On Leaving CTY

By Matthew Belmonte
Dear CTY community,

Yesterday I had a conversation with the coordinator in Baltimore for CTY's summer residential site at Franklin & Marshall College. The tone was polite but cool, and refreshingly frank. The upshot of that conversation is that CTY and I have become separated by what the coordinator termed a `fundamental difference in philosophy'. I've been anticipating for some time that I would eventually have to leave CTY. I am surprised that the moment has come so soon; this isn't the way I'd wanted it to happen. However, there is an advantage: the reality that I have no CTY affiliation left to protect now emboldens me to speak on some of the issues that have been taboo. I want to offer a short history of CTY as I saw it, and to highlight the junctures at which I think wrong choices were made.

I want to distinguish between CTY as an institution and the individuals who run CTY. In many ways, institutions have minds of their own. If an institution is to accomplish its goals, it must remain viable. And sometimes compromises must be made in order to keep the institution viable. Such choices are made with the best of intentions, but they can end up countermanding the original goals of the institution. The irony of many of the mistakes that I believe have been made in the operation of CTY is that they've been made with students' interests in mind. The problem often has been that the decisions were arrived at or implemented in one-sided ways. This document is long. You may dislike parts of it. But I hope that you'll read it through to the conclusion.

CTY began as a small organization, the Office of Talent Identification and Development (OTID). OTID in turn grew out of Julian Stanley's Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY). Dr Stanley quite understandably didn't want to handle the demands of administering a summer residential school, and this is why the nascent summer programme was handed off to OTID. There were two summers at Saint Mary's College in Maryland before OTID moved its expanding operation to Dickinson College and Franklin & Marshall College in southern Pennsylvania. It was that inaugural year at Franklin & Marshall, 1982, during which I first joined the programme as a student.

I was lucky to be at OTID, because most people had never heard of it. I was fortunate to have had a G/T teacher during my last two years of elementary school who knew what was going on at Johns Hopkins and recommended that I apply. In the fall of 1981 when I walked into the local high school to take the SAT as part of OTID's talent search, I felt intimidated. I was surrounded by high school seniors who, I felt, knew what they were doing. To my twelve-year-old mind they seemed mature and cosmopolitan. I was embarrassed at the presumption that seemed inherent in the mere act of sitting among them. Probably nothing would come of this, and I hoped that nobody at the junior high school that I was attending would find out what I was attempting.

I was surprised several months later when I received notice of my eligibility for OTID. I was secretly terrified at leaving my parents' house for three weeks, remembering the taunting and alienation I'd felt at a summer camp. But this, I thought, seemed different. It had an academic focus. Junior high school at this time was so oppressive that I often used to lock myself in my room and cry at the end of the day. Desperate for a change, I decided to take a chance with OTID, and signed up for an astronomy course.

It was a wonder beyond any experience I might have imagined. I was surrounded by a fellowship of geeks. On my first evening in the dorm, we discussed science fiction and started a game of Diplomacy. It was a small programme, with all the students and all the teachers occupying just one building, Thomas Hall. The atmosphere was informal, and teachers often visited us in our suites. We respected them for their intellect and their dedication. Before this experience it had been rare for me to encounter an adult whom I wanted to be like.

I returned to the programme the following summer, when it had just changed its name to the Center for the Advancement of Academically Talented Youth (CTY). (In short order, this mouthful became abbreviated to `Center for Talented Youth', retaining the initials.) I took precalculus mathematics and within that course completed geometry and trigonometry. It was this year, 1983, that I noticed what was to become a disturbing trend. Unlike my astronomy hallmates of the previous summer, many of these precalculus students had come to the programme in order to get ahead. CTY had been advertised to them, and to their parents, as precollege programmes and test preparation courses are advertised. In 1982 there had existed a sense that we were learning what we wanted to learn, we were bettering ourselves and having fun. We didn't care if the rest of the world didn't want to recognize that, because we were secure in the strength of our intellects. But now, the new wave of students was moaning about transfer credits and placement issues. The great CTY marketing campaign had begun.

