Tuesday, October 30, 2007

"Held hostage by culture" or the cost of a meritocracy

“Satan exalted sat, by merit rais'd
To that bad eminence…”
--Paradise Lost, Book II

There’s yet another article in the NYT yesterday about hyper-achieving kids in the suburbs of Boston yesterday. (I say another, because it follows a much-discussed article from the spring about Newton girls who apparently feel under enormous pressure to be brilliant and talented on multiple fronts as well as “effortlessly hot.” What’s with the focus on Boston? Don’t they have stressed out beautiful teenagers in Scarsdale?)

In any case, this time the focus was on Needham high and their renegade principle, Paul Richardson, who is trying to combat the stress levels among his over-achieving student body with an official “stress reduction committee” and required yoga classes, which, unfortunately, many of the students are too busy to attend. Similar attempts to reduce stress have also met with mixed results.

When Richardson asked teachers to schedule homework-free weekends and holidays, students told him they appreciated the time because it allowed them to catch up on other schoolwork.

Or last year, when he stopped publishing the honor roll, and was summarily mocked by Rush Limbaugh for coddling students and received hate mail from around the country.

Richardson explained his efforts this way: “It’s very important to protect the part of the culture that leads to all the achievement,” he said. “It’s more about bringing the culture to a healthier place.”


Richards efforts are admirable, but, as his results thus far suggest, they are probably doomed a very limited impact, if only because the part of the culture that “leads to all the achievement” is fundamental to the resulting stress.

The students aren’t overachieving themselves into misery because they have lost their minds or caught some disease, nor is it simply the pressure put on them by their parents (always the easy answer to any cultural phenomena). Many parents are as worried about their over-scheduled kids as Principle Richards

The problem with these kids is that have too thoroughly adopted the values of the dominant culture, which are in turn based on the economic reality of increased competition in a global marketplace.

So, when an English teacher tells them: “When you graduate from college, no one is going to care where you went…” the students are rightly skeptical. They know, from their own contacts and experience, that going to elite colleges does, in fact, expand their range of opportunities. This is not to say, of course, that they won’t have successful careers (let alone happy lives) if they go to a “state” school (which has some students so mortified that they are lying about it).

But this isn’t what the kids are worried about. They don’t just want successful lives. Like all 17 year-olds they want the big-time: fame, fortune and the love of beautiful people.

What freaks us out about these kids isn’t that they have screwed up values but rather that they are doing what they sense they need to do in order to maintain their class privilege. In other words, they are what we’ve made them and we don’t especially like it.

Richards seems to understand all this, as his “hostages of culture” description suggests, but his valiant efforts to make non-productive, no-goal-oriented, non-resume-building time in the children’s lives can’t possibly compete with the larger meritocratic machinery at work. Everywhere else they turn they’ll keep hearing that the only thing keeping them from being rich and famous is more hard work.

Milton understood all this too. In his world, merit was still term of moral evaluation rather then the marker of talent or socio-economic success or talent it was to become. But Milton could already sense the problems inherent in a meritocratic society, in which ambitious young upstarts would continually strive to better themselves at the cost of social stability. But that's a longer story I've already spent too much of my life pondering.

So what could Richard do? I’m not sure, but this could be a good planning challenge. Perhaps a planning for good challenge. My first idea: convince them all to be become Freegans, One thing that really trumps a powerful ideology (in the classic sense of a cultural expression designed to reproduce the ruling class) is a full rejection of it. Most other options feel like failure or retreat, especially when you’re 17 and have your eye on the big American Idol prize.


Beecham said...

Seems like with the "hostages of culture" bit there's a fair amount of slippage here between culture as community values (or even just atmosphere) and culture as high culture. But it's unclear whether one implies the other or is in contradiction with the other and that these students are, in Milton's words, "by success untaught."

Paul said...

Why are 17 year olds reading "Man's search for Meaning"?

sk said...

No idea, Paul, but in my experience Holocaust literature--while harrowing--makes for good teaching material because the experience is so extreme that the accounts help raise fundamental questions about ethics and politics in ways that are both oddly accessible and impossible to ignore.

Paul said...

Agreed, but I think 16 year old girls may better relate to Anne Frank or a young Elie Wiesel than a 35-40 year old man.

I know that his book has a greater significance beyond being one about the holocaust, however, the experiences that Frankl endured may not be fully appreciated by these kids.

Granted they are smart, but it isn't about mental maturity, it's about emotional maturity.

Deep down they know they don't grasp Frankl's point of view and this probably leads them to feel even more insecure, so what do they do? Quote Sartre and try to sound smart.