Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson warned mothers about the dangers of their children becoming cowboys. “Let ’em be doctors and lawyers and such,” they advised, in order to prevent them from becoming lonesome and forlorn.
But raising children to be doctors and lawyers presents its own path of disappointment and unsatisfying troubles.
In “The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids,” Alexandra Robbins follows the lives of several upperclassmen and one alumnus from an affluent public high school.
The students profiled are great – talented, involved in activities and possessing considerable potential. Each succumbs to the cult of academic prestige, sacrificing their best interests for the sake of impressing colleges.
In most ways, students as driven and high performing as this cohort are a blessing. If they were obsessed with learning for the sake of learning, there would be no problem.
The problem is the college admissions process has turned bright, motivated children into drones, racking up grades and extracurricular activities just to get into a prestigious college.
At its worst, this creates a culture of competition where individuals reduce themselves to lines on a resume – nothing more than sycophants at the courts of Harvard, Yale and Princeton.
As some book reviews noted, focusing on the most driven students at the best schools does injustice to the worrisome state of affairs in American education. Overall, American schools suffer because too many students are underachievers.
I worry about the overachievers, though, because they are some of the best minds the future will have. What happens when the most promising talents are exhausted by the time they get to college, or burned out before heading to graduate school?
In 2000, William Fitzsimmons and other administrators at Harvard described the need for change among college and high school students.
“Professionals in their thirties and forties – physicians, lawyers, academics, business people and others – sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot-camp,” they wrote in the New York Times.
The pressure for prestige – imposed by parents, peers and students themselves – seems to increase each year, a far cry from the admissions process of earlier generations.
As Jerome Karabel described in “The Chosen,” admissions standards at elite colleges in years past had more to do with family connections, social class, ethnicity and religion than academic ability. As schools have focused increasingly on merit, they have done a great service to higher education in America.
Yet I fear they have lost something vital in the process.
Karabel noted the modern college application evolved from a series of efforts made by colleges to keep “undesirable” applicants, mostly Jews, from invading their campuses.
Words like “character” were often used as euphemisms; to say an applicant lacked character may have sufficed to say he was not of a patrician background.
So we ought to be thankful such hideous practices are (mostly) extinct. It would seem that evaluating students on the vigor with which they pursued studies and the number of activities in which they were involved is a better and more fair practice.
But character, in its unadulterated definition, matters greatly – often more than grades, test scores and an impressive resume.
By creating a culture of overachievers, we place more emphasis on school names and ranks than character and integrity. When students focus on acquiring measures of prestige rather than gaining wisdom, we cheat ourselves.
The young men and women profiled in “The Overachievers” come across as decent individuals any college would be pleased to have. I doubt anyone would find major fault with their intentions as they prepared for college.
Despite their best efforts, they failed in one crucial aspect.
T.S. Eliot, a product of the old patrician system, summarized it best when he wrote of “the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.”
Raising children to be doctors and lawyers is fine so long as they do it to heal the sick and nurture the Constitution.
If done for the sake of status, it produces the zombies Fitzsimmons described and leaves the students ultimately less fulfilled.
The cult of achievement is treasonous to students, our universities and our society.
So mamas, do us all a favor and raise you babies to be cowboys or lawyers, so long as they do it for the right reasons.
Daniel Gibson-Reinemer is a fishery and wildlife biology masters student. His column appears every Tuesday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.