I've been inclined to view this marketing strategy cynically, as a conscious effort to run CTY as a business. But after discussions with my CTY friends I've been brought to the view that the motivations are more complex than that, and the individual implementors largely innocent. Of course there's a need for advertising. Of course one wants to get the message out about a good thing. But how is it possible to convey in a blurb the complex wonders of a session at CTY? When one advertises, one can't help but focus on the material benefits. The educational culture in this country places great value on college prospects and SAT scores. Too often, this focus on measures causes learning to become only a secondary concern. In such a climate, it's inevitable that an educational institution will have to cater to that focus in order to survive and to grow.

As CTY's influence was growing, the country was carved up into territories exclusive to CTY and its competitors. The Talent Identification Program (TIP) at Duke had the South and the Southwest, the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern had the northern Midwest, and CTY had the Northeast and the west coast. Again, there was a good reason: the division allowed each programme to concentrate its talent search and other marketing efforts within its own territory, and guaranteed each a greater return on advertising dollars within that territory. The down side was that competition for students was nearly eliminated. Thus the market pressure toward excellence was low at the same time that the business pressure toward expanding market share was high.

I'm talking about CTY as a marketing venture because it's a useful metaphor. When one considers the nature of CTY or of any institution, I think, one can't avoid that metaphor. It's not my intention to imply that CTY was conceived as a business venture. Again, there's a distinction between the mind of the organization and the minds of the individuals who keep it going.

An advertised property, such as a fashion trend or a hot stock, often defies simple logic as the principle of supply and demand operates to inflate the property's value beyond its inherent worth. Indeed, such artificial valuation often damages the real value of the product, because the product's quality declines as those who produce it are given the chance to rest on their laurels. The end of such processes is inevitable: the fashion falls out of favour, the stock collapses. In the early 1980's, CTY was a hot property. It was full of young intellectuals to whose brilliance age was no obstacle. There was a time when the median age of the mathematics teaching staff was about seventeen. The energy and innovation contributed by these young intellectuals, combined with the marketing scheme cooked up in Baltimore, drove CTY to great popularity.

With popularity, though, came an increase in size, and this led to problems in management. Despite the fact that the institution exists in order to serve students, it's difficult to involve those students in decision-making when they're on campus for only a few weeks. This leads to unilateral imposition of policy, and this in turn creates resentment among the students. There have been many examples of this at CTY, but I wish to cite as an example the instance of the `Veil Law'. The teenage years are a time of sexual discovery, and a time in general of exploration without regard to consequences and dangers. Teenagers in their newly powerful bodies and with their expanding minds feel invincible. If they're left without guidance, in the heat of the moment they can make foolish choices. One year, there was some trouble along these lines, and something had to be done to minimize the chance of its recurrence. Again, because of the difficulty of involving students in the decision, a rule was imposed unilaterally against visitation between the sexes. The students derisively labeled the new rule `the Veil Law', after their muttered complaint that the next restriction would be that all the girls would have to wear veils. The problem here was not necessarily the rule itself but the manner in which it was imposed on the students. They were given no opportunity to be presented with the problem and to be involved as partners in finding an acceptable solution. Too often, the summer's frantic pace prevents administrators from recognizing that if students are treated as responsible people, they'll behave responsibly. And unfortunately, the converse is often true.

I wanted to remain at CTY during the second session of 1983 to study computer science, but I was unable to gain admission to the course, so I spent that second session at TIP and then remained at Duke University, first in the Precollege Program and later as an employee in the Medical Center, during all my summers through 1986. In 1987, during my first year at Cornell, I was again visited by good fortune. By chance, my office was down the hall from the office of one of CTY's computer science instructors. I spoke with him and decided to apply as a teaching assistant. In the end I was hired as a resident assistant (RA) for the first session, and then as a computer science teaching assistant (TA) during the second. That summer was my happiest since my first year as an OTID student. I'd applied principally because I missed the sort of community that always sprang up around CTY and TIP. That motivation was selfish, but the very fact that the desire to rejoin the CTY community could be a motivation for me meant that I was a good candidate for the job. Having been a CTY student myself, I had a lot to offer CTY students, and I enjoyed teaching and learning with them both in and out of class. I still remember fondly my students from that first summer on the staff, our talent show act that involved the whole hall, our Bat-Man hall decorations, our chaotic hall meetings.

