Two recent articles about students’ reactions to the pressures of high school should be required reading for every parent, high school counselor, and college admission officer, as well as university trustees and presidents. They’re not the only signs that the college admission process has gotten out of hand (as if we needed more), but they’re poignant reminders that we put our kids through the ringer at our own peril. (The social, economic and cultural pressures are there as well, a topic for another time.)
As the college admission process heats up once again for rising seniors, it pays to take a step back and consider the very real human element at the its center: our children. Whether they’ve been academically active and outgoing forever or whether they’ve just discovered talents and interests in the last few years, they face the sometimes brutal judgment of colleges and of universities as they apply . For those intent on applying to institutions whose acceptance rates seem absurdly to be approaching 0.0%, it would be well to remind ourselves of the psychic cost involved.
In her Atlantic article about suicide clusters in several highly competitive California high schools, Hannah Rosin discusses the conditions affecting students, which primarily include the pressure to succeed. (Eerily, one district even has “suicide- prevention experts: professionals from Stanford and amateurs who’d become deeply knowledgeable in recent years.”) Much of the competition centers on preparing to get into college.
Here is Rosin’s description of the atmosphere at Gunn High School:
[It is] ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the nation’s top five STEM schools. Every year, about 20 of its seniors get into Stanford, which is just two miles away, and a quarter are offered spots at University of California schools, which are notoriously competitive these days.
With an affluent and well-educated population and with many opportunities for students to excel and take advantage of enriching activities, it’s hard to believe that suicide clusters could be part of its history. Yet students have leaped from roofs and thrown themselves in front of trains, succumbing to an environment that constantly demands more, more, more from them.
It’s not only Gunn that creates this lab rat intensity. Rosin writes
Today Gunn is like countless other high-achieving high schools in countless other affluent communities—New York; Washington, D.C.; Dallas; Greenwich, Connecticut; Seattle; Los Angeles—only more so. It is an extreme distillation of what parents in the meritocratic elite expect from a school. The opportunities are limitless and the competition is tough and the pleasant chatter among the parents concerns chances for enrichment. Kids are tracked into “lanes” in math and science and English, which become a big part of their social identity. The school always sends a handful of students to the math and biology Olympiads, and typically some of them place in the top 10 percent. Layered on top of that is the usual array of extracurriculars expected at any affluent school, where it’s okay to have fun as long as that’s not all you’re doing.
By March of a recent school year, “42 Gunn students had been hospitalized or treated for suicidal thoughts.” Is this what we wish for our children on their way to adulthood? And what happens to those who get through it all and arrive at a Type-A college where it’s more of the same?
In a related but more positive development, the students of Naperville North High School outside of Chicago have created a petition criticizing the school for putting too much pressure on them to succeed academically. Over 700 had signed it by April 14th. It’s not a spur of the moment complaint, either:
The 1,437-word essay that accompanies the petition says students are pushed to take college-prep and Advance Placement courses and urged to participate in extracurricular activities where they can take leadership roles in order to add items to their resumes and improve their chances of getting into a good college.
Hear the students’ plea to be given the opportunity to live normal lives instead of being processed into achievement-oriented machines:
From the age of 13 every prospective Naperville North student understands that this path makes no exceptions, and those who wander off or fall behind are left for failure. Everyone here understands that there is no worse fate than failure.
The essay and petition represent the Naperville students’ reaction, in part, to the second unexpected death of a fellow student this school year. The student petition urges the school to analyze its competitive atmosphere and “Start defining success as any path that leads to a happy and healthy life. Start teaching us to make our own paths, and start guiding us along the way.”
Can there be any more plaintive call for help from young people pressured by others–parents, teachers, schools, and colleges–to be fully formed before they’re ready? Can any of us whose lives intersect with these young people’s afford to ignore what they’re asking us to do? This issues goes far beyond college admission, spotlighting vast cultural, social and economic forces at play. But that’s for another column.
As the college admission season starts up again, we should all take time to consider what we may be doing to our children when we insist they go only for the “best” colleges or race to “win” instead of focus on what works best for them. Even students who seem ready to take on the world may have hidden fears and anxieties that they won’t reveal because they think they’ll disappoint the adults around them or will feel like failures. In our pursuit of success for our kids, let’s also learn to see the signs and hear what’s going on beneath the surface of their frenetic lives.