"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"Anorexia of the Soul" at Newton High

A disturbing and sad piece appears today in the New York Times. It is about a steroidal and crazed form of socioeconomic arete that is choking the lives of the best and the brightest young women in the best and the richest schools and communities of America. A clip:

. . . . To spend several months in a pressure cooker like Newton North is to see what a girl can be — what any young person can be — when encouraged by committed teachers and by engaged parents who can give them wide-ranging opportunities.

It is also to see these girls struggle to navigate the conflicting messages they have been absorbing, if not from their parents then from the culture, since elementary school. The first message: Bring home A’s. Do everything. Get into a top college — which doesn’t have to be in the Ivy League, or one of the other elites like Williams, Tufts or Bowdoin, but should be a “name” school.

The second message: Be yourself. Have fun. Don’t work too hard.

And, for all their accomplishments and ambitions, the amazing girls, as their teachers and classmates call them, are not immune to the third message: While it is now cool to be smart, it is not enough to be smart.

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

If you are free to be everything, you are also expected to be everything. What it comes down to, in this place and time, is that the eternal adolescent search for self is going on at the same time as the quest for the perfect résumé. For Esther, as for high school seniors everywhere, this is a big weekend for finding out how your résumé measured up: The college acceptances, and rejections, are rolling in.

“You want to achieve,” Esther said. “But how do you achieve and still be genuine?” . . . .

1 comment:

  1. My girlfriend went to Newton South High School. She knows several people who went to Newton North since some of the students attend the same elementary/middle schools. I don't think was as prevalent when she attended, but was not necessarily surprised either. After reading the article, she made a joke about wondering whether or not she would have been accepted to college in this day and age.

    This isn't over-achieving, it's uber-achieving. My cousin is now facing this in his/her own New Jersey High School.

    I think high expectations are a good thing, b/c the effects of establishing low expectations are dramatically worse. Students should be taught how to achieve their goals, and enrolling in college is an important goal. However, there is something to be said about the ability to recover/learn from failure and how to react/readjust if you do not achieve your goals. Just b/c you're not accepted to an Ivy League school does not mean that one's life or career are over, this is the great thing about higher education in America. We have multiple options to choose from. Funding that option; however, is an entirely separate discussion.