“Beware the Ides of March,” a soothsayer told Julius Caesar (the character) in Julius Caesar (the Shakespeare play).
As with any great work of art, that line raises more questions than it answers. What ever happened to soothsaying as a profession? How did one get credentialed as a soothsayer—bachelor’s degree from a for-profit college, associate’s degree from a community college, certificate program? For that matter, what exactly is sooth, and why don’t we have more of it? Is there something unique about the Ides of March, or should we be worried about all Ides?
It’s October, not March, and I find the Ides of October plenty intimidating (although that, forsooth, may just be my innate sense of paranoia and doom shining through). I may not be seeing things clearly as I gaze through the lens of the pile of things that must be done by November 1, and in my office an October Surprise refers not to Hillary Clinton’s e-mail or Donald Trump’s mouth, but rather a student who makes my blood pressure rise by announcing that he has a November 1 application ten days after the announced internal deadline.
On most days I feel like the plate spinners who used to appear on variety shows on television, focusing on whichever plate is about to topple and crash without ever seeing all the plates spinning smoothly. What ever happened to those guys? For that matter, what ever happened to variety shows? Both can be found in the same retirement community as soothsayers.
Over the past few weeks three unrelated incidents have caused me to reflect on some big picture issues impacting our profession.
Last week a friend and colleague informed me that he was thinking about hiring an independent consultant for his son, one of my seniors. He said that was not intended as a criticism of me or my office, but he and his wife are not seeing the son moving as fast on applications as they might like, and are worried that the son might be paralyzed by the prospect of writing college essays. The son has no pressing deadlines and is focused on soccer and Student Council. He doesn’t want an independent counselor and plans to write essays over Thanksgiving break, but hasn’t necessarily communicated that, subscribing to the classic teen strategy of controlling parents by controlling information.
It was hard not to take it personally. I believe in personalizing the college process and in providing exceptional customer service, and I don’t want to believe that my students need outside help when one of the benefits they should be receiving for their tuition dollars is superb college counseling. At the same time, I am struggling during this month just processing applications and writing recommendation letters for students with a pressing deadline (the plates about to topple), with little time to attend to students who aren’t in crisis. I also believe philosophically that it is essential that students take ownership of this process with adults in a support role, but I see more students who don’t seem to be ready or willing to be independent. Is the expectation of college counseling going to change to managing the process rather than advising students and parents? Can I, or do I want to, make that change?
That ties into the second issue. At the NACAC Conference in Columbus I attended the featured presentation on brain development by Dr. Frances Jensen from the University of Pennsylvania, author of The Teenage Brain. Her presentation did an excellent job of connecting brain development in adolescents and young adults with issues such as addiction and the onset of mental illnesses such as bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia. I thought she would be a good speaker for my students and parents, only to learn that: 1) her fee is a challenge to our budget; and 2) I’m in the wrong business.
The issue she didn’t explicitly address is the connection between brain development and the college admissions process. Given the developmental issues with the adolescent brain, how do we design a college process that promotes discernment and measures readiness for the college experience? Can the college search be a bridge between adolescence and adulthood, or is that a pipedream? Do colleges think about teenagers when they establish admission deadlines that force kids to make major decisions about their future before they may be ready? Do we need to rethink both the timing and the content of the admission process?
The third issue came up last Friday, when I did a session at the Virginia Association of Independent Schools conference with my good friend Brian Leipheimer from the Collegiate School. The conference theme was “The Gift of Failure,” taken from keynote speaker Jessica Lahey’s bestselling book of the same title, and our session title was “The Fallacy of Failure,” talking about the challenges independent schools face as they balance their educational beliefs and goals with the external pressures related to the college admissions process.
Our expectation was that absolutely no one would attend our session, and we were shocked (or, to quote my son when he won a track event back in 5th grade, “dumfounded”) when we had a standing-room only crowd. A colleague who attended described our presentation as “inspirational and depressing.” I’m not sure that was exactly the vibe we were hoping for.
I often tell parents that the college process tests what you truly believe—about college admission, about parenting, about life. That is just as true for schools.
Do schools that advertise themselves as college-preparatory truly believe that failure is a gift? The answer is a resounding “maybe.” We know that learning to deal with failure is part of preparing for successful adulthood, that you can’t develop persistence if you never have to persist, but does that carry over to college admission? An independent school ad campaign premised on a slogan like “We help your child fail” is as likely as a mission statement promising academic adequacy or pretty-goodness rather than excellence.
The ultimate issue is whether the college admissions piece of the school’s mission outweighs the educational mission (whether those should be in sync is a discussion for another time). Is what the school provides college placement or college counseling? Do we market ourselves only by referring to certain colleges, or are we proud of the college journey and the college destination for every one of our students? What data points indicate academic quality and what data points are misleading? Do we tell prospective parents what they want to hear or what they need to know?
Those are the questions. If only I could find a soothsayer to provide the answers.