At Wesleyan, as at other liberal arts colleges, students who are not graduates of private or quasi-private high schools often find themselves lost. In my experience, there is a distinct feeling, which I have since abandoned, that as a matter of biology you are less intelligent than your peers. So many seem almost inexcusably articulate, well-read, and “deep.” We should continue to respect them and try our best to learn from them, but for the sake of our mental health, we need to start seeing this difference not so much as one of innate intelligence, but of education. We would do well to remember that the real reason people sometimes seem smarter is not because they are mentally quicker, but because they received a more comprehensive pre-college education.
When I went to high school, I took an honors English class where we spent the entire year on “The Great Gatsby.” Or—I’ll be more generous—we spent the first seven months on that book, then the last three on a 15-page abbreviated version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Letters from an American Farmer.” Before turning 18, I had read only two books from the classical world: “The Odyssey” (we did not even know of “The Iliad”) and “Oedipus Rex;” the first read freshman year, and the second senior year—and only in our AP literature course, one section of 28 students in a school of 850. My test score was—well, you can imagine. My friend had another English teacher who, during a lecture on “Macbeth” (one of the two Shakespeare plays in the curriculum), could not figure out how to spell “scene”: According to him, on the chalk board she wrote and then erased first “scean,” then “seen,” and at last arrived at “sean.” Perhaps he was exaggerating. But I doubt it. Another example: My freshman physics teacher once taught a whole lesson mistaking F = M x A for M = F x A and M = F/A for F = F/M. She is now my brother’s guidance counselor. At private schools, the picture is quite different. The number of books students seem to have read—or at least to have sat in class while their teacher lectured on them—is increased from mine by at least a factor of five. The overall exposure to material is exponentially greater and infinitely more even; there are no holes, so to speak, in a private school student, whereas I have often felt like a walking block of Swiss cheese. So it’s easy to think that, when seated around a table surrounded by students, half of whom went to private school, that when their comments seem more original, more well formed, more insightful, you are in some way inherently deficient. It took me a couple years to realize I was mistaking smarts for education.
If you consider yourself a slow or inefficient worker, this is another consequence of your deficient pre-college education, not an inherent mental slowness. At least in part. I’m guessing if go to private school you are taught more precisely than I was how to read, write, plan, and execute. You were not given an assignment and simply told to “run along” like I was. I think in fifth grade I was taught something about “context clues,” but that’s about all when it comes to the techniques of reading. Until about a year and a half ago, I read novels for the individual sentences, and if I did not know a word, I always stopped to look it up; I knew nothing of the idea of “breaking flow.” If I did not understand a sentence, or if the sentence did not register, I refused to move on until I could successfully parse out the syntax (syntax was a topic I was only taught in Spanish class, so the results were always interesting). To this day, I can manage, in relatively normal-spaced type, maybe 10 pages per hour, if I am not marking up the margins. Some of this is lack of aptitude; I do not mean to pretend I am a genius, merely semi-competent. And perhaps I have ventured here into the realm of aimless complaints about issues that apply equally to all young people as a matter of course. But either way, it’s clear to me now that all this worrying was pointless.
If my old mental condition describes your current one, I hope you take my advice. Your time is better spent agitating for education reform: increased funding for public schools, the abolition or at least desegregation of the quasi-private public schools (Stuyvesant and the New York technical schools are famous examples), and the introduction of innovative methods to school administration. Either that, or get rich. If my old mental condition describes your current one, I hope you take my advice.
Trent Babington is a member of the class of 2021. Trent can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @trentbabington.