How far do you have to look before you find the word “prep” (or preparatory) in your personal independent school world? Upper or lower case; doesn’t matter.
Not very far, I’ll bet. Your school’s literature, perhaps its name, and possibly a league or affiliation of some sort. Independent schools have been known as “prep schools” for years. Many K–8s or 9s have been known to embrace the descriptor “pre-prep,” which is kind of redundant or maybe an oxymoron, depending on how you read it—right? (The estimable Prep for Prep organization has it right, though.)
It’s all in the preparation, or is it the presentation? We want our schools to look like a tasty collation served up to families on a silver tray with the promise of more shiny delights to come. Serve up a juicy college or next-schools list, and schools like to imagine families doing happy dances at the thought of the future they will be guaranteeing their offspring.
So, it’s practically official: Independent schools are all about preparation for the next level. We prepare our secondary students to be college first-years (freshman, in oldspeak) and our pre-secondary kids to be ninth or tenth graders at some suitably desirable place that will in turn.
The world is in a pickle these days, and that pickle has been sliced into spears ripping through the hearts of democracy, human comity, and the salubrity of the air we breathe and water we drink. An autocratic madman is threatening to push the nuclear button even as the planet warms and our animal and vegetable neighbors are going extinct at record rates.
So, yes, of course we need smart, clever people, well prepared in the academic realms to take on metastasizing challenges. That’s why curriculum and instruction matter, and that’s why it is critical to make what we teach relevant to the lives we all (including students, duh) live.
People, let us also remind ourselves of all that lovely language about values and missions that too often appear as a garnish on the silver tray of “prep”-ness. The customers may love to hear this stuff, but in the end it’s the next tangible thing, that desired next place, that too often matters.
As educators on the ground, in classrooms and in residences and on fields and stages and in dining halls, we know our students, and in our hearts we know what they need and how badly we want to help them achieve it. And as educators we generally know and feel that this whole “next place” thing is a sideshow.
As educators we don’t want to be producing first-year students at that next place but rather good, purposeful, empathetic, curious, and emotionally accessible human beings who will have the dispositions to take all the stuff they have learned and experienced in the activities and classes printed on their transcripts and apply this to the greater good. Don’t we?
This isn’t new. My teachers many decades ago wanted this for me more than they cared about what college I went to; that might have mattered to my family and to the head and board, but my teachers wanted to make me a better person. (Well, the jury is probably still out on how that worked out.) They wanted to prepare me and my classmates to face the world and its challenges even more than they wanted us to get a hundred on some quiz to facilitate our admission to the colleges of others’ dreams.
I am aware that in writing about this there is a danger of sounding as though I am putting the task of fixing the world on the students. I don’t mean to, and I have addressed this issue elsewhere.
But the students are the future, and while we elders can flip our own switches to mobilize erstwhile take-to-the-streets idealism and play our own roles in pushing for a better world outside of school, our activism includes how we choose to approach our work in schools.
We know damn well that we’re not just preparing human widgets for the next stage in their processing into college graduates with good jobs and nice cars. We do what we do and generally work where we work not because of the pay and prestige but because we want to make a difference.
In all schools—I focus on independent schools here but this extends to schools in every sector and to the entities that run them—we need to make sure that those whose roles tend to relate most closely to material outcomes, whether they be senior leaders or boards, for example, are also truly committed to the belief that schools must concern themselves less with preparing someplace else’s first-year students and more with preparing the good, purposeful, empathetic, curious, and emotionally accessible human beings the world needs—even more than it needs college graduates.
Circumstances continue to reveal that many of the material objectives we have held sacred have some rot at their core. College admissions haven’t smelled quite the same since the Varsity Blues scandal broke, and even “reforms” there are vulnerable. The pandemic and recent political trends have revealed the continuing pervasiveness and power of racism and injustice as well as the ease with which lies can be embraced as truths that motivate, well, evil.
Forget being “prep schools” for some next place. Think about preparing ourselves, our students, and our schools for the next week, next season, next year, and next era. We want these actually to come to pass and to turn out well for all of humankind and every other form of life on earth, don’t we?
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)