Of public schools, intelligence and ambition

“The trouble with public schools,” groused a friend, “is that they just don’t foster ambition.” She had moved her son from a private school to the local high school a year or so ago.

Apparently her son was quite comfortable with the idea of going to a state college after graduation and even, horror of horrors, getting a few basic credits at the community college nearby.

To an Indian parent, a statement like that conjures up visions of desi gatherings where the names that are dropped are those of Ivy League schools, spit out between mouthfuls of tandoori paneer and chicken vol-au-vents. You might as well excommunicate yourself rather than admit that your smart, intelligent child hasn’t made it.

But let’s consider this before we import our educational biases into the US; my Caucasian neighbour’s talented daughters are now in a state college studying to be a teacher and a nurse respectively. We’ve known them since the girls were in elementary school and to all accounts they were excellent students, earning steady As. They went on through the public school system and chose careers that they felt they would enjoy the most.  Yes, they did not feel the drive to apply to Berkeley and Stanford nearby, not even to UCSF, but their lack of ‘ambition’ means that someday, the local infrastructure of education and medicine will be populated by very capable candidates. The same applies to students who go on to perhaps mundane but very worthwhile jobs as firefighters, city planners, transportation officers and park rangers. The result is that the people in service industries are there because they genuinely enjoy what they do and are there because they want to be, not as a compromise choice from frustrated desires. A clear example is the quality of teachers in my son’s school – the worst of them could give any Indian teacher I ever had growing up a complex. I have a lot more faith in the institutions that influence my daily life because I know the people that populate them are there by choice.

The flip side, of course, is that there is a crisis of lack of competitiveness. Hungrier and more ambitious students from other parts of the world are aiming for the best positions in American colleges, the PhDs  and the best paid jobs. As Tom Friedman wrote in his article “Laughing and Crying” the graduation list of Rensselaer Polytechnic sounded like the patrons at the Dim Sum place down the street. There is no doubt that there should be more emphasis on science and math at school. A little push to improve grades would also not be amiss.

At the same time, I hope we never get to a situation like India, where the degrees of B.Sc., B.Com and B.A correspond to Smart, Not-so-Smart and Downright Dumb. The education system here accommodates for a spectrum of intelligence, financial capabilities and ambition. The most motivated will rise to the top, regardless of the lack of push from teachers or parents. The less ambitious will happily settle down to a life of small triumphs, participating in PTAs, volunteering at neighbourhood shelters and coaching their kids’ Little League games. They will be the pillars of the society.

In India, economic and social pressures dictated our narrow choices. Here, our children have the opportunity to discover what they are really good at and hopefully make a comfortable living from it and at finding a balance between work and family.

Let’s give our kids the chance to find out and be accepted for who they are and want to be. If that means we have to grit our teeth and smile bravely while informing our friends and family that the little Tam-Bram genius is pursuing a career in wedding photography..so be it.

2 thoughts on “Of public schools, intelligence and ambition

  1. Shreyasi

    I absolutely agree with you. Some Indian parents are gradually growing up to the need for freedom of choice for their children. and it is somewhat achievable today given that economic pressures are comparatively lower for today’s generation and opportunities are aplenty though Indian systems make it difficult for bright, young students to choose public services.
    But Indian parents abroad must leave behind their stereotypes and their need to ‘tell’ others



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