At the same time that the failures of our educational system have given rise to the call for universal standards for achievement in basic subjects, criticism has also been heard that the pressure for academic achievement has led to a constricted education that does not serve well either young people or society. The “race to the top” has become literally a race, in which the prize for the winners, acceptance to elite schools and economic success are the goals of parents and therefore of their children.
A spokesperson for this view is former Yale professor William Deresievicz, who having published an essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”, found in the responses he received that he had touched a nerve of widespread discontent in today’s young high achievers. The complaint expressed was primarily that the system was cheating them out of a meaningful education.
Drawing on his own teaching experience, and having talked with hundreds of students at elite institutions across the country, Deresievicz in his forthcoming book, EXCELLENT SHEEP: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life, expands on his thesis that the educational system as it exists forces you to choose between learning and success.
A great deal has been written recently about how the contemporary focus on science, math and technology has been at the expense of the humanities and a liberal arts education. The criticism has been made that students are pressured to take practical courses such as computer science in order to aim for lucrative careers in finance or law. The opportunity for self-discovery through a liberal arts education no longer exists and many high achieving students are left with feelings of aimlessness and emptiness.
Deresiewicz writes that students have been taught that all education is about doing your homework, getting the answers and acing the test. “They’ve learned to ‘be a student,’ not to use their minds.” He believes that such schooling has not only created widespread discontent among today’s young high achievers but has also limited the true potential and future of the nation’s brightest minds.
The criticism here is that young people are trained to think exclusively in terms of the next immediate goal, which prevents them exploring other possibilities – thinking out of the box as it were. They are no longer open to finding their “passion,” what Ken Robinson calls the “element.” Deresiewicz writes of “inventing your life,” and suggests among other things doing what you would choose to do even if you didn’t get rewarded for it. “The thing you wish you could do, instead of what you’re doing now.” And he makes the point that purposeful work is spread out all along the income distribution, the goal being finding meaning in your work.
This book speaks particularly to young people of high school and college age and the author recognizes that following his suggestions is challenging as it often entails going against the wishes of parents and other adult authority figures. He writes of the need to take risks in following an uncharted course and tolerating the disapproval of those who matter. He also writes critically of what he considers the excessive attachment between parents and children (in this era of attachment child-rearing) that make it difficult for young people to separate and go in their own direction.
To what extent do these observations and criticisms have relevance for parents of young children who are still dependent and not moving out into the world in the same way as college students? Actually, there is a great deal to think about. Separation issues begin very early on, as soon as children become mobile and start to move away on their own. Parents struggle with the question of how much leeway to allow, what the balance is between realistic protection and fostering independence and self-confidence.
This is a question that continues throughout a child’s development and often requires trial and error to answer by both parents and children. The risk involved exists for parents as well as the young people seeking to find their own way. In the contemporary world that seems to hold so many potential dangers parents may find it more difficult to let go. Economic uncertainty plays a role as parents hope for a secure future for their children and work to provide the best possible education to insure that result.
Where parents can play an important role in the early years is by giving young children room to use their senses in exploring the world and the freedom to be creative. This means that parents take the risk of running counter to the current focus on early academics and perhaps the disapproval of others.
The criticisms and concerns that have been offered relate to the striving toward a particular set of goals. These goals appear not to be leading toward meaningful lives. Despite the social pressures, parents have a role in rethinking and changing the goals for their own children.