The high price of success
By Steven Martinovich
The state of education in America has been in crisis so long that sometimes it's difficult to remember what the crisis is. Some years critics wail that American students are falling behind their counterparts in Asia, while other years see them unfavorably compared to their European peers. One year science education is criticized while other times it seems the arts are ignored. There is general agreement, however, that America's students aren't working hard enough, aren't spending enough time in the class and ultimately aren't interested in succeeding.
Except that none of those things are true, at least according to Alexandra Robbins. She argues that today's American students are more Type A workaholics than they are the slackers of popular culture, more Bill Gates than Jeff Spicoli. She makes that claim in The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, a study of seven students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland and one graduate now at Harvard. They are students who strive so hard for perfection that they suffer massive levels of stress, health problems, peer and parental pressure and most insidious of all, self-imposed expectations that even the most remarkable of us would find difficult to achieve.
And problems they have. Frank, the Whiteman graduate and first-year Harvard student, has an emotionally cruel mother who is only concerned with her son's GPA – a fate now being visited on his younger brother. Ryland suffers depression, is unable to make it to school on time due to sleep deprivation and is repeatedly told by his mother that he'll likely end up in a community college. Julie is a talented athlete and student suffering from thinning hair and self-doubt. Audrey lives in her shadow and forces herself to go to school no matter how ill she is. Robbins' other subjects hardly fair better. All struggle under the tyranny of achieving the highest possible SAT scores.
The reason why these students suffer, argues Robbins, is that an increasing number of students are working themselves to death – literally when rising levels of teen suicide are taken into account – to grab a spot in an elite college or university, preferably Ivy League. Competition has become so fierce that parents have started to plan their children's educational futures before they've even entered pre-school. Students that would have been hailed as overachievers a mere decade ago would today be considered at best average. Untold dollars are spent on consultants, tutors, courses and extra-curricular activities to avoid the apparent ignominy of ending up at a college ranked out of the top 20 of USA Today's annual college rankings.
And it would appear to be mostly unnecessary. Robbins' interviews with admissions officers at various schools show that many of the extreme steps parents and students take to try and get into an Ivy League are unnecessary and often not even taken into account during the admissions process. The schools are disconcerted to find that students have impressive academic credentials but know very little about themselves. Even the SAT, the hurdle every student feels they must jump in order to get into a top school, is facing criticism from the schools themselves for perhaps not adequately measuring students' skills. Faced with a tide of students who boast top marks but a wide-range of personal problems, universities and colleges are being forced to spend millions on mental health programs.
Unfortunately Robbins undercuts her own case by utilizing the "docudrama-scholar" approach. She recreates conversations she clearly wasn't present at, relies on an entirely too small sample of teens – virtually all of whom attend the same high school, and it appears she made the mistake of getting too emotionally involved with her subjects – understandable, perhaps, given the level of trust she needed to build with them and the fact she herself graduated from Whitman and is a self-described overachiever. Finally, the eight students she profiles may be a representative example of extreme overachievers at Walt Whitman High School, but they don't appear to be a representative example of American high school students in general.
Moreover, it's hard to feel too sorry for these students. They generally come from affluent homes, receive top grades, and hold leadership positions. Their problems seem to be choosing which elite Ivy League university to attend and the amount of homework they're expected to do. The reader might be forgiven if they wonder how students who couldn't even afford to attend a community college would feel reading about the plight of gifted children destined for high-earning careers. And in the end, most made it through the stressful periods in their lives and made it into schools most of us could only dream about.
As a study of eight specific students The Overachievers is an interesting read. Most of us remember from our high school days that one student who was determined to be the best in everything and go on to a top university. Given our interests – mostly likely the opposite sex and how to score beer Friday nights – we didn't spend too much time trying to understand them or replicate their initiative. Robbins' effort at least gives us some insight into their character, dreams, failings and private lives. As a general study of what's happening in American high schools, however, The Overachievers receives a failing grade.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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