If the appearance of “Back to School” aisles in July gave you heart palpitations, you might be wondering if all the stress accompanying what we call “high school” today is worth it. And if you — as a parent — are feeling this way, what do you think your kids are feeling? When did high school get so stressful for parents anyway?
For the summer I’ve taken a break from my series on high school, college, and success to focus on some summer fun and trip preparation. When I spy the back to school sections at the store, I avoid them as much as possible. It’s supposed to be the middle of summer, people! (Although I have to admit that we have already gotten the kids’ new backpacks for next year.)
But Amanda Valentine of Reads4Tweens forwarded me an article by William Deresiewicz on his thoughts about an Ivy League education, Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.
And here I thought it was just lack of sleep caused by an over-abundance of homework and extra-curricular “fun” activities.
But no, as if that wasn’t enough, we’ve got the most elite universities helping to create a zombie army to take down civilization!
All kidding aside, Deresiewicz makes some very interesting points. He’s got a book coming out this fall, Excellent Sheep, that will go on my reading list. He taught English at Yale (one of the Ivy League universities, in case you know even less about the Ivy League than I do) for ten years. During his last year he served on an admissions committee.
His observations about the admissions process at Yale were both confirming and frustrating. Confirming, because nothing he revealed about the admissions process – from legacy admissions, to the high qualifications that were deemed “not enough,” to the speed at which students futures were decided – surprised me. But frustrating as well, because it’s always nice to think that if you just tried hard enough, you or your child can have a shot at something elite.
But then he makes you feel better by saying that the education the elite are getting at the Ivy schools isn’t that good anyway.
From personal experience, I agree that the best researchers don’t necessarily make the best teachers, and it frustrates me that university tenure programs only reward researching. Deresiewicz confirms this and adds that while this means the professors would rather focus on research, the students are also happy with the arrangement, so long as it means they get a good grade. Because above all, the college students of today fear a less than perfect grade.
He started out by talking in wonder about the successful high school kids coming to the Ivy schools, the amazingly high-achieving college students you hear about. To illustrate the feats of wonder these students can achieve, he used an example of an entire class flawlessly memorizing 30 lines of eighteenth-century poetry.
Really? Memorizing? That’s the best example he could come up with? Instead of that example being in opposition to what he goes on to describe, I think it illustrates perfectly just what kind of person our school system is turning out — perfect clones who do as their told and are scared to deviate.
He goes on to describe today’s students in terms that I’ve become familiar with after reading articles and books like How Children Succeed and The Price of Privilege (Books I’ll do posts on later. UPDATE: You can find my series of posts on How Children Succeed are now posted.) He describes them as “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
He blames this not only on the high achieving public and private high schools, but also on the industry that has grown up around preparing students for admissions to private colleges. And he’s correct that this industry exists. I knew about the SAT prep tutors, but just last week I found out that you can hire an agency to help your child prepare college applications! Not only is this costly, but what does it tell our kids? That they aren’t even competent enough to even fill out an application on their own. They need to hire an “expert” for every task.
What he makes obvious, that I haven’t read before, is how much the college application process drives what we let our kids do in high school and the money-making industry it’s building. Not only do they have to write a good essay, but they have to do all the right things to be able to write about them. I knew about SAT tutoring and the cost of living in a good school district or the tuition for a private school. What I hadn’t recognized is the extent of the growth of businesses created to provide activities to enhance a college essay!
I had noticed that our own kids have gotten some invitations to some “amazing opportunities” that cost more money than we thought they were worth. I recently saw an impressive resume of a graduating senior, and looked into some of the programs he/she took part in to see if they were opportunities for our own kids. What I found was all these intriguing programs, described as leadership and social awareness programs that were awards for excellent students, were actually just expensive summer camps. In effect, they were awards you could pay for.
So I would have to agree with Deresiewicz that this means the cost of an Ivy education is not just the tuition, but the cost of preparing a student for admission with everything from good schools to foreign travel experiences. He describes this all as a way to preserve the elite status quo. Part of this was lost on me, as I don’t know the nuances between the colleges that he named in his examples. I guess that just shows how much I don’t belong to that elite aristocracy! But he probably rightly points out that we should still be concerned, because he sees it as contributing to the income divide. And these institutions also turn out a disproportionate amount of our politicians.
As an alternative, Deresiewicz suggests going to a public university and — from the perspective of an Ivy League outsider — tries too hard to convince you that you can get a good education at one. He tries so hard that he’s in danger of looking like he doesn’t believe it himself. In his Ivy tower, he’s also not aware how much the admissions process of Ivy universities is affecting not just Ivy bound students, but all students.
Every student is told to take as many advanced placement (AP) or advanced courses as they can possibly manage, take part in multiple extracurricular activities, and volunteer. On top of that, try to do something really stellar like found a non-profit. And then you might get into a “good” university.
And the truth is, less than 10% of even the most accomplished students students are going to get into a “good” Ivy type university, because that’s their admission rate on applicants that all look exactly like that. And the high pressure high school system is turning out these students in a tidal wave. So most of these students are attending public universities, either because without a legacy or donor relative they didn’t get lucky in the Ivy lottery, or they couldn’t afford tuition if they did.
I also don’t think his other solution of attending a liberal arts college is the answer. He comes to this conclusion because he thinks colleges should be teaching students how to think, not prepare them for a job.
Maybe the super wealthy have time and money enough to just sit around and think for a few years, but most of the rest of us have to work. I think you should have already learned how to think by the time you get to college. If college isn’t going to prepare you to for a job, then who is?
Are we just going to add another level of school? Sure, that will decrease the price of an education and put it in reach of more students.
I think Deresiewicz is right that to a large extent the schools “at the top” could play a very big part in change. As I pointed out, I don’t think even he realizes how much the elite college admissions process is affecting all students, not just those that are Ivy League bound. It is broadly believed that those are the requirements of any good university, and so high school students are working overtime gathering as many accolades as they possibly can, constantly terrified they aren’t doing enough. They’re afraid to come up for air until the end, to see if they got far enough.
But while I can’t do anything about the requirements of elitist universities, I can try to figure out what’s truly required for my own kids to go to the colleges of their choice, so that they don’t drown in requirements. I think he’s right to place part of the blame on “… the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine.” That phrasing struck a cord with me, because when I stay up past midnight on a regular basis with my kids as they finish homework, that’s what it feels like I’m doing.
But I have to admit that it’s a bit scary to not use the machine that everyone else is using. And it’s reassuring to know that someone from Yale agrees that the current system isn’t leading to success. Which leads me to the circular question as to why I’m reassured by his opinion. Is it because he’s from Yale? Is it because he has an Ivy League education?