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Opinion: Want to be a Big Fish or Little Fish?

By Sam Algas

Opinion Writer

No matter how you frame it, we go to a unique high school. Whether it be the location, the student body, the teachers, or the classes we take, the Walter Payton College Prep experience is, undeniably, like no other. Don’t lie, you all know the look on your neighbor’s (and their kid’s) face when you tell them you go to the well-respected WPCP. But the effects of attending an exclusive school like Payton are not always immediately evident, so there’s no way of truly knowing the impact on the paths of Grizzlies’ lives.

Now regarded as the leading selective enrollment school in the city, Payton, with little effort, embodies every valuable trait of the selective enrollment system. From the first day, students are offered a huge array of great teachers, great classes, and an environment that refuses to let intellectual values be forgotten. Heck, we basically have no school every other Wednesday because of seminars. Our teachers have excellent AP score percentages, and reading the list of college acceptances for each senior class repeatedly causes jaws to hit the floor. On top of that, our student body is extremely diverse, providing perspectives from every corner of the city.

However, a perspective that’s often disregarded is this: going to Payton, or attending an elite university, or starting your first job at a large prestigious company, can shatter your dreams once and for all. In his bookDavid and Goliath,” controversial but popular journalist, author, and speaker Malcolm Gladwell makes an interesting analogy to the roles of small fish in big ponds, and big fish in small ones. In a big pond, big fish can grow, flourish, and move to even bigger ponds when they’re ready. The small fish, however, live in the shadows of the big fish and can’t grow— the big fish eat up all the food.

According to Gladwell and many other researchers, choosing an elite environment like an Ivy League, a very successful company, or even a selective enrollment high school, is choosing a big pond, with very big fish. It’s all founded on a psychological phenomenon known as “relative deprivation,” a distorted reality to which smart students often fall victim. It was a term coined by Samuel Stouffer, a sociologist who noticed that air corpsmen in World War II received rapid and frequent promotions, while a separate group of military police were on a slow path to climb their food chain. However, Stouffer found that the military police were just as content, if not more so, with their promotions than the air corpsmen.

Psychologist Thomas Pettigrew described Stouffer’s findings: “Immediate comparisons, Stouffer reasoned, were the salient referents: the military police compared their promotions with other military police—not air corpsmen whom they rarely encountered… Satisfaction is relative, he held, to the available comparisons we have.”  

Success is relative; that’s what relative deprivation is all about. We, as human beings, measure our success relatively— in comparison to those around us. Whether at work, at school, or even at McDonald’s, we compare ourselves to our immediate vicinity. (For example: Dang, that girl is eating a healthy snack wrap while I stuff my face with chicken McNuggets.) Malcolm Gladwell, understanding the importance of this idea, noted that “the Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.”

In “David and Goliath,” Gladwell characterizes this by comparing the top third scoring STEM majors from Hartwick College, a New York state school, and the bottom third scoring STEM majors at Harvard University. He classifies them as the Hartwick All-Stars, and the Harvard Dregs (the best of the worst and the worst of the best, respectively.) The two sets of students are doing the same coursework, studying the same concepts, and pursuing the same goals, and, based on their standardized test scores, have the same academic ability.

Following these students throughout their lives, it was discovered that the Hartwick All-Stars continued on to become engineers or biologists. However, the Harvard Dregs, at one of the most prestigious and demanding schools in the country, are so disheartened to the point that a majority ends up dropping out, pursuing a non-science major instead. Gladwell says, “The Hartwick All-Stars are big fish in a very welcoming small pond. What matters, in determining the likelihood of getting a science degree, is not just how smart you are. It’s how smart you feel relative to the other people in your classroom.”

Although the Harvard Dregs could most likely run laps around the Hartwick All-Stars, they feel inferior simply because of the standards set by those directly surrounding them. Similarly, those at Payton who aren’t at the top of every class feel like they don’t belong, even though they could be valedictorians at their neighborhood schools.

If you’re a big fish at Payton, you probably don’t feel any of these effects. If you’re anything other than a big fish, however, it can be impossible to feel like you’re making progress in any of your classes or extracurriculars. We all know that one person who is good at pretty much everything they do—and we all know how hard it is to shine when you stand next to them.

At Payton, it’s a pretty safe bet to say “everyone here is great.” But, in the gigantic pond that Payton is, filled with all the resources, teachers, and fish food one could ask for, it’s almost impossible to shine among the best. In a class with the football Ivy-League recruit, the rocket science physics genius, the violin prodigy, or the nationally awarded poet, a common sentiment of Payton students at some point is: “Am I good at anything?” The underlying problem is that most Payton students are good at something— often times, lots of things. But measured up against Payton standards, the same talents and aptitudes that mustered pride in grade school are dwarfed in high school.

Some lucky few, however, use this as a motivation mechanism. In the presence of all this greatness, this select group of challenge-seekers thirsts for improvement, getting better at their physics problems or their piano scales at every opportunity. The unfortunate truth is that not everyone can be this way. The ruthless competition simply puts down those that are already struggling. The emotional stress that comes with that is not even the worst of it— the hopes and dreams of the little fish, who still have extreme potential to be physicists, musicians, or mathematicians, are both intimidated and obstructed by those who fly by without effort.

None of these analogies are concrete, and by no means do they describe every single situation. Yet it really makes you question the real value of selective enrollment schools like Payton, as they send off their finest with the confidence and boldness to conquer the world, but everyone else with battle scars from riding in the backseat.

So, keep this in mind when your little sibling starts eagerly asking about high school, inevitably wanting to go to Payton or another selective enrollment school like it. Maybe you should put things in their terms: “Do you want to be a big fish, or a little fish?”

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