The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids
by Alexandra Robbins
The Drama of the Gifted Parent
A review by Sandra Tsing Loh
[Ed. Note. This review discusses the contents and context of four books: The Overachievers, The Price of Privelege, Hothouse Kids, and The Kindergarten Wars.]
The frenzy of academic competition, particularly among affluent American families, has triggered a spate of cautionary new books. The titles reviewed here are all excellent: I give them all A+'s -- or, in the parlance of today's elite high schoolers, weighted GPAs of 4.687, including 5's in fifteen AP courses and a combined math/verbal SAT score of 1540.
Of course, I'm a biased reader; in my estimation, there can't be enough books written on the topic. I say, let's hurl them, one by one, at today's frenzied "helicopter parents," who deserve to be, if not bombarded, at least given a simple clonk over the head with a frying pan while a trained therapist yells, "Stop the insanity!"
Winning admission to a coveted college is so do-or-die that today's über-protective parents leave nothing to chance -- which is to say, nothing to the bumbling students themselves. For our most obsessively college-minded parents, it seems foolhardy to allow high-school seniors to track the progress of their own applications, to solicit their own letters of recommendation, even to write their own autobiographical essays about why they want to go to college. At a certain point, one might ask who is actually hoping to pull on that crimson sweatshirt.
In a telling USA Today essay on such parents, the MIT admissions head, Marilee Jones, wrote that they even "make excuses for their child's bad grades and threaten to sue high school personnel who reveal any information perceived to be potentially harmful to their child's chances of admission." (Indeed, in The Overachievers, Alexandra Robbins points out that the number of teachers purchasing liability insurance rose by 25 percent between 2000 and 2005.)
And when these litigious parents' work is well done, they need only stand back as their mini-me's shamble forward, robotlike, hurling lawsuits for them. In 2003, with acceptances from Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Princeton, and Cornell already in hand, the New Jersey senior Blair Hornstine sued her school district for $2.7 million for the pain and humiliation of having to share her valedictorian title with another student. Diagnosed with chronic fatigue, Hornstine had completed much of her coursework at home with private tutors, while being allowed to skip gym class (where even an A+, valued at 4.3, would have lowered her AP-fueled GPA of 4.6894). Her father, Superior Court Judge Louis Hornstine, didn't just support his daughter's campaign; he helped complete her volunteer work, driving groceries to the local food bank on her behalf. (In June 2001, Blair Hornstine also received a Congressional Award Gold Medal, an honor that requires a student to have performed 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, and 400 hours of community service. Talk about chronic fatigue!) After winning sole-valedictorian status and settling with the district for $60,000, Blair, in a bizarre twist, was de-admitted from Harvard upon discovery that she had plagiarized some material in her local newspaper columns. Also in 2003, the Michigan valedictorian hopeful Brian Delekta challenged district regulations that allowed him at most an A for summer legal work, as opposed to the A+ that -- yes -- his own attorney mother had awarded him. (In the suit, Ms. Delekta served as her son's lawyer. They lost.)
On the one hand, I worry that unless they join some sort of MTV-sponsored witness-protection program, such children have no hope of ever getting laid. (One imagines Brian and his lawyer mom, or Blair and her judge dad, years down the road, sharing a lone Zima at a vast granite kitchen island as the pair of them nostalgically go through old torts.) On the other hand, I have to admit to a grudging admiration for the sheer professionalism, the smoothly oiled Bonnie-and-Clyde teamwork of these academic parent-child hit squads. I too had insanely pushy parents, but in retrospect they seem like pikers. Yes, my Danzig-born mom wrote all my sister's school papers (which my sister then dutifully copied and presented as her own). However, the result was not Ivy League entry but instead, as my sister will joke, "my strange German syntax, to shake, I have never quite been able." When I was a senior at Caltech, my Shanghai-born scientist dad kept calling my dorm to shout, over the thumping ZZ Top, "Sandra! Apply to any grad school in any engineering major!" Sadly, thanks to the freedom of the EZ student loan the great cheapskate himself had helped me secure, I was already off dating a rock-bagpipe player and spectacularly bombing my physics GRE. (Out of a possible 99, my percentile was 7 -- that's right, one digit -- a number so low it inspires almost Talmudic awe in those who hear it uttered.)
