My oldest son just turned 15.
He cleaned out his room and carted boxes of dusty action figures to the attic. He’ll give me a hug without being asked. He even had a Homecoming date.
And then came College Night. I almost didn’t catch it on the 9th grade calendar, so unaccustomed am I to considering him – or myself, for that matter – far enough along to start the college chase. Yet off we marched, and there we encountered the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality, displayed for us all to see:
Yes, you’re reading it right. All those red dots? Pretty much every kid below (and many above) a 3.5 GPA? Denied.
And then there’s Princeton:
Look closely at that clot of 4.0 Denials. Now shut your eyes and picture all those Red Dots up late perfecting homework, school night after school night. All those urgent anxious heart-to-hearts with Moms and Dads who just knew that Red Dot was capable of more than he was producing. It’s actually a compliment that we push you to aim so high. Now, off to your test-prep tutor.
To be fair, my son’s school made a heroic effort, there at College Night, to stress the well-rounded application. The sports, the community service, the extra-curriculars. Essays, teacher recommendations. They joked it helps if your last name’s also what admissions officers call the college library. Funny.
But once they shoot the Dreaded Graph of Harsh Reality up on that giant auditorium screen, it’s hard to think about all the other intangibles, those pieces of your child’s intellect – of your child’s heart – that are random, unquantifiable, ungraph-able. The pieces that emerge in fits and starts, the quick passions so quickly abandoned, the restless curiosity chased by bland inertia. All the spiky, tangled bits that can’t be groomed, that simply can’t be curated, to please an admissions officer down the road.
Infuriating? Terrifying? Absolutely, yes, to the parent facing down the barrel of the Dreaded Graph. I looked up behind me, at my son sitting with his lovely, goofy classmates. Do we really need to launch this race? When he’s just started the pivot from childhood to, well, whatever comes next? When he’s just slowed the gyrations of adolescence enough to begin the practice of introspection, self-inquiry, self-knowledge? When he’s just given up diorama birthday cakes?
There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently about what should be the purpose and goal of college education, especially in the elite schools rejecting all those Red Dots. Last July, William Deresiewicz threw the first bomb, charging, in The New Republic, that our top colleges doggedly seek, and then relentlessly promote, “people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” In other words, “excellent sheep.”
Predictably, the Empire struck back. No, complained Harvard Professor Steven Pinker, the real problem with elite college admissions these days is that they’re too soft, too “squeamish” to rely heavily enough on what he calls that “magic measuring stick”: standardized testing.
And, by the way, elite employers should hire college graduates that way too, using more “magic” standardized tests. Others waded in, guns blazing. If elite colleges shouldn’t simply spot and polish highpowered hoop-jumpers, those most “excellent sheep,” what should they try instead?
From where I sat at College Night, under the glare of the Dreaded Graph, all that talk sounds almost fantastical. How can we seriously discuss what our children should learn in college – once they’ve won the race to that starting line – until we address how distorting and disabling the college race itself can be? Must I really let that Graph direct the rich years my son and I are entering together?
It’s not like his heart and mind will re-bloom, start fresh, the day I drop him in some freshman dorm.
I can’t say for sure what college should teach its students. But I do know one thing about the mad sprint to get in: parents like me need to slam on the brakes, and get a grip on our own anxiety. It’s time to question our own devotion to the hoop-jumping path, and give up our own ambition, however dark and secret, to join the best possible flock come that first Parents’ Weekend.
So I have a plan. Not for my son, but for myself. Sure, it’s fine for me to push him to work hard, take school seriously, and do his best. I can insist he treat standardized tests like any other essential skill he must work to improve, if he’s not a natural. I can rant when he lets cross-country interfere with Geometry homework. I’m cleared to reward him when effort earns a good grade.
But I also promise to watch closely for the signals his own heart and mind will send about what the real purpose of his life might be. I promise to stay alert for signs and hints of his authentic strengths and interests, not just the ones that might game the Dreaded Graph someday. I won’t skew his college search to the highest-ranked schools that his numbers make possible. And I’ll listen more to what he wants to learn there than to how many alums are hedge fund billionaires or high officials in the White House. I swear I’ll dig deep for enough imagination to picture him on paths without traditional college if it comes to that – quite a dramatic leap for this former academic. I pray he learns to think this way about his own life, too.
Just let it not be me who’s the most excellent sheep of all.
Laura Fitzgerald Cooper is the Content Director for YouScience. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and three sons. A graduate of the Yale Law School and Hollins College, she was a professor of public constitutional law at Washington and Lee University before retiring to spend time with her boys.
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