There Must Be A Better Way

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Here in Houston we have had a number of locally famous doctors. Among them was a bonafide Texan named Red Duke. Red worked on trauma cases in an emergency room where some of the most seriously injured arrived again and again in hopes of miracles. God only knows how many lives Dr. Duke saved during his career. I know for certain that he was responsible for rescuing the daughter of one of my dear friends from the brink of death. The young girl was brought to him from an horrific auto accident barely breathing. The family had been told that things looked grim and they were preparing themselves for the worst. Dr. Duke went to work on her broken and battered body, and she not only survived, but went on to lead a very normal and happy life.

The interesting thing about Red Duke is that he was also a kind of celebrity here in Houston because he regularly appeared on a health spot on one of the local television stations. He was appealing because he seemed to be the quintessential cowboy with his enormous mustache and unapologetic drawl. His advice was always spot on and his folksy ways only made him more endearing to those of us in the audience. Over the years he earned quite a name for himself and the whole city mourned his passing as if he had been a family friend. His memory lives on for those of us who admired him and his work and even schools have been named in his honor.  More than anything Dr. Red Duke was a brilliant physician who dedicated his life to helping the citizens of our city to overcome some of the worst possible injuries.

Red Duke was a graduate of Texas A&M University, and the story of how he became a student at that renowned institution tells a great deal about his character and how things used to be in a long ago time. Red wasn’t school in the ways of academia, but he was a bright fellow and he knew that he wanted a college degree so he found out when the fall classes would commence at A&M and simply showed up one day announcing that he wanted to study science. He had not filled out an application nor even taken any entrance exams because he didn’t realize that there was a formal admission process. Instead He simply visited one of the departments and announced that he was ready to tackle the curriculum. The professor with whom he spoke was so taken with Red that he immediately decided to allow the enterprising young man to register. Of course Dr. Duke proved to be more than qualified for the rigors of the college and went on to become the incredible doctor that we knew and loved.

I often think about this story and others like it whenever I hear of how difficult it has become for students to earn admission to universities. The days of the old college try are mostly gone. Admissions are competitive to the point of overlooking a great deal of talent, and certainly nobody like Red Duke would be taken seriously in today’s environment. It’s sad to think about all of the students who might actually do quite well if given the opportunity to be judged on something other than grades and test scores which are often affected by considerations having little to do with actual capabilities.

We all know those types who get nervous on high stakes standardized tests and rarely do as well as they might. I am one of those who seem to literally lose my mind when faced with a ticking clock and sets of questions that I must attack quickly, and yet my cumulative GPA in college was almost a perfect 4.0. I’m a very hard worker and someone who may take a day or so longer than others to master a concept, but I will do it every time because I am filled with nonstop determination. Such traits don’t always matter much in today’s world where everyone is just one of thousands of electronically submitted applications, essays, and scores. 

There is also the problem of with the subjectivity of grading that varies tremendously from one place to another, one teacher to the next. A very high grade may be easy to achieve in one school but unlikely in another. It’s almost impossible to judge the true worth of grades without closely studying the history of the courses and the types of measures used. It’s well known that some universities, for example grade hard, while others dole out A’s and B’s like water. Being in the top ten percent of a graduating class at Bellaire High School is much more difficult to achieve than doing the same thing at other Houston. Purdue University has a reputation for generally giving students lower marks than they would make with the same level of work at one of the Ivy League schools. Grades are a very subjective and complex measure and yet they mean everything when attempting to gain entrance to the best colleges and universities.

All of this reliance on data rather than the living breathing characteristics of individuals has created a kind of intense game that dedicated high schoolers must play in order to move to the next level. The stressors are unbelievable and today’s students are having to work at a continually fast pace just to stay in the race. In the meantimes classes are becoming ever more rigorous as the required knowledge and skills are advancing to levels that were once the domain of universities. It is little wonder that so many young people are burning out and even becoming ill. It is more and more difficult for them to just be carefree. Instead their lives are dominated by studying and activities from the moment they arise each morning until late into the night, and the pressure just appears to be getting worse, not to even mention the fears of violence that hang over their heads.

There is so much required material to cover that teachers are beginning to rely more and more on videos and supplemental readings for their students. Assignments are often long and complex, taking hours to complete with very short amounts of intervals allotted to do the work. There are projects and extra curricular activities that fight for inclusion on overloaded calendars. All too often parents only find moments to spend time with their children over assignments and as spectators at events. Family togetherness is being stolen to the point of ridiculousness and because of the demands those who rebel and refuse to play the game are unlikely to get acceptance letters from the universities that they most want to attend. Few are given a chance to just prove themselves if their bonafides are not up to speed. Qualifications have to be golden from the start.

I understand that universities are crowded and must somehow draw the line on how many admissions they may grant. Still I wonder how many Red Dukes are being turned away. How much potential is lost?  Why should the actions or lack of them from teenagers be used to determine futures? Surely brilliance and potential cannot possibly be measured in the same way for all people.

I’d love to see a bit more willingness from admissions panels to deviate from formulaic decision making. In using only certain guidelines we are surely missing some unique souls who might be the future change makers of our world. Perhaps it’s time to use a bit more common sense and be open to that individual who shows up with something so beguiling that it’s worth setting aside the formulas to see what he or she might do. We need to consider whether or not we are stealing the happy days from our youth by placing them in the kinds of stressful situations that presently exist. Somehow there must be a better way.

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