By contrast, today's top students don't seem to have the sheer Falstaffian airspace in which to belly flop -- and even when they do, they enjoy odd new protections. (Robbins cites a teacher's surprise when a star student suddenly came in with a diagnosis of "difficulty with Gestalt thinking" -- which, conveniently, allowed her to take all subsequent tests untimed.) However, these soaring levels of academic achievement and care seem to be generating not satisfaction but epic levels of misery … particularly for the sons and daughters of America's most affluent, education-obsessed families. Such kids are fueling their own exploding at-risk statistics: among all socioeconomic groups, they're now the leaders in adolescent rates of depression, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders. The gnawing discontent shows up less in colorful Jerry Springer-style drama than in a kind of beige blankness, personality absence, or paucity of self. In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine notes a widespread lack of what she calls an "internal home,'" described thus:
It clearly is not built of bricks and mortar, but of the psychological building blocks of self-liking, self-acceptance, and self-management. It is the welcoming and restorative psychological structure that children need to construct in order to be at ease internally as well as out in the world … For me, this internal place looks and feels very much like the big oak tree I used to climb up in my backyard when I was a child.
Which sounds quaint until one considers that in today's overscheduled families, climbing a tree and sitting in it is practically unheard of.
One fascinating thread Robbins tracks is a growing similarity between the overachieving culture of the United States and the legendarily rabid edu-culture of East Asia. By the age of six, some Asian students are doing homework until after midnight. By adolescence, they're suffering such high rates of suicide and anxiety that they make the likes of Winona Ryder seem rather cheerful.
But -- one might coldly ask, with a certain gestalt bent -- don't the miserable survivors at least make better widgets? Even in this, though, the results are mixed. Studies indicate that Asian students achieve some of the highest scores in the world in math and science comparisons. However, owing to excessive focus on memorization, done solely for the purpose of passing tests, these gloomy idiot savants demonstrate surprisingly little practical know-how and often are unable to apply what they've learned. And this is the educational system we mistakenly aspire to, argues Robbins, who traces the U.S. overachiever culture back to President Reagan's 1983 Department of Education report "A Nation at Risk." Its authors identified a "rising tide of mediocrity" in U.S. students' poor scores on standardized tests. In so doing, according to an education expert Robbins quotes, "the members of the National Commission tightly yoked the nation's global competitiveness to how well our 13-year-olds bubbled in test answer sheets."
Of course, until recently in many Asian countries there were frighteningly rigid educational systems, which in turn tracked into few good jobs. Failing a single test as a child in those not-so-bygone days could put you on a path to permanent economic hardship, social failure, and a windowless apartment the size of a telephone booth -- making all that anxiety tragically somewhat understandable. By contrast, professional futures in America aren't so instantly or firmly etched -- see, for example, the famous college dropouts Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Getting into college isn't so much of a worry, either: Robbins points out that only about 10 percent of the more than 2,000 four-year undergraduate programs nationwide have selective admissions. And how important, really, are those one in ten? Granted, for graduating directly into high-paying jobs in consulting and finance, very important. But the most definitive longitudinal study so far indicates that a degree from a prestigious school isn't ultimately worth more, earnings-wise, than a degree from any other school -- though the former will certainly set you back more.
Still, a deep river of must-have school mania runs through the chattering classes. There is, of course, the parental adrenalin rush at suburban cocktail parties that comes from announcing one's son or daughter as an Ivy Leaguer. But even at the preschool level, parents now fight to be the last family in, frenetic as the eels in that horse's head in Volker Schlöndorff'sTin Drum. Why? Because getting into that $25,000-a-year preschool is now seen as a toddler's de rigueur first step down the yellow brick road that winds from preschool to private school to Harvard to Goldman Sachs. That said, however perilously narrow such families may seem in their worldview, certainly their academic clarity is enviable. For those of us still feeling our way through the meritocracy, successful career paths are much more complicated. Many of us, unsure of how we got where we are in the first place, are just as unsure of what education will best prepare our children for an unknowable future. (Perhaps your child can indeed get more personal attention at a good state school than at an Ivy League one, where TAs teach all the classes while the professors are away doing research. But when your child interviews for a job, can you trust that her interviewers will be smart enough to see how Personally Attentive that state school really was?)
