Earlier and Earlier

As we suffer through the indignities of a national election process nearly a year before any primaries actually occur, I can’t help thinking that this pushing back of start dates seems to be of a piece with other forms of starting things earlier and earlier. High school juniors do math that was once strictly college level; they read Anna Karenina as if they were grad students; we expect them to have an intellectual maturity that is at deep variance with their physical and emotional maturity. Yet most people see these things as good. Kids are getting smarter, they say; they don’t need to dwell on the basics any more; they can go right into higher level college courses because they do well on the AP exams. And colleges themselves, especially the most competitive ones, seem to want students who are closer to being grad students than undergraduates.

There’s a contradiction inherent here, I think: We try to hurry kids along so they’ll be smarter, faster, more talented than anyone else sooner than anyone else, yet we also drag out their lives in intolerable ways by making them super-conscious and super-burdened about what they need to do to “get ahead” in a world that’s imagined to be ultra-competitive and dog-eat-dog. Watching the Democratic and Republican candidates (I even hate to call them that now) trying to rev up for a campaign that is not even supposed to take place until next year, I can’t help thinking of middle and high schoolers who are pushed into roles by their parents before they’re ready for them. They’re prodded to take APs, pushed to be on every team, goaded to load up their resumes for that inevitable “primary” season of college admission. They begin their campaigns so far ahead of the actual “election” that they lose their freshness well before the ballots are counted. We’ve arrived at a ridiculous moment when people are running for office before they’ve had a chance to grow into the office they currently occupy, or who run when they should be doing their jobs.

An interesting side effect of all this hurry is that some schools are finding that even with high AP scores students can’t really place out of the courses AP courses were designed to place them out of. They’ve learned “higher-level” ideas and concepts, but never had time to master the basics that would have given them the solid foundation they need to build strong educations. It’s as though they’ve been taught a Beethoven piano sonata before having mastered scales and other musical basics. Now perhaps one can memorize a Beethoven piano sonata without knowing these basics, but even if that were the case, it would not make that person a musician. So what does it mean when a high school student can go through AP calculus BC but has to return to pre-calculus in college or has to take calculus all over again? Students become performers, not students; they memorize the tricks that will get them through school and win the approbation of parents and teachers, but then they come loose at the seams in college, wondering why they feel so empty.

Colleges, expecting students to arrive fully formed, drive some of this hurry, but at the same time lament its results. Professors increasingly do not want to teach survey courses or dinky underclassmen; they want to teach their fields and specialties to older students who presumably already have the skills they need to write and think well. But such is not the case and again we see the contradiction: colleges want to admit those who are already spectacular, but professors treat those students as annoyances once they’re there. I applaud Tulane University in this regard: Radically rethinking their structure in the aftermath of the hurricanes, Tulane’s president decided that full professors should teach underclassmen so those who needed that kind of contact the most would get it. It’s still an experiment, but a worthy one and I hope it works.

As brain science increasingly tells us that adolescent brains are not fully formed and lack rational controls and logical thought centers, we are forcing them to be more rational and logical. We are piling on academic hard labor and wondering why we have epidemics of teen suicide and depression. The ambition (of parents, teachers, and others) doesn’t fit the reality. How strange that even as we learn more about what makes teens tick, we seem to be ignoring it more and more.