Tuesday, May 27, 2008

getting ahead

A member of my family recently graduated from college. She got herself an excellent liberal arts education, achieving a GPA high enough to qualify for Cum Laude and getting Honors in her major as well. She made the right choice of school and right choice about balancing academic work with the rest of her life. In both cases she succeeded -- to her credit and for her benefit -- in avoiding an environment of hotly-competitive over-achievement.

The commencement program lists all the honors and awards which the seniors attained. Although my daughter has lots of friends in disciplines outside her major, there are a few in her class whom she never got to know even well enough to pick out in a crowd. One or two of these are the students with double majors, receiving honors in one or both, graduating summa cum laude with an award or two. She suggests she didn't know them because -- studious as they were -- they were invisible.

Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum has a nice piece today on the inevitable hyper-attention that's given this time of year to the rising high school juniors and seniors and their quest to get accepted at top-tier colleges and universities. She says the pressure-cooker lives that these stories depict exists in fact, but the children that suffer so much to shine in the eyes of admittance committees are actually a pretty small group out of the population at large. Nobody, not Applebaum even, says they are an elite, but that's what they are.

She does relate this frenzy to the competition among families in places like the UK and Korea where a single exam determines the fate of those who seek high academic prestige. This makes me think of soul-destroying competition in the top French lycées which we hear about from time to time.

You have to wonder what this intense focus on a single goal does to kids and their parents. Applebaum links to a front-page article in the New York Times about one small indicator: how many high school students skip lunch because, as one says, “I would never put lunch before work.”

This quoted young person, it turns out, attends the high school from which I graduated close to 50 years ago. In my day we thought we knew what mix of subjects, taken at Advanced-Placement level, with what level of success, and what combination of sports and extracurricular activities would give us the most acceptances in the colleges and universities to which we applied. I don't recall much if any parental pressure in my own home or those of my friends (one excepted). And, I don't recall that (a) we actually agonized over getting the highest grades in the most difficult subjects, or (b) made sure we had some exactly ideal mix of other credentials (though we did do lots of miscellaneous stuff). We certainly never sacrificed a lunch hour to any kind of work unless we were late with required assignments and totally frantic. Of course my memory about these things could be wrong. From the occasional reunion weekend I know that my high school classmates have quite different memories of the short period of life we shared together.

I do also recall thinking of myself as landing at "the bottom of the top" which is to say I found myself at the low end of an imaginary scale that showed the attainments of gifted kids in my own environment and (so it seemed from my scores on nation-wide aptitude and achievement tests) across the country. In all the turmoil of that period of my life (hormonal, emotional, social, above all simply transitional) I think that actually felt a pretty comfortable place to be.

Having said all that, I wonder why the New York Times (et al) do annual scare stories about over-stressed high school students and not college undergraduates. Why focus so much on the scramble for the small number of places in classes at the best of the best schools of higher education? Maybe it's because of the parents. They can and often do have pretty much total control over the lives of kids at home. (And this means, where I live now, that many compete for their kids' admission to schools at all levels, right down to kindergarten and even pre-school.) Parents have traditionally been less intensely involved in the undergraduate lives of their children.

There's been a change in the amount of this involvement in my lifetime I think. I recall next to none myself and believe it's been growing over the years since I attended college. But I expect the media focus on high schools is probably parent driven because I expect it's as much their ambitions which the children are supposed to fulfill as it is the kids' own and because they have the ability to act on their mania for vicarious success while the kids are still living at home full time.

I suspect this is not good for parents or kids, not at the time it occurs and not in the long run. Applebaum suggests there's a conflict between the societal quest for immediate gratification and the work discipline for an anticipated gratification in later life: two opposing ways of attempting to enact the American-dream "pursuit of happiness." I think there might be too much of both in our lives: too much focus on living happy and not enough on a good life lived well.

Here's a link to the Applebaum column with a brief extract:
The Busiest Generation, by Anne Applebaum, Washington Post, Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Thus our kids are both stupider than we were and harder working -- though perhaps this makes sense. America is, after all, the industrialized country with the fewest paid vacations, as well as the only nation, as far as I know, that considers the "pursuit of happiness" a fundamental right. We invented both the assembly line and the modern notion of "leisure." So welcome back to work today, if you even bothered to take yesterday off: Spring is here, the beaches beckon -- and you've got only a few weeks left to find an impressive summer job for your high school junior.
And here's a link to the NYT article, also with brief extract:
Busy Students Get a New Required Course: Lunch, by Winnie Hu, New York Times, May 24, 2008

At Briarcliff High School in Westchester County, many students eat in class. Others, citing heavy workloads, don’t eat at all.

High school students in this well-to-do Westchester suburb pile on four, five, even six Advanced Placement classes to keep up with their friends. They track their grade-point averages to multiple decimal places and have longer résumés than their parents.

But nearly half the students at Briarcliff High School have packed their schedules so full that they do not stop for lunch, prompting administrators to rearrange the schedule next fall to require everyone to take a 20-minute midday break. They will extend each school day and cut the number of minutes each class meets over the year. Briarcliff currently does not require students to have a lunch period.

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