Rankings & Reclining, Privilege & Perception

04/03/2015 02:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015


As a private school headmaster, when my email inbox is being inundated, it's usually a bad sign -- it means people are upset. Could be a minor matter -- for example, cafeteria food continues to be a hot issue even though I happen to love our tilapia, or it could be something more serious -- like security, which is always a legitimate concern. Rarely do folks write just to share their sense of peace and contentment -- and let me know they've decided to increase their annual giving pledge. But last week was something of an exception. "Stuart, did you see the rankings?! We're the third best in Houston and eighth in all of Texas!" What people were referring to were the widely-published results from a company called Niche, which graded private high schools across the country. Apparently, Niche relied on several criteria, including standardized test scores, college acceptances and performance, and student happiness. (Click here to see the survey.)

The truth is, I tend to be leery of any such rankings -- just as I am of the well-known annual survey of colleges done by U.S. News -- but I'll confess being delighted by the good press. What's particularly impressive is that Emery/Weiner is so highly regarded despite being much newer than other schools -- and despite having a much broader admissions profile. Unlike many of our peer schools, our mission is to accept as many kids across the academic spectrum as possible. Which means our objectives are somewhat distinct.

Though I had the good fortune of attending a "bumper sticker" college, I sincerely believe that the amount of energy spent and attention paid trying to get students into the most competitive schools in the country is largely wasted. I'm not suggesting that all educational experiences are the same -- they're not. There's no question that attending a small, selective liberal arts college in the northeast will be very different than attending a large, public university in the south. But they can both be very valuable, and students from either can be happy and succeed in any number of ways -- it just depends on what they make of it.

What I want most for our graduates is not blind adherence to external measures of achievement, but internal character defined by a drive to maximize self, combined with a genuine empathy for others. And that, of course, is the essential message of Passover. We recline at the Seder table because doing so is a reminder of our freedom. We were once slaves in Egypt, and this part of our past is so central to Jewish identity that we recall it not only during the festival of matzot -- we do so every Friday night as we recite the kiddush, the blessing over the Sabbath wine. But let's be honest: We are more than merely free, most of us are privileged. Our challenge then is what we make and teach of our bountiful opportunities. To what extent are we living purposeful lives filled with moral, social and spiritual meaning, as opposed to simply pursuing paths of additional material accumulation? To what degree are we charting our own course, as opposed to catering to the judgment of others? These questions may not appear in a third-party survey, but I'd respectfully submit they are the lasting lessons of our ancient liberation.