Too Fast, Too Furious

As long ago as the 90s I began to worry that colleges were asking applicants to be more like graduate students than high school students. As an admission officer at Amherst College, I found myself looking for evidence that a student had done original research in a university or corporate laboratory, or had founded and run an international aid organization. Rather than see these things as extraordinary, I and my colleagues began to expect them from our applicants. Students who simply did well in high school began to look like slackers. (I called them the “merely wonderful.”)

I often compared these applicants to my own high school self–top of my class, but without an extensive curriculum vitae or resume to bolster my college candidacy. I was accepted to and attended Amherst, and I felt, as many alumni do, that I would no longer be admissible; I simply had done a good job in high school, and the admission dean thought I’d do well in college. (I thank Joyce Carol Oates for that–my interview with the dean was mostly a conversation we have about The Wheel of Love, which I didn’t even like very much.)

These expectations didn’t originate from the admission office, but from professors, who wanted to see more students with credentials that indicated they’d already done college-level work. As the extraordinary became common, expectations kept being ratcheted upwards, until the “merely wonderful” seemed more like the dregs. Any recommendation that contained the word “diligent” was the kiss of death for a candidate. We didn’t want students who simply followed instructions and did well, who were “normal;” we wanted those who had gone beyond, who were mini-prodigies.

We got many of them, of course; they are wonderful and out there, seemingly sui generis, ready to take on the major questions and problems of our time and beyond. Yet what accounts for two major cultural facts that must inevitably collide? We (let’s stipulate here that “we” means primarily the worried middle and upper-middle classes) try to produce geniuses from the time of conception, overstimulating them, driving them insanely from one enrichment activity to another, and forcing them to prepare for college from the cradle, while at the same time lamenting not only that our system of public education is a massive failure, but also that our colleges aren’t really educating that system’s graduates?

These phenomena seem usually to be treated as separate but I see them as intricately entwined. We rush our children toward a goal that is meant to be approached gradually, then we are astonished to find out that the results are hollow. It’s one thing if a three-year old wants to read at a sixth-grade level and can; it’s another to try to make him do it, skipping over all the developmental steps that should happen there. It’s one thing to help a high school student run an interesting science experiment that she’s thought up on her own; it’s another to make her do it so it’ll look good to college.

It’s also about expecting schools to teach at levels that don’t always make sense, working above the capacity of students to please parents and outside agencies. I think we don’t even realize that’s what we’re doing. So of course more kids do poorly, more schools fail, and it all turns into a vicious cycle. Kindergarten isn’t about playing and storytelling and naps, it’s about learning what first and second graders used to learn; from there it just gets worse. What are the limits of children’s capacities to learn at a given age? We seem to be up against them without wanting to admit it because we need to get those kids… somewhere.

There’s no shortage of books about how lousy American college education is these days. For the most part I find them far too simplistic, laying the blame on one party or another, usually the colleges. For some real answers, I think we need to examine how we jam our children through childhood so they’ll come out the other side in a college that will (supposedly) set them up for successful lives. (There’s no shortage of books about how to program your children for the Ivy League, either.) By the time they get there, they are often burned out husks, for whom the freedom of college life is far too compelling to resist when placed against the restrictions of more classes and more expectations.

I arrived at Amherst a decent kid from New Jersey who hadn’t even heard of it before going through the college application process. I thought doing well in school was about following directions and doing your best. One of my first English papers was returned with the comment, “This will do, but you can do better.” It stung so much I resolved to do better and I did. Amherst made me, I didn’t make myself. I didn’t come to college knowing what Amherst taught or should teach me; I hadn’t been pressured to overperform in high school to get there. I got there because they saw enough in me to make it worthwhile to teach me, and I had learned the basics well enough in high school to build on them once I was there.

Expecting high school students to be fully-formed human beings when they apply to college then complaining about them or their colleges when they don’t fulfill expectations is symptomatic of a schizophrenic attitude about childhood and education. Expecting colleges to provide flawless educations while not providing them with appropriately educated students simply makes no sense. Until we coordinate these two conflicting expectations, they will continue to make us all dysfunctional.

Final note: The most recent Amherst alumni magazine notes that the College awarded honorary degrees to several alumni who enlisted in World War II and never completed their BAs. One returned and earned an MBA from Harvard, another earned his JD, also from Harvard. Of course times have changed, but consider that, even without their undergraduate degrees, these men went on to distinguished careers, not to mention their heroism in war. Were they extraordinary or simply good decent men who did what needed to be done? Can anyone do that today? Maybe it’s time to step back and consider how we’ve let the whole enterprise of childrearing and education run recklessly awry and see if we can bring these competing expectations into some kind of harmony.