Once upon a time there lived a vain parent whose only worry in life was to convince her neighbors how clever her son was. Every hour she would regale anyone who would listen regarding her son’s accomplishments in the classroom and on the athletic field.
Word of this parent’s vanity spread throughout the community and beyond. Two scoundrels who had heard of the parent’s narcissism decided to take advantage of it. They introduced themselves to the guard who controlled the gate of the community where the mother lived. The scoundrels had a scheme in mind. They were soon admitted to the presence of the mother. “We are two extraordinarily qualified tutors,” they began. “After years of research we have invented a method to weave information into a young man’s brain. We can communicate material about all academic subjects as well as the SATs.” The mother was intrigued; the scoundrels continued: “Our method is so extraordinary that the abilities of your son will remain invisible to anyone who is too stupid or incompetent to appreciate his brilliance.”
The mother gave the scoundrel’s a bag of gold credit cards in exchange for their promise to get started with the tutoring immediately. The scoundrels asked for invisible desks, indiscernible books, and undetectable curriculum. The mother quickly provided all these thinking she had spent her money quite well. In addition to providing her son with an extraordinary education, she would discover which of her friends were ignorant and incompetent. A few days later the mother called her son’s 11th grade “Evolution of the Corduroy Suit” teacher. (The mother had helped her son select courses most likely to ensure an appealing grade point average.)
“Go and see how the work is proceeding” the mother told the teacher, “and come back to me to let me know.” The teacher was welcomed by the two scoundrels. “We are almost finished with the young man’s education,” they began. “But we need some more gold credit cards.” The teacher directed the mother to provide additional funding. “Here, Excellency,” the scoundrels went on. “Admire the progress. The young man has acquired over half a dozen community service hours by sitting in an office pretending to care about young people who live outside the gated community.”
“I can’t see anything different about the young man,” the teacher thought. “He is still unmotivated, uncaring, and as intellectually curious as an anesthetized dung beetle. But if I can’t see his intellectual accomplishments and his contributions to making our community a better place, that means I’m stupid and incompetent.” If the teacher admitted that he didn’t perceive anything different, he knew the mother would endeavor to have him fired from his position.
“What a marvelous accomplishment,” the teacher said to the mother. “I will certainly tell the college counselor who will write the recommendation and the head of school who gives out the awards for academic accomplishment and service to the community.
Within a few days, the mother received the announcement from the scoundrels that they had finished their work. “Your son will get a good score on the SAT,” they said. “He will get good grades in authentic high school courses and be admitted to a good college.”
Everyone in the son’s high school agreed. They did not want to be thought of as stupid or incompetent. “Six hours of community service!” they said. “Imagine! And SAT scores above the 40th percentile!” they went on. “And just look at those grades and the selection of courses. Why he even got a ‘B’ in ‘Evolution of the Corduroy Suit!'”
Just then a college admissions counselor looked at the boy’s credentials and accomplishments. The college admissions counselor earned very little money and could only see things as his eyes showed them to him. The college admissions counselor only intended to work in admissions for a few years before going back to graduate school himself or possibly backpacking through Europe hoping to meet someone special of the female persuasion. The college admissions counselor evaluated the transcript.
“This transcript is naked,” the college admissions counselor said. “At our highly selective college, we routinely deny students with six hundred hours of community service never mind six hours. We admit students who have grades of ‘A’ in calculus and physics and advanced placement English and advanced placement history. And just what is this course in ‘Evolution of the Corduroy Suit’ about anyway?”
The mother was dismayed when the truth of the words of the college admissions counselor became apparent to her. She realized then that her entire attitude about her son’s education had been wrong. She acknowledged that she had tried to build a castle on a foundation of shifting sands. She apologized to her son, explaining that true education concerns the reality of ability rather than just the indication of ability. She gave her son a gap year at a legitimate boarding school where he read William Shakespeare and Jane Austin. Her son read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. He studied physics and did a science fair project from start to finish by himself. The mom stopped being concerned about what her peers thought her son knew and focused instead only on what her son actually did know. She paid more attention to what was in her son’s head than what was on his transcript. The process took a full year and was difficult for both mother and son, but in the fullness of time, the son had actual abilities and was able to successfully apply to college where he continued to study hard. He is doing well to this day.
Nah. The mom did nothing of the kind. In actuality, she just went ahead and paid $200,000 to some different tutors who ‘guaranteed’ admission to Ivy League Colleges. C’mon now. You knew this was a fairy tale when you started reading.
Readers will doubtless recognize “Keiserens nye Klaeder” from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1837 story. I did not know that “The Invisible Cloth” from 1335 is the source of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Interested readers are directed to Wikipedia to learn more about how Andersen changed the original.