There were ugly moments, though, the memories of which still shame me. Most of my mistakes were minor and forgettable, but that doesn't make me any less embarrassed about them. From this distance in time, I can confess that I was thrilled at having the power of a staff member. Sometimes I exercised that power in my own interest, to reassure myself that I was capable, rather than in the interest of the students. I wasn't alone in this. Other RA's confiscated skateboards from students and then rode around campus on them. They went bar-hopping on their off nights and came back drunk and yelling. There are always caring, compassionate, and judicious RA's at CTY, but they sometimes can be overshadowed by the outspoken ones who are testing the limits of their authority. I wouldn't characterize myself in 1987 as a bad RA. On the contrary, I was one of the RA's most well liked both by the students and by the staff. But had I not been so insecure about myself I could have been a much better RA than I was. There is a tendency of some RA's to adopt a bunker mentality, an us-versus-them scenario in which the students have to be kept in line rather than supported and advised. I once compared this to the Zimbardo prison experiment. (In that classic sociological experiment, volunteers were randomly assigned to be prisoners or guards. The guards became so sadistic towards the prisoners that the experiment had to be stopped early.)

Students weren't the only members of the CTY community who were hemmed in by rigid policies. During my first years on the staff, we always offered extra study sessions for students who wanted to explore new topics or who wanted to progress faster in their work. We were careful to monitor students for signs of excessive stress, and we reminded them continually that ours was a self-paced course, that there would always be more problems assigned than could be finished, that this wasn't a competition, and that that was fine. But at Hamilton in 1994, the RA's were ordered to confiscate any academic work that they saw being done outside of scheduled class time. Such a policy sends students the message that intellectual pursuits should be left in the classroom, and that's wrong. It also wasn't complimentary to the instructional staff to assume that we were incapable of monitoring students, consulting with their RA's, and detecting when they may have been overworking themselves. For each individual student there is an optimal level of stress. Fear of exceeding that level must not prevent us from attaining it. In addition, a rigid, rule-based attempt to protect students from excessive stress may backfire: how depressed and frustrated might a student become about being denied the chance to complete work that (s)he wants to get through? Again, the policy reflected an admirable intention to spare students psychological trauma. But the pace of the summer programme resulted in a reduction of that policy to absolute terms, and the resulting inflexibility was damaging.

The fact that in 1983 even with my reasonably high SAT scores I hadn't been able to get into computer science, a course that I later ended up teaching, shows how competitive and elite CTY once was. It's a shame that CTY has lost much of that elite quality. In those early days, placement in courses was much more competitive, because the offerings were limited and the number of classes was small. In addition to this competition, there was quite a bit of self-selection for the talent searches: since CTY wasn't widely known and having been at CTY wasn't regarded as such an accomplishment, only those of us who greatly valued learning, the geeky core of CTY, ended up applying. I remember naively asking the director of CTY in the Franklin & Marshall dining hall in 1987 what his thought was on why the standards at CTY seemed to have decreased. He replied, angrily it seemed to me, that the standards hadn't changed at all, that the same SAT score cut-offs were still in place. I was taken aback by his aggressive response, and as a new staff member I felt embarrassed and guilty to have asked the question. What he told me was true: the absolute cut-offs were the same, and in that sense there'd been no lowering of standards. But the capacity of the programme had expanded to the point at which, in the late 1980's, the administrators at Baltimore were able to boast that no qualified student had been turned away. Yes, of course, everyone was qualified. But because of this influx of marginally qualified students, the community of highly qualified students was diluted. The student population at Franklin & Marshall peaked at about 700, split among five residential colleges. This was good, in that we were serving more students, but it was also bad, in that the intellectual and creative atmosphere had been damaged. Which was better, the lesser benefit spread among the many, or the great benefit to the few? I still don't know, but I can't help thinking that the dilution was a loss.

