Driven by hunger, a fox tried to reach some grapes hanging high on the vine but was unable to, although he leaped with all his strength.
As he went away, the fox remarked, 'Oh, you aren't even ripe yet! I don't need any sour grapes.'
Thomas Jefferson High, aka TJ, is the #1 high school in the country. It also happened to be 20 minutes from my house. It was the dream school for a motivated Fairfax County kid, and most 8th graders’ parents pushed them to enter the application gauntlet.
I remember touring it and seeing the space club building a satellite, yes, a real satellite, which NASA had agreed to launch for them.
Simply attending nearly guaranteed you’d go to some kind of esteemed college. Certainly somewhere better than those *shudder* non-gifted kids.
Something strange happened when I applied, though. They must have mixed up my application with another Nat because they rejected me. But that’s fine. I didn’t really want to go anyway. It’s a school for nerds. Right?
I hadn’t thought much about TJ until the other day when I was listening to the Financial Samurai podcast. The host, Sam, shared a story about TJ administrators hiding National Merit awards from students because they didn’t want to make the other students who didn’t receive them feel bad. Supposedly this was done as part of TJ’s new goal of “equal outcomes for every student,” a hilarious strategy for a school whose whole shtick is only letting in the specialest of 13-year-olds.
Obviously, it’s unfair to the higher-achieving kids. We don’t need to argue that. But a less-discussed downside of treating Harrison Bergeron as a how-to manual is what it denies the losers. School is supposed to teach you that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, yes, but it’s also supposed to teach you essential life skills.
Essential life skills like coping.
School is a fertile swampland of mimetic contagion, a comparison war of all against all, and the more similar the students are, the direr the competition becomes. If you are among the worst-performing students in a school where grades are all that matters, you will feel awful. Having students with various strengths: academics, sports, music, rich parents, gives everyone some way to cope. You might not be the merit scholar, sure, but at least you can throw a football and get laid.
If a school instead tries to get everyone to the same outcome, you narrow the range of criteria students can judge themselves and each other on. If you think potentially feeling sad about not getting a merit award is bad, the alternative is worse. Conflict and comparison are our natural states, and deprived of larger forms of hierarchy, we will dial down to the most minuscule differences and use those to other our neighbors.
We used to only have our local network to compare ourselves to, but now the comparison game is global. Faced with the kinds of differences that may drive anything from feelings of sadness to outright violence, we can either:
Try to hide those differences.
Learn to cope with them.
TJ and its ilk seem to be taking the first approach. True equality is impossible without chopping kids’ limbs off, so they try to hide the inequalities instead. But as soon as the blinders come off, the safe space evaporates, and if those kids have never trained their coping muscles, their only recourse will be to start recording TikToks of their emotional meltdown.
In a world where you have instantaneous access to an infinite list of things other people are better than you at, including all the things you pride yourself on, the solution is not to try to escape that information but to practice coping with it. To train the ability to see it and go, “yeah, well, that’s fine. I have this other thing going for me.”
The sour grapes fable is often used to show how we lie to ourselves about the things we want but can’t have. But the fox is also demonstrating a pearl of subtle wisdom.
He doesn’t sit under the grapes and cry.
He doesn’t hate himself for being a mediocre jumper.
He doesn’t write a thread about the evils of height privilege.
He tells himself a comforting lie and moves on with his life.
Go fox go.
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Check out my friend Nick’s article for a hilarious example of this.
This was something that’s hit me at just the right time. Thanks for writing.
I wholeheartedly agree, learning coping strategies and resilience is very important for growing up to be happy and capable! But I don't think the way you've framed it here is all that healthy, and frankly I think it borders a little on toxic. Perhaps I misread you or its overly simplified and doesn't reflect your more full, nuanced view, but it comes across to me essentially as "Don't coddle people, you gotta toughen them up by letting people be a-holes to each other".
Certainly the merit awards should not be suppressed and all that. But the way to fix that is not the complete opposite, letting school be the battleground of comparison and othering, etc. that it often comes to. I would have really liked to see some more overt appeal to adding coping *skill* curriculum, mental health tools and services (not pathological but supportive), etc. The solution to over-correcting towards "safe space" is not "go back to how it was", it's a third way, a well-considered, measured, and evidence-based approach to raising better humans. We already know the way we've "always" done things is highly problematic.