I’m not as surprised by this as I might have been twenty years ago or so. At that time, when I was living in New York City and my husband and I were looking for a preschool for our older daughter, we were told–with a straight face–by the head of a Montessori school that my kid couldn’t hope to get into Harvard without the help her fine preschool. I don’t doubt that it was, and still is, a fine preschool. But my daughter was a little over two, and my goals (written on the application, which we ultimately decided not to submit) were for her to socialize with her peers, learn to work in groups, use her words, and perhaps be reading-ready by the time she reached kindergarten age. I don’t think we were the audience for this particular school.
Flash forward twenty years: this fall my younger daughter, like millions of 18-year-olds around the nation, applied to colleges. I’m proud of her grit and determination in slogging through the process and coming through the other end–if you haven’t had to go through this in the last decade or so, I gotta tell you, it’s different than it was when I was her age. And here’s one huge, and to my mind, negative change. The rhetoric surrounding academic accomplishment has gotten so shrill and anxious that it’s taken a toll on the students it’s meant to help and encourage.
What rhetoric? It’s gone way beyond “do your best and shoot for the stars,” to railing about the demands of the the work place in the 21st century, and being competitive, and how much is riding on every grade and every extra curricular. The message is, consistently: Don’t Screw Up, Everything Counts, You Only Get One Chance, Oh My God Omigod omigod we’re all gonna die…
These days, starting as young as in preschool, the message that many kids are given is that they have to do everything right because it is all on their permanent record, and if they mess up any little thing their lives will be ruined. This message has been aided and abetted by the dreadful No Child Left Behind program, where everything was about the Test, including your school’s standing and your teachers’ livelihoods. That my kids emerged from this system with an interest in learning (as well as strong math and writing/reading skills) is a tribute to the teachers who managed to shoehorn learning, and a little of their own passion for their subjects, into the test prep that their classes often became. Is this stressful? I’d say yes, for students, teachers, administrators, and the parents as well.
High school is a hard time. Increasingly ambitious course loads, the miracle of hormones, school politics, and racking up extra-curricular brownie points, and these days Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat and lives lived much more publicly than they were when I was a teen. Imagine all that…plus the pressure of having to do it all right or else. Shudder.
Canceling a two-day kindergarten show because your students have to get ready for college and a career sounds like madness to me. Like “your child won’t get in to Harvard without a rigorous preschool education” sounds like madness to me. I understand that no one wants the US to become a third-rate power, academically. I’m a huge fan of education. But I’m also a huge fan of curiosity, and trying things out, and seeking information for its own sake. Are we raising, instead, a nation of kids whose curiosity and native love of learning is being ground into dust? When do kids get to try out a class they might not do well in, or try a sport in which they’re not necessarily going to do well, or pick up an instrument (and maybe put it down again), if not in school, before the pressures of earning a living and being a citizen start up?
I don’t know the answer. I sure have a lot of questions, though.