CTY pundits often spoke against the popular backlash to elitism, and I recall being heartened by this rhetoric. Yes, I agreed, the democratic ideology was creating the misperception that everyone should be equal in achievement, not simply in opportunity, and that was damaging. It was like a scene from Kurt Vonnegut's short story `Harrison Bergeron'. On the contrary, I agreed, society needed an elite, and we were it. But the constraints of operating within a democratic society require that one do some obeisance to the democratic ideology if one is to maintain or to increase one's popularity. Paradoxically, in order to market an inherently (and beneficially) elitist agenda, CTY had to clothe itself in the perception of egalitarianism. Accordingly, we were quietly notified not to single out individual students for public praise. This is a thorny issue--might recognition of a few students create a perception of inadequacy in the remainder of them? The topic is worthy of debate, but again, because of the pace of the programme, this policy was dictated without discussion. The result was that CTY created within itself, in microcosm, exactly the simplistic egalitarianism that it had been trying to combat in society as a whole.

From a business perspective, CTY as an institution was doing quite well at the close of the 1980's. Almost everyone in the target audience was aware of the product and valued the product, and capacity had been expanded to handle the growth in demand for the product. Nobody had got into it as a business, yet the business metaphor was taking over! The institution seemed to be developing a will of its own, independent of the altruistic motivations of the individuals who comprised it.

One consequence of this institutional mentality was some poor choices made in hiring TA's. It's impossible for any administrator who isn't deeply involved with a particular subject to have the background in that subject necessary to evaluate candidates who want to teach it. CTY had a knowledgeable group of instructors who were quite willing to consult about hiring decisions. Sometimes our opinions were solicited. More often, TA choices were imposed on us. Those choices often were suboptimal, and as a result the quality of instruction wasn't all that it could have been. This was especially true in the computer science courses, where qualified young applicants were passed over simply because of their age, and where there was a paucity of older applicants because of the much higher salaries offered in the computer industry. The administrators were trapped between our idealism on the one hand and the dictates of Johns Hopkins' legal counsel on the other. It was ironic and sad that the same demographic group of young intellectuals who formed the core of the mathematics staff in earlier days was now being rejected.

Despite its successes, CTY remained dogged by the question of elitism. Some method had to be found to satisfy the anti-elitists while still holding onto the elitist (or elitist wanna-be) market. The way out of this quandary was a brilliant move. A buzzword was invented for a self-evident principle of teaching, the idea that every student should have the chance to progress through the subject at their own pace and depth. This maxim, of course, applies to all courses and all students, not just the elite. This concept was labeled the Optimal Match. It was touted in talks and institutionalized in publications. It is a good idea. But it is not a revelation.

With Optimal Match a success, another institution within Johns Hopkins, the Center for Academic Advancement, was created. Its mission was to apply the Optimal Match to a second tier of students, those who scored just below the SAT cut-off for CTY eligibility. The two centres, together with the new Center for Distance Education, formed the Institute for the Academic Advancement of Youth. Again, there was an altruistic reason for doing this: the lower-tier programmes would serve a new group of students without diluting CTY, and the distance education programmes would serve students who might not be able to afford a stay at one of the summer programmes. But the stratagem can also be viewed from a business perspective: in a single move, CTY's market share had more than doubled.

There has been pressure to halt deviant behaviour at CTY. Unfortunately, halting deviant behaviour usually means halting creative behaviour. Many factors contribute to this. There is the image problem, the idea that CTY must be marketed to parents as a place where normal people go. There is the drive towards egalitarianism. There is the pace of the programme and the fatigue of administrators which can cause deviance to be perceived as an active threat to authority. But the fact is that most deviant behaviour is no threat. When students build a sculpture out of cafeteria trays, when they sit as an isolated group and discuss science fiction, when they invent and play arcane games, they're participating in rituals that define them as part of a group in which they have a stake. They're interacting as they may never have had the chance to do in the scattered places from which they came to CTY. For six weeks, a special community comes together around CTY, and this community persists during what seems in many cases like forty-six weeks of winter.

This issue of community leads to the proximal reason for my break with CTY. The coordinator with whom I spoke yesterday told me that I'd been perceived by members of the site administration as the leader of a group of students. It's true that I spent a lot of time with this group, because many of them seemed to me to be passing through experiences that I'd had when I was a CTY student. Part of what drew me to them was a desire to recall the emotion of those experiences, and part of it was a desire to see the CTY community continue. They were the kinds of people who in earlier days would have gone on to join the staff and who would have injected their energy into their teaching. A few of them, in fact, have gone on to do just this. I saw myself not as their leader, but as someone with whom some of them might share their ideas and successes, and their fears and failures.

