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At Dalton, a Student Survey Reveals Dual Identities

Tuesday, November 22, 2011 - 10:53 AM

The qualities that students at the Dalton School strive to embody are confidence, friendliness and intelligence. But the ones they associate with their classmates, and with the high-priced education they are receiving, are competitiveness and ambition.

These seemingly contradictory conclusions can be drawn from a survey conducted last month by The Daltonian, the student newspaper. The editors queried students on the topic of values, specifically Dalton values.

“Dalton is a competitive school with a progressive ethos, which means we subscribe to two relatively different sets of values,” said an article that accompanied the survey results. “We hope this feature will establish an objective basis for discussion of an issue that is central to our identity as a school.”

A spokeswoman for the school, on the Upper East Side, said that officials there declined to comment.

The article said that the survey was prompted by a recent article in The New York Times Magazine on the subject of character education, and also by a survey done at Harvard last spring in which members of the class of 2014 were asked to rank the values they held important, and then rank those that they associated with the institution.

While Harvard students said they embraced values like compassion, they said the value they most associated with Harvard was “success” — with compassion appearing toward the bottom of the list.

(One Dalton student said some students who toured Harvard last spring brought the survey back and thought it would be a good idea to try a similar exercise at Dalton. A parent who, like the student, asked not to be identified wondered if the survey was in part an attempt by the editors to get Harvard’s attention at admission time.)

Dalton’s survey included open-ended inquiries — “If you had to pick three words to describe the culture at Dalton, what would they be?” — and opportunities to choose from an alphabetized list of values, like confidence, empathy, athleticism and intelligence.

In a “word cloud” used by the newspaper to represent graphically the frequency of various answers to the open-ended questions, “competitive” was largest, with “diverse” next, and “fun,” “stressful” and “friendly” close behind.

When students were asked what qualities they strove to embody, 29.9 percent said confidence, 27.1 percent said friendliness and 26.6 percent said intelligence (kindness and open-mindedness followed). The qualities students appreciated most in others were friendliness, honesty and trustworthiness, while the qualities they disliked most were competitiveness, spirituality and athleticism.

But many students said the qualities they liked the least were the same ones they most strongly associated with the school. More than half of the students linked ambition, the No. 1 response, with fellow Dalton students, followed by competitiveness, mentioned by 43.8 percent of those surveyed, and intelligence, cited by 37.5 percent.

When students were asked what qualities a Dalton education instilled, ambition again took first place, followed by intelligence and open-mindedness. The qualities a Dalton education discouraged included spirituality, competitiveness and humility.

Surveys are tricky. Much like parents who profess to hate the academic arms race created by test preparation and tutoring even as they accelerate it, students profess to disdain the qualities that are part of the culture of any competitive public or private school (ambition, for example.)

The issue is particularly salient at schools like Dalton, where progressive roots call for a love of learning, while a rigorous curriculum instills a naturally competitive environment, according to parents, students and tutors (who seem to be seeing a rise in business).

Humor was also apparent in the survey’s results. In response to an open-ended question about Dalton’s culture, students came up with predictable answers like “high-achieving” and “stimulating,” contradictory responses like “inclusive” and “elitist,” “high-strung” and “laid back,” and other, more random responses, like “sexy.”

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