The Valley of the Shadow: The Emperor’s Clothes | Alden Blodget | 5 Min Read

February 6, 2023

In my experience, independent schools live in the shadow that falls, as Eliot put it, “between the idea and the reality . . . between the conception and the creation.” The glossy rhetoric of school catalogs generally far exceeds the reality of daily life. I suppose reality will always fall short of lofty promises—we are accustomed to dashed hopes and good intentions.

Visit school websites, and check out mission statements. Despite genuine efforts to distinguish themselves from each other, schools sound pretty much the same: Blah, blah, blah, life-long learners; blah, blah, blah, risk-takers; blah, blah, blah, creativity, mutual respect, integrity, independent thinkers, empathy, service to others, self-discovery. Such language is the academic equivalent of the politician’s promise of a chicken in every pot.

Humans seem simultaneously drawn to exciting ideals and not really interested in the hard work and hard choices required to transform ideals into reality. Somehow, two things always seem to lead us into the valley of the shadow: Good intentions collide with self-defeating practices. And the implications inherent in ideals tend to be ignored. People seem particularly adept at believing that saying something makes it so. Marketers tell us that all a school needs are words and promises to attract applicants.

I heard a head at a very fine school speak at graduation and tell the assembled that the purpose of education is to answer the question, “What is living for?” This is the question he sees as “at the heart of a liberal arts education.” It was an inspirational talk suggesting that what the students had been engaged in for four years was a “rigorous process of scrutiny and inquiry” on a “quest for self-understanding.”

I have my doubts. My years in independent schools, including this head’s school, lead me to believe that the teachers had been working hard to meet the parents’ expectations for their children—teaching the stuff of which dreams of Ivy colleges are made: reading the classics, learning the facts, memorizing dates and vocabulary and formulas, getting high grades and SAT scores, racing through as many AP courses as possible, meeting requirements, playing sports, and building a resume.

Here’s how one honors student summed up her schooling: “I think I figured out somewhere pretty early on that school was a game where the goal was to get the highest GPA with the least amount of effort. I don’t…

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Alden Blodget

Veteran teacher and administrator Alden S. "Denny" Blodget is the author of "Learning, Schooling and the Brain: New Research vs. Old Assumptions." He also helped create the Annenberg Foundation's Neuroscience & the Classroom. He is the editor for, a free online resource focusing on issues affecting young people and the adults who work with them.