Developing our Children’s Human Capital: The Other 75%

It has been wisely said that 75% of the value of a boarding school education is delivered outside the classroom. That feels about right, even to an Academic Dean who believes in the primacy of academics. For when we weigh the personal, interpersonal, emotional, psychological, and physical growth engendered by the myriad challenges of managing eighteen-hour days filled with co-curricular and extra-curricular activities, homework, living with peers in the dorm, connecting with friends on campus and beyond, engaging adults, and attending School Meetings and sit-down meals, which require conversing with relatively unfamiliar peers, table-waiting, and even dish cleaning, it’s clear students are learning well beyond five or six classroom hours each weekday. In short, Deerfield poses relentless and varied challenges for our students.

I was reminded of this upon reading Admiral McRaven’s University of Texas graduation speech. In it he offers ten lessons learned from his Navy SEAL training, lessons which developed five of the six qualities of an ideal DA graduate, about which I wrote this spring: disciplined work habits (“Start off [each morning] by making your bed”); productive collaboration (“Find someone to help you paddle”); grit/resilience (“Get over being a sugar cookie [failure] and keep moving forward;” “Don’t be afraid of the circuses [failures];” “Don’t back down from the sharks;” “You must be your very best in the darkest moment;” “Don’t ever, ever ring the bell”); initiative/independence (“Measure people by the size of their hearts”); and creativity (“Sometimes you have to slide down the obstacle course head first;” “Start singing when you’re up to your neck in mud”).

While no one should equate DA with SEAL training–I like to think we’re more humane and responsive to students’ needs, we want students to succeed rather than fail, and we serve better food–we share a goal and strategy: we forge future leaders by testing trainees with rigorous challenges. Like the SEALs, we hope to develop in our recruits what Charles Wheelan refers to as “human capital:”

… the sum total of skills embodied within an individual: education, intelligence, charisma, creativity, work experience, entrepreneurial vigor, even the ability to throw a baseball fast. It is what you would be left with if someone stripped away all of your assets… and left you on a street corner with only the clothes on your back.

Wheelan’s wonderfully playful book, Naked Economics, goes on to suggest that human capital is “an economic passport” incorporating “perseverance, honesty, creativity–virtues that lend themselves to finding work.” Further, he asserts that if Bill Gates were left on a street corner with only the clothes on his back, Microsoft having perished and all his wealth having been confiscated, he would do very well. (I sleep better with this reassurance that Bill’s going to be OK.)

Finally, Wheelan cites a speech by Marvin Zonis, a professor at University of Chicago’s School of Business:

Complexity will be the hallmark of our age. The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital… The schools that produce it… will be the big winners of our age.

We believe that for Deerfield to be a big winner we need to develop the six qualities of an ideal graduate–they are the keys to developing human capital in our students. Together, we’re investing in the development of our children’s/students’ human capital, and when viewed through that lens, a boarding school, where 75% of the education takes place outside the classroom, is a pretty good investment.