“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.


J.D. Salinger thought he wanted literary fame, but after experiencing it, quickly changed his mind. In an era where so many people crave the media spotlight, and style trumps substance (see Palin, Sarah), I find his intentional turning from notoriety intriguing. Will a movie be made? Is there enough post Catcher in the Rye material? Will his survivors sell him out? If it is made, the best way to honor his life would probably be to not see it.

Salinger was extremely eccentric, but what strikes me as far more interesting is that even after withdrawing post-Catcher he allegedly continued to write for pleasure. There’s a purity, even beauty to that, which inspires me.

Previously, I’ve assailed our increasing loss of privacy, which is another reason I find Salinger intriguing and inspiring. He took control of his public persona instead of passively allowing others to shape it. More accurately, he escaped having a public persona by assiduously avoiding contact with writers, photogs, and other media types. People today don’t seem to realize that there’s no obligation to take the call, speak into the microphone, or appear on screen.

Bill Gates strikes me as a very different type of dude too, and as a result, intrigues and inspires me in equal measure. A lot of well-to-do people do charity in ways that bring attention to themselves. And they give sizable gifts that are in actuality quite small relative to their total net worth. And their gifts, which often pad Ivy League schools’ endowments, don’t seem particularly well thought through. Gates has said he intends to give nearly all of his wealth away and he’s making good on that promise. He’s given something like $30b away so far and a few weeks ago announced that he was giving $10b more than planned for child vaccines in the developing world.

Gates stands out in a world where the richer some people get the tighter grip they maintain over their wealth. He doesn’t seem to seek media attention, but I think he deserves more of it for both the amount and ways in which he’s giving.

My guess is Melinda’s behind the scenes role has been key in Bill’s selfless, socially conscious giving. I’ve seen her on television a few times, but refreshingly, she has a little Salinger in her, content to parent, figure out how best to give away billions, and leave the media to pursue other stories like what Kelly Clarkson thinks of the Taylor Swift controversy.

And then there’s Sade, one of my favorite musical groups/people. Ten years on, finally another album. Turns out, Sade Adu has a little Melinda and Salinger in her. Here’s an excerpt from a Jim Fusilli WSJ article on the new album. “I asked Mr. Hale why the band takes such a long time between albums—it was eight years between ‘Lovers Rock’ in 2000 and its predecessor ‘Love Deluxe.’ ‘This time it was about family,’ he said. ‘Sade is a mother and she wanted to be home with her family. . . . The public side of what she does is what she enjoys the least. She sort of feels she wants to wait until she has something to say.'”

Imagine that, waiting until there’s something to say. After the Catcher hoopla, Salinger respectfully declined to say anything else to the public. The Gates communicate through their exemplary philanthropy irrespective of the media spotlight. And Sade passes on record sales until she has something to say.

Thanks for the inspiration.