“Rip Your Hair Out” Pressure

That’s a Los Angeles, California Harvard-Westlake high schooler describing her Advanced Placement heavy course load. HW is L.A.’s preeminent private high school.

A recent article in the LA Times described it as a place “. . . where some families view anything short of an Ivy League admission as failure.” Next week in my graduate sociology of education course, we’re watching a documentary titled “The American Dream at Groton”. Groton is the East Coast version of HW. Check out the tuition at Groton.

HW thrives because even very wealthy parents suffer from economic anxiety. Consequently, they’re desperate to extend their privilege to their children. They think HW = highly selective college = a high paying job = a comfortable life. But not necessarily a meaningful one. Parents don’t send their children to HW to ponder what makes life most meaningful.

But to HW’s credit, apparently students sometimes end up doing just that in classes like “Ethics: Philosophical Traditions and Everyday Morality”. After fourteen students dropped out two years ago citing depression—some at the school have “pulled back”.

Like Matt LaCour, the baseball coach. Recently a player of LaCour’s told him he wanted to try out for the school play, “Hairspray.” Lacour encouraged him to saying, “I’ve got to allow a kid to find himself in high school.”

Theater arts instructor, Ted Walch, said he would like to see more time for his students “to be bored and to daydream and to be kids.” “We are a powerful enough school,” he explained, “that if we pull back just a bit it’s not going to hurt anyone’s chances to get into Harvard, Yale, or Brown.”

The school is planning a workload study this year to determine whether demands on students have become excessive. HW limits homework to three hours per subject per week—more time than most college students spend studying in a typical week. The school’s new president, who was at Groton previously, has identified “academic pressure and stress” as a recurring theme and tension needing more attention.

Private elite schools always do a better job preparing students for selective colleges than the larger, much more economically and intellectually diverse world. But HW, and the new president in particular, deserve credit for recognizing that, in his words, “The great challenge. . . in schools where excellence is a value is to simultaneously have balance as a value.”

It’s important to have some ambition, the problem is when students become hyper-competitive and sacrifice their integrity and health in pursuit of especially ambitious goals. To razzle-dazzle college admission committees, many high schoolers think they must push themselves endlessly, and in the process they often end up cheating and ignoring mental and physical warning signs.

We need to rethink and redefine ambition as fulfilling one’s potential to effect positive change in some small corner of the world. Instead of striving to do well in school in order to graduate with honors, earn lots of money, and gain social status, do well to become the very best nurse, social worker, businessperson, teacher, writer, plumber, and citizen as possible.

Schools should define ambition more broadly and encourage alternative, healthier, more selfless forms of it. Don’t just single out the National Merit scholarship winners and those accepted at Ivy League schools. Pay equal attention to students who serve others on or off campus. And those who show improvement or demonstrate excellence in the whole gamut of extracurricular activities—including the arts and minor sports.

That’s one way to keep students from ripping their hair out.

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2 thoughts on ““Rip Your Hair Out” Pressure

  1. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to me at least for students to go through their first two years in college taking only liberal art classes, rather than picking a few of their own choosing to fill a required numbers of hours, as much as that would piss off the Rick Santorum’s of this world. Then after those two years kids who are still determined to pursue careers that they hope will achieve high academic honors, earn lots of money, and gain social status, will have at least had an opportunity to see what else exists out there before setting a course for life’s paths. Of course, taking classes that they have to pay for and that they might at the time feel are a waste of time would prevent any likelihood of such a curriculum being established.

    • Most colleges have general education requirements that are liberal arts in orientation. However, because of the level of economic anxiety, the liberal arts are viewed as unimportant by many an increasing percentage of families and students.

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