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 know if this attitude was particularly conducive to learning, but it got me cum laude from an Ivy League university.” Dueling narratives of reality, I’d say.

I hate to admit it, but the majority of teachers and administrators I have known have not seemed particularly interested in answering, even for themselves, the question of what is living for. Although there were a few who cared deeply about some form of this question, these few tended to be more passionate about inculcating in their students their answer to the question than about having their students wrestle with the question itself.

Let’s face it: Schools are not typically set up for rigorous inquiry; they are set up so students will meet fairly rigid requirements that will keep college admissions officers happy—basically, four years of everything (except the arts) culminating at the AP level. Who has time for even superficial scrutiny—or any other oxymoron? Speedy reflection? Deeply broad inquiry? Departmentalized interdisciplinary studies?

Organizing a secondary school around a question like “what is living for?” would be revolutionary, particularly if the school took seriously the need for students to design and begin their journey to their own answer. For example, instead of making information about content areas the center of learning, schools might have to teach students the skills of serious inquiry: questioning, analytic and creative thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listening, research, reflection, problem-solving, designing experiments, and so on. Instead of graduation requirements based on seat time in math and history, the diploma might reflect some level of skills ability, and understanding of concepts that matter to them. Can you imagine the departmental turf wars that would erupt if a school seriously considered a new basis for the diploma?

Or take another essential aspect of school life: Think about the implications of using time if a school embraced serious inquiry as its raison d’être. Maybe a gauntlet of 50-minute classes makes sense if teachers need to give students a daily dose of facts to ingest in five different subject areas, but what sort of time do learners need in order to develop skills or internalize concepts? How much time does reflection or problem-solving take?

Idealism is valuable, and we need school heads who have exciting visions, and who have high, bold expectations for students and faculty. My point is simply that the claims a school makes have real implications for how the school is designed and for how it goes about the business of learning and teaching. Sound and substance either harmonize or don’t. If you say that the purpose of education is to engage in deep inquiry into philosophical questions about the meaning and purpose of life but everyone seems more interested in SAT scores and Ivy colleges and whether the hockey team is any good and learning means memorizing what the teachers say, well, all you get is noise.

People seem to be masters of self-deception. They are quick to believe the hyperbole in which they dress reality and, as a result, are no longer able to see reality at all. When challenged, when someone suggests the emperor wears no clothes, there is hell to pay. Leaders need an accurate sense of the institution they lead—a good reason to make sure that school heads spend much more time immersed in what is going on in the classroom, their colleagues’, and their own (yes, heads should teach). Surely, we can weave rhetoric and reality into a fine garment that everyone can admire.

You may also be interested in reading more articles written by Alden Blodget for Intrepid Ed News.

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.

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