Headmaster’s Thoughts – March 2010

As we approach graduation and the end of the school year, I wonder again why some students become so much more academically successful than others. What is it that creates the successful student?

I have been the headmaster here for 41 years, and so I look back at 40 valedictorians. What distinguished them? Certainly it was not just brains. We have had valedictorians who were not the smartest in their cohort. Indeed, you might be surprised to learn that some of those valedictorians did poorly on standardized tests and probably always will. Yet, these determined students found their way to triumph in high school and college. Gender did not seem a factor in their success; we have had roughly an equal number of boys and girls. It was not the affluence of their backgrounds; scholarship recipients have been well represented. Nor is it true that valedictorians only came from “intact” families. So what was it?

By the time students arrive in my Ethics class in their senior year, our faculty and administration have often accurately predicted the seniors who will do well at college and could probably guarantee those who will succeed wherever they go. How we arrive at these conclusions is what this piece is really about.

Let us start at the entry to York. A student enters into the school at 6th grade or later. At orientation, the first person who talks to them is me. I tell them of the stress that we place on character. I tell them of the rules of the school. And, most importantly, I tell them of the value of education. In truth, intellectually they already know the advantages of being well educated. They don’t really need me to stress that college graduates generally have richer, happier lives than high school drop-outs. On a conscious level, they are all aware that their parents have sent them to York to get a fine education. They know the long-term gains of being successful at school. But some seem to be able to translate this knowledge into action more than others.

From what I have observed in our students—and read about, particularly the famous Stanford University “Marshmallow Experiment” of the 60s—I think the key difference between success and lack of success is the particular ability to delay immediate gratification and instead to work towards the long-term prize of success. That means giving up the impulse to avoid study, the impulse to procrastinate, the impulse to be distracted by immediate pleasures, and instead to accept that study now means success later. This self-control seems consistently to lead to success with school work and good relations with members of the school faculty.

None of this appears to be an intellectual process. Every child recognizes and articulates that he or she should study. I have still to meet the child who argues against it. So the success factor is not something that can be determined by asking the student questions. Every student will pass that multi-choice test. The success factor seems to me far deeper than the conscious articulated argument. It is an emotional or sub-conscious understanding that controls the impulse of gratification.

I am thinking of particular students as I write this. Students who struggled and triumphed. Students with learning disabilities who now have doctorates. They all shared that emotional ability to control their impulses. While everyone in their class wanted success, and everyone wanted to enjoy themselves, they were the ones who sacrificed their “enjoyment” time for this future dream. They were able to listen and work even when they were not that interested in the subject. So the question is: Who instilled in them this impulse control? There must have been a real consequence-driven emotional framework built around them. And this understanding of consequences had to be continually re-enforced as they grew to adolescence.

I remember a friend of mine at Oxford. He was a brilliant American physicist and Rhodes Scholar. He had been an All-American football player and top of his college class. His first name was Joe. He told me once that there were three things one could do at high school and college: have a social life, have an athletic life, and have an intellectual life. And he had discovered early on that if he was going to be successful, he could only do well in two of those three things. So although he had close friends, Joe gave up on a great deal of his social life and focused first on academics and secondly on his football. He went on to an incredibly successful career and has a wonderful marriage with a wide range of friends and acquaintances. He had true impulse control as a very young man.

I have known others (I think I include myself here) who say that they were driven by a fear of failure. That is what kept them at their books when the playground tried to lure them away. But fear of failure assumes that sub-consciously you understand that there are consequences for leaving study for play. In other words, these students already had accepted that long-term effort will have a reward in the future. If they did not have that understanding, their fear of failure would not have driven them forward.

Understanding consequences and controlling instant gratification are not difficult qualities to recognize in students. Hence my confidence in commenting that there are students who we are sure will succeed. Others will (happily) surprise us with their success. They will come to their epiphany later. Their valedictory moment will be after high school. Perhaps we will be more influential in their lives than those who come pre-programmed with the insight I have referred to.

It is certainly our task to make it very clear that success is earned through effort and that the rewards are positively life-changing. I try to stress this in my first talk to students when they arrive for orientation. I urge them to be their own best friend for the long run. Some do not need to hear me because they already know, and others will change in their time at York as we stress the realities of consequences. By the time of their graduation, the hope is that they have all understood the message so that they can go out and conquer the world.

Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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