TBR: A Class Apart

This week’s book is A Class Apart: Prodigies, Pressure, and Passion Inside One of America’s Best High Schools, by Alec Klein.  Klein, a Washington Post journalist, spent a year at Stuyvesant High School, one of New York’s competitive math and science high schools.  He tells the stories of a handful of students and teachers as the school year progresses, occasionally cutting back for a bigger-picture look at the questions such as the value of gifted and talented education and the huge under-representation of black and Hispanic students.

In topic and approach, A Class Apart bears a striking resemblance to another recent book, The Overachievers, in which Alexandra Robbins reports on three semesters she spent with students at Walt Whitman High School in Montgomery County.  (Both authors attended the schools they wrote about.)  But I whipped through A Class Apart in a couple of days, while I gave up on The Overachievers after finishing less than 100 pages in the three weeks the library allowed me.  So what’s the difference?

  • I also went to Stuy, so I had more of a personal interest in the book.  It was interesting to see what things had changed (more racial divisions in the student body, far more organized prepping for the entrance exams) and what hadn’t (Sing!, Ms. Lorenzo, the existence of an assistant principal who would approve schedule changes for the desperate).
  • Klein included teachers’ experiences which made for a greater variety of stories.
  • Klein clearly felt a great deal of affection for the students, the teachers, and for the school as an institution.  I didn’t get that from Robbins.
  • I think Klein is just a better writer than Robbins.

Klein’s book doesn’t really have a thesis — it’s just descriptive.  To the extent that it has an argument, it’s a plea that there ought to be more schools like Stuyvesant.  By that he means schools that push bright kids to excel, but he also means schools where parents are involved (sometimes to a fault) and schools where students feel a sense of ownership (again, sometimes to a fault) and teachers and administrators are willing to bend the rules in the interest of learning.

2 Responses to “TBR: A Class Apart”

  1. bj Says:

    I too didn’t get all the way through Overachievers (it felt like a “skim” book, one you pick up and read random chapters of, rather than read all the way through). But, what I would have said was the “premise” of Overachievers was that schools like that are sucking the life out of our teenagers. Of course, the story about the Asian-American student who ends up at Harvard (and there, seems to get enough freedom to actually live his own life), and whose brother calls CPS to be moved to a foster home is the prime example.
    Does the book about Stuyvesant give a different impression? That the school is good for the children? If so, is it because the schools are different? or the authors are different?
    I went to neither Walt Whitman nor Stuyvesant, but, instead, went to a school more like the school Rudy Gilmore attends in the Gilmore girls (only single sex, in the midwest instead of the east). If I were to write a book about my school, it would be warm and fuzzy (a place where girls got to learn math! and thing great thoughts about the origin of law! and be creative! and there was no pressure to get into the best schools!). If I could I probably would send my child there in a second. But, since then, I’ve heard that the school is “different.” Has the school really changed? Or were my impressions delusional? (It’d be cool if someone would write a book about my school :-). But, I think that’s unlikely).
    Schools like Stuyvesant, Whitman, and mine _can_ be places where all this excess intellectual energy that smart kids have is given an outlet (college can to be this, too). I love that idea. But, in the Overachievers, instead of a place where intellect gets freedom, which requires risk-taking and failure, you get a picture of a place where achievement is the goal.
    I think schools like Stuyvesant used to be different because a lot of the parents whose kids ended up there didn’t know the rules (ie immigrants & jews & other outsiders). Now, those parents know the rules (just like I know the rules, and my parents didn’t). Knowing the rules by which the game is played makes it hard to play by your own rules, and turns these places into hothouses for intellectual achievement instead of intellectual exploration.
    bj

  2. Robin Says:

    My brother was actually coaching the debate team the year Klein was visiting Stuyvesant. He was interviewed, but hasn’t read the book yet. It was amazing to me how little things had changed on the team. Sheinman is still in charge. The debaters still complain have to go to Villager rather than the good debate tournaments held the same weekend. And the policy debaters still fear that she will eliminate the team. I told him that we had the same worries in the 80s. His friend has taken over coaching the team as of last year, I am not sure about this year.
    I would be interested in reading the book too, I will have to see if it is available via amazon uk.
    Robin

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