And then there are matters of character. Typically, middle-class educated parents' search for their children's schools takes on the feel, if not of teen girls trying on different outfits, of adolescents trying on various selves. In our own experience negotiating the educational Byzantium of Los Angeles, my husband and I asked ourselves: Are we leafy-tree/Waldorf School people? Are we hip/Johnny Depp-friendly/progressive people? Are we hybrid-SUV enviro-Democrats? Are we white? It turns out that all of these questions were moot, as the answer was simply that we are, if not poor, too poor for our two children to be developmentally nurtured at $15,000-plus a year. (Which raised an alternate question: In our reaction to all of Los Angeles's excesses, are we half-price closet conservatives of a Lutheran or even Catholic shade?)
Actually, to my surprise, I've turned out to be a big-barreled Mother Jones-like figure -- in this case, a defiant urban public-school mother, which in today's middle-class zeitgeist practically feels like being a communist; I'm given to wild-eyed rants against the perils of affluence, particularly when I'm in my cups. Then again, while waiting for the school bus among Mexican day laborers and Armenian grandmothers with strangely dyed magenta hair, I do sometimes gaze longingly at the Los Angeles private-school parents whizzing by in their Priuses -- the writers, the composers, the actors, the thinkers … so intelligent, so creative, so sensitive, so incensed about global warming, so angry about Bush. Then I think of the administrators I met in those private schools, when we were interviewing (as I said, to my surprise I'm a Mother Jones-like figure …). Given that independent-school business (and middle- class urban fear) is booming now, "the front office," as I call it, is always manned by mercenary professional gatekeepers -- the lion-maned admissions directors, the women with important scarves -- who let you know, in no uncertain terms, exactly what on your Visa is nonrefundable. But in "the back office," there is always the gentle little gnome who lives in a woodland cave of the mind. In Los Angeles, this woodland gnome is typically a sweet and fragile eighty-something educator (think wonderfully old-fashioned cardigan, white hair perhaps growing out of the ears) who in Austria in the 1950s invented some sort of benevolent alternative- learning theory whence gently flowers the school's educational philosophy. If he or she is the emotional figurehead of an independent school (one possibly even bearing his or her name) that now allows in, by breakneck competition, only the most affluent and privileged (with the occasional Savion Glover-brilliant inner-city child, for color; or perhaps an heir of Denzel Washington), thus exacerbating the twenty-first century's Grand Canyon-like divide between rich and poor, it's not the helpless and unworldly little gnome's fault -- it's just something that happened along the way. Hey -- you wouldn't blame John Dewey!
The irony for me is that although I see and decry these social divisions, there's some lingering part of me that wants to sit obediently before the gnome, manipulate blocks, and be patted on the head and called exceptionally creative, and gifted.
And clearly I'm not alone.
Alissa Quart, in Hothouse Kids, writes about a visit she paid to Philadelphia's prestigious Institutes for the Achievement of Human Potential, and offers this observation:
For many [parents], the school was the center and pinnacle of their own lives. One mother told me that upon arriving at the school, when her son was one year old, her husband cried because he felt they had "wasted a year of our baby's life."
But who exactly is the husband crying for? For his son, or for himself? Is it, as the saying goes, that the child is the father of the man, and that this man maintains an unsophisticated view of human development and human potential -- one that is striverishly superficial, and external (to borrow Madeline Levine's concept)? Regardless, woe to the one-year-old who's being pitied for blown deadlines, for having spent the first twelve months of his life drooling and cooing without educational purpose. Imagine how this father's boundless quest to fulfill one's Potential -- whatever that vague word means -- will unfold as this infant comes of age. Quart offers this extraordinarily telling tableau:
A boy undone by the failure to accept human limits, Icarus is a useful metaphor for the hothouse kid. Building these champions does create a generation of high achievers. But they do not necessarily stay aloft. They may grow up resentful of their parents' inculcations. They may forever romanticize the childhood they never experienced. They may spend their adulthood aspiring to be children. They also share a feeling that normality is banal, even terrifyingly so. They may feel as though they fell from glory. And in fact they have. The attention they once received has never returned.
