Monday, September 07, 2015

The Best of the Best

If you're at the top of your high school class, you have a couple choices for college:
1)  you can challenge yourself at a top-tier university, surrounding yourself with other bright students, and where you might not be at the "top of the top" anymore, or
2)  you can go to a "lesser" university and still be the cream that rises to the top.

We're not all the top of the top, the best of the best.  How we handle that fact speaks to grit and character.
Worrying about the angst of high-achieving students has become a minor industry. “America’s culture of hyperachievement among the affluent” has led to suicides, depression, and anxiety among college students, suggested a July New York Times feature. “These cultural dynamics of perfectionism and overindulgence have now combined to create adolescents who are ultra-focused on success but don’t know how to fail,” wrote Julie Scelfo.  The rhetoric of concern barely conceals contemptuous disapproval.

In this popular narrative, America’s best college students are making themselves miserable trying to please pushy parents and grab lucrative jobs. They’re soulless grinds -- the products of insensitive parenting and a sick culture. This fable leaves no room for intellectual enthusiasm or the pride of seeing oneself as smart and accomplished. It assumes every activity these students pursue is instrumental, undertaken merely to look good on an application for the next stage in their upward climb. Their drive for success, it suggests, cloaks an ignoble lust for fame or money. The moralism of this tale may flatter the tellers, but the story itself largely misses a deeper underlying struggle on elite campuses.

Intrigued by reports that my alma mater had initiated something called the Princeton Perspective Project, which aims to reduce student stress by puncturing a reportedly pervasive ideal of “effortless perfection,” I went to campus last April to investigate. Had Princeton students stopped griping about how much work they had and how little sleep they were getting...

This sample wasn’t random or necessarily representative of the range of student experience. It was heavy on STEM majors and middle-class strivers, light on athletes and wealthy prep school graduates. In these ways, it resembled my own undergraduate circles, although with more children of immigrants and more women, both groups whose numbers have grown significantly in the three decades since I graduated.  But after repeatedly hearing the same themes, I came away with a better sense of why students feel stressed at Princeton and most likely at similar elite institutions.

Every January a great team loses the Super Bowl. Every April three of the Final Four go down. And every September, extraordinary students arrive at highly selective universities only to discover that one out of every two really will wind up in the bottom half of the freshman class --and one out of every five in the bottom quintile...

Surrounded by distinguished peers, freshmen in particular may experience a disorienting loss of identity. “It’s not just that you’re not the biggest fish in the pond anymore. It’s that there are so many other big fish,” said the chemical and biological engineering major, a top science student in high school who found herself near the bottom of the class at Princeton.  Once known as “the smart kid” or “the great musician,” students no longer find themselves so distinctive. “When everyone’s a nerd, you’re like, What am I?” she said...

The pain and struggles that generate so much public fretting are real. But unless elite schools start reserving a quarter of their slots for the unmotivated or unqualified, they’re also unavoidable. Wanting to excel is not a character flaw, and shouldn’t be treated as one in the guise of concern for students’ mental health. Ambitious students deserve the same respect we accord ambitious athletes. 
You can see that I snipped a lot of the article, specifically the parts wherein individual students were quoted.  It was an interesting read.


Jean said...

I certainly saw that at my college. I got into Cal by the skin of my teeth because I'd been an exchange student, so I figured I'd be lucky to get Bs---and I was already used to failure after a year of not understanding what people said to me. But most of the students I met had always been the smartest kid in the room, and they'd never had to work for it. A lot of them had some culture shock when they found themselves surrounded by people at least as smart as they were. Some of them crashed and burned because they didn't have the study skills they needed. I had a roommate who would freak out over an A-, and who routinely worked herself into a nervous collapse once a semester.

But I wonder if there are differences now. I don't know. I think more kids are working very very hard to get into those elite colleges; somebody like me wouldn't have a chance now, and a lot of high schoolers I know do nothing but work and worry. Do those kids who never had to work before still exist? I'm not sure my crowd had the same level of anxiety and depression and whatnot as you hear about these days--or did we, and it's just that people are making a bigger deal of it now? I haven't got a clue.

Auntie Ann said...

This happens at the high school level to, especially where families can choose public or private. A kid is much more likely to get into college if they do really well at a weak public school, than if they are average at a good private.

PeggyU said...

No matter who you are, there will always be someone who comes along who is smarter, faster, more talented, or more beautiful. Might as well embrace humility, because it will be dumped on you at some point anyway!