Despite the current emphasis on the importance of a college education and all that has been written recently about the pressure on children and parents to achieve academic success, some different voices are starting to be heard. Parents have begun to rebel against the excessive testing that has become part of meeting the common core curriculum and the evaluation of teachers and schools based on test results. New books and articles have appeared critical of the investment in Ivy League schools and urging young people to discover their own strengths in a whole variety of educational opportunities.
A former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz, describes seemingly top notch students as “Excellent Sheep,” meaning they simply follow a path laid out for them, and subtitles his recent book, “The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” The idea that our current educational system destroys creativity and fails to nurture individual strengths has been advanced by Ken Robinson in his book The Element, and in his talks on how schools kill creativity.
Still another new book and future movie about Steve Jobs point to the continuing interest in his life and achievements. A transformative figure who has largely shaped the technological world of young people today, he has also served as a model for those seeking to break out of a path set for them. As someone who dropped out of college to follow his own interests, his Stanford University commencement speech in which he said, among other things, “don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” has been watched thousands of times online.
How do today’s young men and women actually match all that is being written about them? A holiday weekend with many extended family gatherings can offer some possible clues and my limited sample covered a range. A young woman and her boyfriend, both two years out of college, had trained for and had been pursuing avidly careers in the theatre. Now, both have returned to New York having given up their earlier dreams as unrealistic. The young man had already found employment at an entry level in a major publishing company. The young woman has a number of interviews lined up at a number of companies.
I asked what it was like these days when seeking to enter the job market and was told that it seems a lot easier now than two years ago when they graduated college and couldn’t even get an interview. What was interesting was that the lack of their experience or training related to any of the job applications seemed not to be a deterrence.
Two young men, one in college, the other in his mid-twenties, are pursuing the passions they have had since their youngest years. Both are undeterred in their career goals, pursing all opportunities including a college education and beyond in the service of their goals. Having been excellent students neither fits the “excellent sheep” description, one twice having taken leaves from school to explore other possibilities, the other using initiative to expand both his knowledge and body of experience.
The final example was another young man who after high school graduation, having been admitted to numerous colleges, decided he didn’t want to go to college and embarked on a business venture of his own invention. He continues to live at home and is torturing his parents who are distraught over his decision. His aunt’s reading is that he has a great deal of anger – “Toward his parents, of course! Who else are you going to be angry at?” The implication seemed to be that such “deviant” behavior could only be understood as anger and rebellion toward parents.
Andrew Solomon, in his book “Far From the Tree,” writes about the struggle of parents and children, too, when children are far from the expectations and hopes of their parents. For the most part he writes of children with serious deficits, such as deafness or retardation, but the primary idea is that of a mismatch between parent and child. To a great extent many of the same points apply to parents and children generally.
As parents, we all start with dreams about whom and what our children will be. Our wishes and hopes sometimes interfere with our ability to see and know them for who they really are. At the same time, children need our love and guidance no matter how they may differ from our own hopes and wishes. It can be challenging in the face of those differences to offer needed love and support, while at the same time providing the necessary guidance that will enable children to reach their own goals, rather than ours.