Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I have a student. Okay, let me rephrase that, I have several students. But I have a particular student that will be my example for this particular post. Said student is brilliant and talented: 3.9 GPA, multiple AP classes under his belt, outstanding SAT and ACT test scores, and he's only a junior. And what adds to his brilliance is that he came to the United States a short five years ago with no knowledge of the English language. One other thing: said student is dead set on heading to Stanford after graduation for an eventual MD. He wants to be a surgeon.

I think it is admirable that he is so accomplished and has set such a high standard for himself. You hear "Stanford" and, without fail, whispered oooh's and ahhh's will follow. And Stanford is, of course, impressive. And Stanford is, of course, expensive. And because of this Stanford is, of course, tough to get into. The competition is fierce, so I hear.

So Alice heard about this kid (because she hears all about my student concerns...no names mentioned, of course) when I was helping this particular student with his application process to a summer institute held at Stanford. And when she heard about this kid, and my concerns that his heart was so set on this school and what if he just didn't get in?, we got to talking about disappointment and and decisions and college and student loan debt and brand names and learning. We like conversations like this, Alice and me.

And so here I am, thinking about seventeen year olds and major decisions like choosing a college, career and future. Big, life-altering decisions. And it all has me thinking about the lies we tell kids. Lies like "Harvard is one of the best colleges in the United States" or "if you don't take at least X amount of AP classes or participate in X number of extracurricular activities, you can kiss college goodbye." Lies that, if you think about it, just aren't true.

Now, is Harvard a good school. I'm sure it is. It is well-reputed, has impressive law and business schools and a beautiful campus. But the question at hand remains: is it the best school for this particular student? Is it affordable? Are the class sizes too small, too big? What is the student population like and will this kid find a niche there? And will this kid be paying back tuition plus interest on student loans until their 80th birthday? And, while colleges expect a certain level of academic ability, is it realistic to believe that if one bombs one's AP US History exam then one is automatically doomed for life? And is there anything all that wrong with going local?

I guess I'm asking all of this because I think that at 17 or 18, with no real exposure to the college experience, we're using some pretty nasty scare tactics on some very vulnerable victims. I'm sayin' it like it is and the emperor is nekked, people. I say that maybe, just maybe, parents and guidance counselors and schools are pushing kids in this direction because it, dare I say it...it makes THEM look good. Not because it is best for that student. Not because it is the best fit for that individual, but because we all believe that Harvard is impressive and the State school is, well, average to mediocre. And if I taught/guided/raised a Harvard student than that says something about me. Yes, yes, I'm so happy for them, but look what I did!

Lies like these kind of tick me off. On the other side of these lies we tell, there are kids. Impressionable, overworked, and overtired children. Yes, they're adolescents who lean toward the obnoxious at times. But they are children, nonetheless. And on the other side of these lies are high school kids who walk through life like zombies. They lack social lives (unless it involves an activity that looks good on a resume). They lack sleep. They lack family time. They lack balance. Life is a thing lived to get oneself into a "good" college in order to live the "good" life. And I don't think many of them are all that happy. And I'm not sure if this kind of pressure is healthy for anyone.

I'm not saying some pressure is a bad thing, but I worry that we have invented a generation of Super Students rather than Super Human Beings. And that, friends and brethren, bodes well for none of us. (Plus, I think it is bad paying back my student loans...there are worse things, folks, far worse!).

Them are me thoughts.

Signing out,
The Rookie (who happened to attend and graduate from a local state college and had a college experience she wouldn't trade for any ivy-infested leagues)


The Rookie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alice said...

Sorry, the delete was me. Blogger was still signed in as you! :)

Amen my friend. You already know how I feel and don't feel about this topic.

For comments sake however, I think it comes down to that moderation thing again. Balance is ideal. High school students should be involved, studies should be a priority, but at the end of day, so what if they don't ace every class they enroll in. Sometimes enjoying, relaxing and participating in life a little is far more important. Bombing a test or not making a team if part of life, and your probably better for it.

And while someone has to go to Harvard, and frankly way to go to them, I am equally celebratory for the students at a so called "no-name" school. Most people could care less when it is all over. Same goes for that whole heirarchy of majors. Frankly, congratulations if you have declared one ;)

Phew, I suppose I should be done before the tomatoes start flying!

Jen said...

I think you are absolutely right about this. That said, I had a friend who was turned from the "ugly duckling" to a beautiful swan at Harvard. Maybe it wasn't Harvard, but I like to think that the school and company helped his self image to realize how brilliant he is.

Heidi said...

Bravo. I remember some of my students coming up to me who had excellent grades, really. Like an A-, but that wasn't good enough.

"What can I do to bring my grade up?" they'd ask. That always made me kind of sad, not because they were striving to be excellent, but because they were striving to be PERFECT. And I knew that a lot of that was projected on to them from other people who fed them a lot of the lines you pointed out.

Sad, sad, sad.

LovingTheChaos said...

I agree that we are using major scare tactics to mold our younger minds. It is interesting in my profession-to-be that there is an push towards teaching kids more about technical and other skilled educations. We are trying to help kids realize what will work for them...and that whatever they decide is ok. We, especially in the great state I live in, tend to push college (especially certain colleges) on kids when in reality it could be the worst thing for them!

And...17 and 18 is WAY too young to be declaring majors and minors...yet that is how the system is set up.

I think the best thing we can do is help teach our youngsters to make decisions on what works for them...which requires them actually knowing themselves...which is almost impossible at that age...so never mind!

I just hate to see a bunch of unhappy adults because they made decisions on marriage and career too early in their lives! :)


Blackeyedsue said...

I am of the school of thought that a person isn't capable of deciding what they want to do for the rest of their lives before they are twenty. I loved college and goofing off and playing with my friends. Don't get me wrong, I worked hard, but my college experience is what I made of it. I loved a variety of subjects and it was so hard to pick just one. Plenty of people who are happy went to my no-name university. Including myself.

Amanda said...

Hey there!
I totally just stumbled across your blog awhile I was looking up something Harvard related. =) I thought you made some good points and even though you posted this entry ages upon ages ago, I wanted to leave a little note.

I was never an over achieving high school student. I am convinced that choir alone got me through it at all. However, now I am 32 years old and pursuing an education at Harvard.
They actually have a great distance learning program (which is not horribly expensive), and if you are willing to challenge their classes and do well, you can actually get in, which is something I never EVER dreamed about. There were things I worked hard at as a teenager, but not all of those things were school work. I could have challenged myself and gotten better grades. Even so, the important thing is, I enjoyed being a teenager. Those were great years for me.
Other people "figured out" their lives well before me, but I am a reasonably well adjusted person in an often faulty world and so what if I just now decided I want an ivy league education? Luckily, Harvard is about educating people, even me, in my ripe old 30's. :p
I guess you just never can tell about such things.
Might be an encouraging tidbit to pass on to high schoolers though. Some of them might not have big plans now, but you just never know what the future might bring.
Blessings to you!