I keep in touch with students outside the period of the summer programme. I've taken a few of them along with me to neuroscience conventions. I've followed their plans and pursuits, I've given them advice, I've written quite a few letters of recommendation. I've spoken with them about their plans and hopes, and often I've simply had fun along with them. They're bright people with creative ideas and I enjoy their company. The coordinator with whom I spoke told me that this is in a way admirable, but is not the direction in which CTY wants to be headed.

I have a conjecture as to why CTY doesn't want to head in this direction. I've maintained, both publicly and behind the scenes, that CTY has a moral responsibility to take a more active role in the community that develops around it, especially during those forty-six weeks when that community suffers from fragmentation. It is a time, for some students, of terrible isolation and loneliness, of negotiating the upheavals of adolescence without the company of their close friends from CTY. The CTY age range often is the period during which talented people run up against their first significant failure. We're often so busy telling these people about their vast potential that we fail to realize the range of their talents and commitments and the number of people whom they feel they need to satisfy. It's precisely because they're so capable that they become overextended. Usually when it comes to such a crunch there's someone to talk to--a parent, a teacher--someone who's been through this and can place it in perspective. But suppose they feel that they can't approach parents or teachers?

The six weeks at CTY are not a time for failure. Indeed, if a student fails very significantly, they're made to leave the programme. This focus on success is understandable given the narrow time frame during the summer in which that success needs to happen. But I think that CTY needs to address what goes on outside the scope of the summer programme, and to join the currently separate worlds of the summer campus and the student's own community. How many CTYers from various campuses are there in, say, New York, Philadelphia, or Washington? Does CTY have any concerted programme of alumni events to bring these people together? No. To the extent that it happens, it happens underground. This is absurd. Would any college, for example, bar its valued alumni from its campus? By failing to recognize and to work with networks of CTY friends, CTY encourages another sort of bunker mentality. In this case it's students for themselves and their friends, set up against administrators, teachers, and parents.

I suspect that the reason for CTY's reluctance to become involved in the community for which it's responsible is the question of liability. Any responsibility that CTY can abdicate is one less opportunity for something to go wrong and for CTY to be blamed, or worse, sued. And if CTY is damaged, everybody loses. CTY has to be involved in the summer programme, of course, since that's the product from which the organization derives its sustenance. But as for the rest of the year, moral responsibility doesn't imply legal responsibility. So it comes to a choice between the two. I believe I understand why CTY has been choosing the legally safest route. But I disagree with that choice. There comes a point at which one must draw the line and declare that one will take responsibility for one's effects, and damn the consequences. The current policy protects CTY as an institution but heightens the sense of alienation felt by a great many CTY students. And when people this age feel frustrated, when they feel that they've failed and they have no one to confide in, the results can be tragic.

It's difficult, of course, for an organization to admit this. There's an understandable defensive reflex, an impulse to place the blame the students themselves, and people like me who stay involved with those students. I have little doubt that some people at CTY view my involvement with students as a contributing factor to their aforementioned bunker mentality. On the contrary, I hope I've done at least a little to mitigate that divisiveness and to encourage openness between students and teachers, administrators, and parents. By discouraging the summer staff from staying in touch with the students, CTY is moving in exactly the wrong direction if they want to defuse this atmosphere of mistrust.

Paradoxical as it may seem, I really do like a lot of the people who keep CTY running. My gripe is with the institution and its policies. Those policies are influenced by so many individuals, and those individuals by so many pressures, that it's impossible to assign responsibility. It's difficult and frustrating trying to correct the course of the institutional machine when there is no gear in which to lodge a wrench, no chink in the monolith that might be penetrated. And while you hammer on it to no avail, the machine blindly grinds over people who are so precious and who have so much to offer. Everything is done with good will and yet this is what comes out of it.