The terror of the ordinary is what keeps many affluent, educated parents and their kids out of the merely "decent" schools, the ones that are simply "fine." For Katie, a private-school mother typical of the parents in Alan Eisenstock's Kindergarten Wars, the only acceptable school is the one with which she literally falls in love. The campus -- with its picture-perfect bucolic landscape, its lush greenery, its air heavy with magical scents of eucalyptus and mint -- suggests a modern-day Eden.
There is, ironically, no sense of school. Instead Katie feels something else, something … larger. She feels an immense calm. Contentment. And then it hits her. It's as if she has wandered through some kind of enchanted garden and has come home. That's what Hunsford feels like.
For the next thirteen years.
"I'm in love," Katie says.
After the quickening drama of the admissions process, the expulsion from paradise is hard. Upon being tossed by Hunsford into the death of the soul that is the waiting pool, in a scene that alone merits the price of the book, Katie polishes off an entire bottle of Grey Goose and curses, for pages and pages and pages:
The irony. I wasn't even going to go through this process. And then I saw Hunsford and I wanted it. I gave up everything for one year, devoted my entire life to getting us into Hunsford. That became my job. Miles had his job. His job is to bring in the money. My job was to get us into Hunsford. And you know what? I failed. I fucking failed. I'm a failure. Today I got fired from my job.
Although one must at the very least credit Katie with greater self-awareness than the weeping Philadelphia father, her admission of monomania and misplaced ego doesn't make the moment any more seemly. And what of Katie's child in all this? Even allowing that a failure to land a kindergarten slot at Hunsford might have existential implications (as pretty much everything, interestingly enough, does), those implications are much less worrisome than the prospect of Mom reaching for the vodka whenever her parental pride -- or inner copresident -- is wounded.
So this is what wealth and good fortune have gotten our affluent, education-obsessed families in the aughts. A mother may glimpse a home of calm and contentment (her own missing Oak Tree of the Soul, perhaps?) in the enchanted parklike grounds of a school whose cost is $25,000 a year for kindergarten, and where -- after legacy, siblings, and staff -- there are only four available spots for an application pool of 600. A judge father may try to make Icarus fly again, even if that means arduously winching his own daughter up into the air with a mind-bogglingly complicated system of cranes and pulleys that accidentally sends her flying backward. And meanwhile, for adolescents, the result of all this parental academic yearning is grinding pressure, emptiness, and conformity … such that Ivy League hopefuls -- or their parents -- polish their autobiographical essays (yet more empty Selves) via www.essayedge.com, where for $299.95 a "Harvard-educated editor" will punch up, in an edited example, one's inspiring tale of a father's battle with colon cancer. (With apparently no one being given pause that part-time work for EssayEdge is what the Harvard-educated are doing.)
In the future, when sociologists look back, they may find it fitting that the signature novel of this academically frenzied era is the Harvard undergraduate Kaavya Viswanathan's famously lucrative and famously plagiarized How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life -- a book so deeply conventional that the heroine's Harvard-obsessed parents and a dean of Harvard are actually the feel-good heroes. (You wouldn't want anyone to be mad!) On the plus side, just as the '50s gave way -- culturally speaking -- to the '60s, this moment in time may be another Oedipal breaking point, from which might spring the beginnings of a real youth revolution. The lack of a draft may have forestalled a college-wide antiwar movement, but young elites surely are being crushed by Ivy-bound pressure, and this era's needed cultural statement may well be kids joyously burning U.S. News & World Report college rankings on the front steps of Reed College. It could just be me -- once highly gifted, now fallen from grace, bombed GRE scores in hand, barely able to complete a Sudoku puzzle -- but when I read the following passage of Marilee Jones's USA Today essay, I think of Dustin Hoffman in a bus bumping down a dusty road at the end of The Graduate:
Last April, a few weeks after sending the acceptance/rejection letters for the Class of 2006, I received a reply from a father of one of our applicants. It was curt and written on his corporate letterhead: "You rejected my son. He's devastated. See you in court." … The very next day, I received another letter, but this time from the man's son. It read: "Thank you for not admitting me to MIT. This is the best day of my life."
Maybe, with the son's understanding and encouragement, the father can reapply next year.
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