It is rare to find one example that perfectly illustrates both what is wrong with American society and our educational system and right with them at the same time. Avenues: The World School, a private, for-profit, ultra-elite school in New York City manages to perfectly demonstrate the worst of American elitism, while simultaneously capturing why American innovation still leads the world. While I may not agree with the vehicle, I appreciate the destination and how this globally connected endeavor should serve as a model for all of American education.
Our world is shrinking and a hyper-connected global economy is on the rise. The World School is built on the idea that a globally connected school system is the next step in a natural evolution from local schools, to national schools, to global schools paralleling this change in the global economy. Avenues is positioning itself to be the first of this next phase of educational evolution. The promotional materials for the school brand it as a new model for this new age:
"Think of Avenues as one international school with 20 or more campuses. It will not be a collection of 20 different schools all pursuing different educational strategies, but rather one highly-integrated "learning community," connected and supported by a common vision, a shared curriculum, collective professional development of its faculty, the wonders of modern technology and a highly-talented headquarters team located here in New York City." (About Avenues: The World School)
If those behind the initiative can pull off their grand ambition to establish satellites in countries as diverse as Buenos Aires, Shanghai, Beijing, Delhi, Mumbai, Johannesburg, Abu Dhabi, Doha, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul, Sydney, London, Paris, Moscow, Madrid, Milan, and Frankfurt, in addition to U.S campuses in New York, Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco, they will have created the greatest, most metropolitan learning network the world has ever seen. Students in the school will have access to sites around the world representing the most diverse mix of cultural perspectives that any group of students has ever encountered.
There are three primary objectives that the school's founders hope to help students achieve through this global connection:
- An understanding of other cultures
- An ability to speak other languages
- An appreciation of other histories
All three of these areas will help Avenues students to understand the global society in which they live. As the school's promotional materials state, this will provide an advantage for students because:
"A global school with faculty and campuses in all the world's largest cultures will have a huge (and, today, virtually unique) advantage in achieving these new educational requirements. Existing in and working with another culture is the best way to learn about it." (About Avenues: The World School)
However, the very advantage that sets Avenues apart is also a symptom of a larger societal problem. The singular distinctions of the World School is where this model should draw the ire of anyone who thinks that education should be a force for equality and democratization, rather than for the promotion of an elite, governing class.
The Problem with Elitism
The gulf between the rich and the poor in America has reached the point where the United Nations has placed us on its list of countries to watch as hotbeds for civil unrest (NPR , 26 Sept. 2012). The American middle class is vanishing in favor of two polarized groups: those with annual incomes over $250,000 and those under $10,000. The level of income disparity in the U.S. now places us on par with many "3rd World" countries in Africa and South America – countries which we would never imagine that we are on comparable to. According to the NPR report, income distribution in almost every European country is much more equitable than it is here in the U.S. In fact, our widening inequity puts us on par with countries like the Sudan.
Avenues and other ultra-elite private schools further enhance the discrepancies in economic advancement, cultural capital, and other prospects. While the students who are able to gain access to this unique and important opportunity should not be begrudged their good fortune, there is a significant societal problem evident if this level of education is acceptable for some but not all students. Imagine the difference between an Avenues graduate and a mainstream public school student.
According to the information about the school, Avenues students will be able to speak multiple languages, will have visited foreign countries with regularity, will understand other cultures and economies, and will have made connections to others who will eventually be players in the global economic marketplace. Your average high school student might speak one foreign language and may have studied in another country. The World School student will have a huge advantage over their peers in almost every way possible. Eventually, offerings such as this one will further increase the economic chasm in American society.
Good for Everyone
Our society is looking for a new educational model to supplement or supplant our current failing one, and the globally connected Avenues campus concept is a model that could benefit every student in the U.S. There are, of course, economic constraints that would make implementing this on a national scale a challenge, but shifting our priorities to make education the well-funded, central focus of our economic growth that it should be, would make this a possibility to expand to all students. Certainly there would need to be some changes to the system as we, as a country can't establish enough global schools to accommodate all of our students. Perhaps a national public service program or a global student exchange initiative could provide opportunities for many or most American students to experience the global connections that Avenues students will.
In the final analysis, it seems that it could be possible to provide a World School level of education for all students, and shouldn't that be the goal? Avenues should be viewed as a model for what education should be and steps should be taken to make all of our educational institutions live up to this high standard.