I'm not sure what I'll do this summer now that CTY isn't an option. Probably I'll keep working in the computer industry, where if nothing else I'll make a lot more money than I ever have while I've been teaching. But I miss teaching smart students, and I would like to return to it someday. I'm convinced that we have enough of a constituency to start eventually a summer institute of our own, a place to fill the niche once filled by OTID. I already have spoken with the administration of a small campus with which I'm acquainted, and they're quite receptive to the idea for next year (although the lead time this year seems too short). So it's possible to get the venue. The key will be to gather enough experienced instructors, those who know their subjects and how to teach them but who've not yet been swallowed up by year-round jobs in industry. That probably won't happen this year, but in 1999 or 2000, who knows? It's a real possibility.

As for my neuroscience course at CTY, I have to settle matters with my co-developer, but I myself am strongly inclined to withdraw all the course materials from CTY. Does this mean that CTY won't offer the `Introduction to Neuroscience' that's advertised in its catalog? No, of course it doesn't. They'll offer something with the same title, with the same packaging. It'll be an inferior course but the students won't know the difference, because they'll have nothing to compare it to. The educational climate has caused CTY as an institution to market packaging rather than content, and it's caused many students and parents to value the packaging and the labels that are placed on them. For everyone who boycotts the neuroscience course, there'll be more prospective students clamouring to get in on the action, clamouring to be labeled. The sad truth is that my neuroscience course isn't the only one headed towards demise. The old teachers are leaving for the salaries and permanence of industry and CTY, I feel, is not being aggressive in preserving their legacy. This past year especially, there's been an exodus of the old mathematics staff. But again, the packaging remains the same. The glossy brochures and the posed photographs of enraptured students are the same.

Some of you may be wondering what you can do to improve the situation as I've described it. One thing I do not want is for this to be viewed as a personal issue. It's clear to me that I won't be returning to the CTY staff. To argue about that is pointless; bridges have been burnt. In addition, viewing this as a personal issue would distract attention from the more far-reaching institutional sickness that I've outlined.

One action that I'd like people to take is to encourage open discussion of the issues that I've raised. I've given you my views, but you shouldn't take these as gospel. Many aspects of CTY that I once saw as black-and-white have turned grey. The philosophical debate is murky, and there are opposing routes that aim to converge on the same ends. One certainty is the need for open debate. Feel free to circulate this document. If you're a student, please talk about these issues with your parents, your teachers who may be sending students to CTY, and your fellow CTYers. If you're a staff member, talk about them with your colleagues. Try to reach a consensus, and if you feel that that consensus demands changes, contact CTY and try to establish a dialogue through which you can cause those changes to be implemented. Although CTY as an institution often seems an entity unto itself, there are compassionate individuals within it who will listen if enough people speak up. Don't alienate them. Don't fall victim to the bunker mentality, because if you do, you're going to be seen as opponents and defended against. And cooperate with the people close to you. You may find them infuriating at times, but in most cases they have only your best interests in mind.

I intend to compile a Web page of comments on the themes that I've raised in this document. If you'd like your words included on that page, please send them to me at mkb4@Cornell.edu (with a copy to the unofficial CTY mailing list CTY-L@Cornell.edu if you like) with the subject line "CTY COMMENTS", and indicate whether you want your name and/or your email address listed with them. I hope to generate open discussion and to represent everyone who wants to contribute.

If you'd like to receive updates on the issues raised in this document, you may want to subscribe to the unofficial CTY mailing list. To do so, send "subscribe CTY-L " to ListProc@Cornell.edu. I'm placing a copy of this document as a link from the unofficial CTY Web page, which is currently at "http://www.slc.edu/pages/m/mbelmont/CTY/". That page will be moving sometime this summer when I leave Sarah Lawrence College, but you can always ask on CTY-L for the new location.

Perhaps the history of these events will be rewritten according to the biased perceptions of CTY the institution. In that case, I will very likely come out looking like a provocateur. In one sense, I suppose, I am. But I would accuse not my comments, but the nature and implementation of the policies that I've addressed. And the machine? The machine, I fear, will grind on.

"Oh and while the king was looking down. . ."


New York
Tuesday 3 February 1998

Copyright 1998 by Matthew Belmonte. May be freely distributed in unmodified form, with this copyright notice intact.