Leon Botstein
President, Bard College & Music Director, American Symphony Orchestra
03:28

Should We Cut High School to Two Years?

Should We Cut High School to Two Years?

For half of American high school students, college should start when they are 16 years old.

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein is a conductor and academic known for his innovative programs and interest in contemporary and neglected repertory. He was a violin student of Roman Totenburg and studied conducting with James Yannatos, Richard Wernick, and Harold Farberman. He pursued dual careers in academics and music and became a teaching fellow in general education at Harvard University from 1968 to 1969, and then a lecturer in the department of history at Boston University in 1969. Meanwhile, he began conducting and from 1973 to 1975, and he was the principal conductor of the White Mountain Music and Arts Festival. In 1975, he became president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, a position he still holds today.

Transcript

Question: What lessons from your own life do you draw upon in overseeing Bard’s accelerated early education program? 

Leon Botstein: Bard runs three early college programs. One is Simon’s Rock, which is a residential program in Great Barrington. The other are two public high schools here in New York. Where in New York you enter after the eighth grade so you do nine, ten, 11, 12. At the end of the 12th grade, you get a junior college, an AA degree. At Simon’s Rock you entered after the tenth grade and then you do in two years an AA degree. You can stay for a four-year Bard B.A. Because I went to college at 16, people think this is autobiographical. It isn’t. 

I went to college at 16, that’s when I graduated high school. I wasn’t really prepared socially. I was thrown in at the University of Chicago, which was a terrific experience for me, with students who are largely older. There were a group of us who were 16. Chicago did specialize in taking younger applicants often, and, but it wasn’t because of my experience. It was my experience in the classroom, seeing young people come to college at 18 who had lost at least two years of their schooling and been turned off by bad schooling to learning. They had grown up, they were adolescent. They were fully mature. They were independent. 

They were independent consumers. They had independent social lives. They were sexually active already late in high school. They had matured. They were treated by society as young adult, except in the school. In the school they were treated as big children. And the fact is that I thought it’s a good experiment to see whether a large portion of the college-bound population would be better off starting college early. So at Simon’s Rock we accumulated a lot of data that showed it actually works. And so in the public sector in New York we have public schools, not charter schools that do this. It has been fantastically successful. 

In my view, for fully half of American high school students, schooling should end the end of the tenth grade. We should have a system that has six years of elementary and four years of high school. No middle school. No junior high school. And get young people out, let them start their education as adults at age 16. 

Question: What are the unique challenges faced by students who enter college early? 

Leon Botstein: Well, we have over 90 percent graduation rate and over 90 percent of them go on to further schooling. And they’re completely by class and race diverse. In New York our populations mirror the demography of the city of New York. What’s important is that they’re with their own age group when they start college. The older programs, 50, 40 years ago, put a 16-year-old into a college population whose average age was 19. And that’s a problem. Here they’re together as a group. When they go to four-year college, either for two or three years or four years, at the end of the 12th grade, when they have an AA degree, they actually enter as 18-year-olds with other 18-year-olds. They be advanced in their credits, but they’re with the same age group. So what we do is, we’ve created a system by which the young person is never out of touch with his or her own peer group.

Recorded on May 10, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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