrant parents -- parents who don't speak English well? Some kids grow up having Dickens and Austen read to them by parents who themselves went to the finest schools; the parents of these children usually have libraries full of books, engage their children all their lives in intelligent discussion, encourage their children to be well rounded, expose them to art, sports, other cultures, languages, etc. Other kids are raised by parents who don't speak English that well, who can’t afford to provide these kinds of opportunities to their kids, etc. (Many children of non-English speakers will, no doubt, have intelligent and thoughtful discussions in other languages, but that these discussions are not in English has consequences, I believe, on the SAT, in English verbal facility and confidence, etc.)

Is it fair to look at a seventeen-year-old and her accomplishments, many of which were scheduled, programmed, set up, and, not to put too fine a point on it, paid for and guaranteed by her cultured, educated parents and deem all of the seventeen-year-old’s accomplishments her own? Even the seventeen-year-old’s verbal facility, vocabulary, self-assertiveness, etc. -- the very core of her personality and qualities -- are not, if we’re being honest, I think, really her “own” –- whatever that may mean in this context. (And looked at this way, this may make any discussion of "owning" personal qualities impossible, given parenting, genes, disease, environment, etc.)

I don’t envy the position college admissions committees are placed in. The finest and most “meritorious” candidates – based on grades, activities, interests, abilities, skills, etc. -- will almost always come from households of educated parents –- whether those parents are rich or not. Children of parents who speak another language, who lack the same resources (financial, educational, cultural), etc., will often lack an entire childhood of education outside of the classroom.

I don’t know how these disparities should be accounted for. It’s not simply a question of affirmative action, though that is unavoidably part of this discussion. It’s also a question of taking economic and social status into account, and, further, recognizing that class perpetuates itself not solely through money, but through education as well. The children of parents who went to Stanford or Dartmouth or Amherst, etc., are likely to receive the benefits of seventeen years of education and stimulation that children of other parents will not be able to provide. And there's really no way to figure out what a child without such parents would have been able to accomplish if she had had such parents.

I believe what I’m saying is that a child’s accomplishments and achievements are often, to put it too simply, in truth the achievements of her parents.

I recognize that there’s an interesting discussion lurking here about the beneficial incentives to parents in doing the most they can to “improve” their children, that if the parents put in the effort, have the resources, it is not in the end “unjust” that their children reap the rewards, are deemed more “meritorious.” And I obviously haven't even touched on the issue of why children who have fast responses, whose brains process quickly, who learn quickly, etc. -- perhaps, not to be crass, children who have inherited "good genes" -- should be deemed more "meritorious" than other children. Are we rewarding genetic inheritance? Is it meritorious simply to be born smart? Or should we be instead rewarding effort, discipline, struggle? That is, should merit be something that should have to be earned, not simply inherited? What qualities or characteristics are "meritorious"? In determining merit, should we be attempting to consider individual achievements while correcting for the fortuitous benefits and advantages some children were born into or without (an obviously impossible task)?

Just something I was thinking about. As I said, I think the question defies easy answers. And it’s obvious, and will be the case till the end of time, that most parents (like my own, like yours) will do almost anything they can to try to improve the prospects of their children. That won't change. The question will always be, I think, how we decide which children -- who had no say in their parentage -- will be deemed "worthy" of access to the finest educations and opportunities. (And perhaps there's a question here for a lot of us about what we've actually "earned" and what we've simply received out of dumb luck and/or efforts made by others -- a question with answers that I know, for me, are humbling.)


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