Choosing a good school for the kids might prove a bad choice

It’s the time of year when many middle class Kiwi parents are agonising about where to send their children to secondary school. But enrolling them in a ‘good’ school could be a bad idea, both for the individual child and for wider society.


We tend to forget that the school years are only a small part of people’s entire life. The question is, how will their school experience affect them - and their beliefs and attitudes, and their sense of happiness and well-being - when they’re 30 or 50 or 70?

A ‘good’ school almost invariably equates to one whose students come from more affluent socio-economic backgrounds. Here in Christchurch, for example, you don’t get parents desperate to buy houses in school zones in the less affluent east of the city.

But as well as supposedly benefiting from smaller class sizes, better resources, or more extra-curricular activities, students at these schools also mix with those who share similar values, opinions and expectations. And this is the bad thing.

Educational institutions (and teachers) often claim they teach their students to think for themselves. This might - just might - be true of purely academic subjects. (Remember, ‘academic’ also means abstract and of little practical relevance - just think about most of the academic facts you yourself learnt at school and of how little use they were, beyond helping you pass exams.)

But when students are surrounded by others with the same social and political attitudes, any thinking that they do on important real-life issues is likely to be of the ‘group-think’ variety. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt, for example, in his TED-talk ‘The moral roots of liberals and conservatives’, argues that interacting with others who share similar moral opinions simply “shuts down open thinking”.

And if shutting down a child’s ability to think openly isn’t bad enough, there’s another related drawback to attending a ‘good’ school - that it exacerbates the human tendency for ‘assortative mating’.

This biological concept addresses the widely observed phenomena that individuals sharing similar characteristics mate with each other more frequently than would be expected if mate selection was purely random. And forget the romantic notion that we humans choose whoever we want to marry - we, too, demonstrate the same propensity as other species to mate with those who are like ourselves.

In lay terms, we tend to choose partners who are similar to us - tall or short people more often than not marry other tall or short people, for instance, and the preference for others with similar physical characteristics even extends, bizarrely, to such things as arm span and forearm length.

The important point here, though, is that assortative mating also occurs with non-physical traits, such as personality, and religious or political beliefs, and socio-cultural status. And while the tendency for ‘like to marry like’ could result in more stable relationships, it may also compound the propensity for group-think raised above, with children merely adopting the attitudes shared by both their parents. But the social consequence of assortative mating is much more pernicious.

If those from ‘good’ schools only assortively mate (that is, marry) amongst themselves, and those from more ordinary schools do likewise, then this will further increase existing social divisions and inequalities. At an extreme, this could lead - indeed, is already leading - to an inter-marrying elite, who are increasing cut off from and uncaring of those below them in the social hierarchy.

Indeed, if biologists from another planet were to study the behaviour of middle class New Zealanders, they could be forgiven if they concluded that human offspring are sent to particular schools mainly to ensure the successful reproduction of future generations at the higher end of the social scale. Students from Christ’s College, Rangi Ruru, St Margaret’s, St Andrew’s and the like, for instance, are more likely to marry amongst themselves, or with others who attended similar schools elsewhere, than they are with their peers from more humble schools.

Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller goes as far as to suggest that educational achievement does little to demonstrate people’s aptitude or abilities for adult jobs - rather, they are simple status symbols, the social equivalent of the peacock’s tail, indicating little beyond possession of the resources and the perseverance to complete a particular course of study. In his accessible accounts of human sexual behaviour, The Mating Mind and Spent, Miller merely gives a scientific gloss to the widely held suspicion that education is less about learning and more about jumping through hoops.

Unfortunately, this argument might not be particularly well-received by the actual parents who are faced with the dilemma of where to send their little darlings to school.

But if little else, it might help them realise that a decent education involves more than passing exams - it involves being exposed to, and learning to deal with, those who hold different views and opinions, and who have different values and beliefs than you do.

You might be doing your child a serious disservice if you simply send them somewhere where everyone thinks the same.