The Problem With “Prep Schools”

Many schools consider themselves places where students “get ready for the ‘real world.’” It is so embedded in what they do that they literally refer to themselves as “Prep Schools.” This thinking dominates so much of adolescence, not only in schooling but in day-to-day life. Consider the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Immediately, a young person is forced to confront the idea that who they are right now isn’t as important as who they may be in any number of years. For those of us who have been “grown-up” for a long time, we also realize that we have probably been different people, taken on different jobs and careers, and generally been many things as “grown-ups.”

“Preparation for ‘Real Life’” Hurts the Student Experience

This preoccupation with “preparation for ‘real life’” actually does a disservice to the experience a student has and devalues the importance of adolescence as its own experience with its own value apart from what comes next. This is why we have consciously eschewed the idea of “prep” in our school. The process of development should be lived in fully, and if the focus is entirely on a hypothetical outcome, the value of the experience itself is rendered less meaningful. Oliver Burkeman describes this well in Four Thousand Weeks, writing:

“..Take education. What a hoax. As a child, you are sent to nursery school. In nursery school, they say you are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then first grade is coming up and second grade and third grade … In high school, they tell you you’re getting ready for college. And in college you’re getting ready to go out into the business world … [People are] like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive.”

The Focus on the Future Has Its Place in Education

By focusing on “preparation,” we would be instilling a belief among our students that to live a life is to never actually spend it in the moment, to always be focused on what might (or might not) come next. This is not to say that we ignore the future–it has its place and we spend hours every week discussing and considering the way our program and experience might instill knowledge and values within our students. However, this must always be in the context of what is the best experience for the adolescent right now. Who they are as an 11 or 18-year-old is as important as who they may be as a 40-year-old, and we want them to envelop themselves in life as it exists in the moment regardless of what “the next step” looks like.

Intentionally Rooting Students in the Present Moment

This is why, at Bennett Day, we’ve intentionally created a number of elements that root the student’s experience in the moment. Whether it be Presentations of Learning, or Demo Days/Nights, or our cell phone policy, each programmatic element is guided by a goal of maintaining focus on the current moment and who our students are in that moment. This focus on the current moment will, somewhat ironically, be the best preparation for that student to be the type of adult that engages deeply, thus resulting in a more full life. To be a “prep” school is to avoid obsessing about “prep.”

To Be a “Prep” School Is To Avoid Obsessing About “Prep”

To use a similar quantifier to Burkeman’s book mentioned above, there are exactly 288 school weeks from the time a student enters Bennett Day’s middle school as a 5th grader to the time they graduate as a 12th grader. To spend a majority of those 288 weeks focused on anything but the present moment, the present conversation, the meaningful interactions and learning that occurs would do a disservice to the lives of our students.

This article was originally published as a letter to the Bennett Day community from Martin Moran, the Lead Designer of the Upper and Middle Schools. Each month, we share insight with families about the “why” behind Bennett Day programs to reinforce our values and highlight how these philosophies manifest themselves in the lives of our learners.