The Far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond

Everything I know about business can be written on the back of a postage stamp with a shaving brush. It would be difficult to exaggerate my ignorance of all matters financial. I’m an educator. To me “deficits” are cognitive, not measured in billions of dollars. My insights into taxes are comprised primarily of expletives.

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My understanding of a Ponzi scheme can be summarized as “some people make money; more folks don’t.” If pressed for more information on the subject, I might go on to say that Ponzi schemes are “bad” and that if you invest in one and lose all your money, you might reasonably be characterized as having gotten poor advice. Then I would try to use the words “liabilities” and “mortgage” in a sentence and, as a result, have to go lie down.

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So given my lack of knowledge about investments, the following analogy may be a stretch. But here goes: Is it possible that our entire educational system in this country is a glorified Ponzi scheme? Does education benefit a select few at the expense of the unwashed many? 

Remember Yertle the Turtle? (Click here  for the pdf.) Simply stated, Yertle, King of the Turtles, is dissatisfied with his view.

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On the far-away island of Sala-ma-Sond,

Yertle the Turtle was king of the pond.

A nice little pond. It was clean. It was neat.

The water was warm. There was plenty to eat.

The turtles had everything turtles might need.

And they were all happy. Quite happy indeed.

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As might be expected, Yertle the Turtle is not content with only making application to certain select colleges (this is a metaphor; be patient with me.) So…

“He ordered nine turtles to swim to his stone

And, using these turtles, he built a new throne.

He made each turtle stand on another one’s back

And he piled them all up in a nine-turtle stack.”


Perhaps, you can guess where this is going.

Yertle, like monomaniacal despots everywhere, requires more and more turtles on whom to stand. Of course, the stack of turtles eventually collapses. It is not clear to me by the end of the book whether or not the turtles at the bottom were able to form a class action suit and recover 15 cents on the dollar for their pain and suffering. Nor was I able to discern whether or not the turtles lower in the stack attended in-state colleges. But my Tuesday musing today is neither a socialist screed nor an admonition about absolute power corrupting absolutely. I’m not even pontificating about the large number of students in introductory classes at public institutions. I’m wondering if the kid at the “bottom” of the class gets much in return from supporting the kid at the top. Are turtles, investors, and students all being scammed by the intellectual descendants of Charles Ponzi? Could our entire educational system be predicated on an unfortunate stack of turtles?

Valedictorians, deservedly, get attention. The kid graduating first in her class is doubtless bright and motivated. Some of these top performers may even have characteristics in common with those of actual human students. Indeed, you may have met high achieving students who were nothing like the grade-grubbing, apple polishing, dweeb weenies you hear so much about. But the emphasis on which courses this Number One Kid is taking, her SAT scores, her GPA, seems a bit over the top. Where is she applying to college? Where was she admitted? Who is writing her recommendations? What are her extra-curriculars? What did she write about for her admissions essay? There seems to be instructional inequality. “Lesser” students receive disproportionately less attention. If nobody is talking about where these other kids are applying, does anyone care about their education? Are the needs of these students being taken seriously at all?

Remember how lost you were in pre-calculus? Here’s a secret: the majority of your classmates were equally befuzzled. Maybe the only purpose of your presence in the class was to allow the smart kid to shine. Maybe the entire curriculum was designed without you in mind. Maybe it didn’t even matter whether or not you understood logarithms. Maybe you don't understand logarithms to this day. Maybe you could have been doing something else--anything else--rather than suffering through that pre-cal class. This just in: you're not an engineer. More bad news: you are never going to be an engineer. Final nail in the coffin: no engineer anywhere stays up nights worrying that you will take her job. You don't even know logarithms, for goodness sake.

As a culture, we’re pretty heavily invested in Gisele Bundchen. What does Gisele Bundchen eat? Where is Gisele Bundchen having dinner? Who is Gisele Bundchen going out with? What is Gisele Bundchen wearing? Who is Gisele Bundchen dating? It is certainly not Gisele Bundchen’s fault that she makes me feel fat, unattractive, and undervalued. Gisele Bundchen did not ask to be the 16th richest woman in entertainment.

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Surely there is something to be said for excellence. But not everyone is saying it. Because not everyone is excellent according to a narrow definition of excellence. Maybe being physically attractive, wealthy, and accomplished is critical. “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?” But I’m not sure everyone should be reaching for Gisele Bundchen. Wait, let me severely edit that sentence. When I wrote “Not everyone should be reaching for Gisele Bundchen” what I meant was, “not everyone should be trying to be Gisele Bundchen” because let’s face it, what would you do with earnings of eighty-something million dollars a year and all those annoying super bowl parties? And more to the point, I’m sure she has her path to walk. As a great philosopher once remarked, “It ain’t easy being green.” Doubtless being Gisele Bundchen has its drawbacks as well. I will sit here for a few more minutes trying to come up with some of these disadvantages.

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In the meantime, let’s help our kids focus on being who they are, on being content even if they are not first in their class, a supermodel earning millions of dollars, or a turtle at the top of a stack. Pride goeth before a fall.

Just ask anyone who found pre-calculus pointless, or anyone who feels bad because she doesn't look like Gisele Bundchen, or any of the many smushed turtles forced to stack up under Yertle the Turtle.

3 thoughts on “The Far-away Island of Sala-ma-Sond

  1. Wynkoop

    There are many places to learn and school is one of them. It may not be the best one, but there are many valuable things to learn. It’s a place to establish some common facts (general math, general language, general history, basic scientific method) and to practice valuable skills like tolerating people who are difficult and annoying (teachers), accepting people who are weird (anyone not you or in your clique), and showing up even when you don’t feel well or don’t want to.

    And yet…every school should find a way to create an experience that allows students to learn things of interest to them and to be challenged but not overwhelmed. Maybe we’re not doing that well and it feels like a Ponzi scheme, so we ought to get our collective act together so we can close the educational divide and I can stop hearing the blather about “elites.”

  2. John Calia

    NY Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote about this topic from the other end of the pipeline. Only 20% of the population makes it through the system we have designed to produce a college educated workforce. So, how would you advise the other 80%? Apprenticeships? Unskilled trades? What? I mean, if you’re not in the Top 20%, you’re likely to end up in a job that doesn’t require a college degree. So, why pile up all that student debt? Here’s a link to Brooks’ column:

  3. Martin

    My first comment is: Whatever happened to Sophie Vergara in your concupiscient world?

    My second comment: Yes. To a large extent the purpose of schooling is to justify the success of those who do well in schooling. And to give “reasons” for why those who do not do well in schooling to accept their (lower) station in life. Ivan Illich and Everett Reimer tore off the veil in their book DeSchooling Society in the early 1970s.

    To a large extent, the function of schools is to sort (young) people into relative “winners” and “losers”.. Other functions: custody–providing a place for those young people to be so their parents can go about their lives unencumbered for several hours a day. And giving “credentials” to those who do well in schooling to qualify them for more schooling. As you have noted.

    If schools were less about sorting and custody they still might be functional. As we say, What do you call the medical school graduate who was lowest in his class? Doctor. What do you call the midshipman who graduated lowest in his class? Lieutenant, Sir!


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