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Interview: Success Is All

January 01, 2002 5 min read

In the late 1990s, Denise Pope, a former high school English teacher, spent a year hanging out with five ambitious students from a suburban public high school in Northern California. She studied how they coped with the pressure to succeed in school and gain admission to good colleges. The story that emerges in her new book, “Doing School": How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (Yale University Press), is less than optimistic. She depicts, with novelistic detail, students who are sleep- deprived and deeply cynical about the schooling they receive.

As one Ivy League hopeful tells Pope, school success is a matter of the survival of the fittest. Unfortunately the “fittest,” as the author discovered, is too often the boy or girl with the fewest scruples. These students don’t hesitate to cheat and ingratiate themselves with their teachers; they are experts at manipulating the system. They are also exhausted much of the time, pounding caffeine so they can study into the early morning hours. Pope recently was reached at her home in Los Altos, California, not far from Stanford University, where she is a lecturer in the education department. She spoke of the college-application rat race, student stress, and how the system should be changed.

Q: Haven’t high school students always been anxious about getting into college?

A: Yes, but never to this extent. The intensity of competition has gone way up, and students feel that they have to get the grades at all costs or end up working at McDonald’s. There’s this credential race going on as more and more kids realize that a high school degree will only get them so far. Colleges have responded by weeding out more students early on in the process: If your grades and SATs aren’t good enough, many colleges will never get around to looking at your personal essay, who you are as a person.

Q: The frenzied competition, I take it, goes beyond getting high grades and scores.

A: Students now view it all—community service, clubs, etc.—as a way of enhancing their chances of getting into college. Ivy League colleges, for example, want to see a long résumé, so a person with a lot of community-service hours and extracurriculars may get the edge. One of the students I write about, Eve, had so many extracurriculars that she couldn’t remember which one she was supposed to go to when. She had so many hours of extracurricular activities that she actually subtracted some from her college applications. She said they would otherwise never believe her.

Q: Yet Eve did eventually get into Princeton and is on track for medical school. So didn’t all the effort pay off?

A: Absolutely. And there are people who read [my] book and say, “You know, we are preparing students well.” But is this what we really want? Is this what business wants? I doubt it. I doubt they want the kind of personality who lacks real passion and innovation—and they’re not going to get that kind of personality with the kind of system we’ve set up. They’re going to get kids who think that acing the next test is the purpose of life.

Even Eve, who was diagnosed with an ulcer in high school, admits that she has never had any real time to pursue what she’s really interested in, and it’s now no different at Princeton. In her letters to me she says she never got a chance to explore such fields as history and international relations and that she never will now that she’s on her way to medical school. For many high achievers it’s extracurriculars until late at night and then hours and hours of homework. In the morning, you see these kids lined up at Starbucks, getting coffees to take with them to school. So there’s no time for introspection, to find out what they really want to do.

Q: I was surprised by the amount of “sucking up” that goes on.

A: And it’s more calculated than ever. Kevin, who is now at [the University of California at] Berkeley, was mocked by his peers as “the biggest kiss ass in history.” He asked his teachers about their weekends and admitted befriending them because they grade his papers. Eve brought sunflower seeds for the secretaries in the office so that she could use the fax and copier when she wanted. Both were among the most beloved students at school and had all kinds of special privileges. After Kevin read my portrait of him, he called me and said, “You nailed me.” He says the sucking up is still going on at college. He’ll make a point of paying a friendly visit to the professor during office hours because there are several hundred students in a class, and it may pay off when his paper is graded.

Q: Why do teachers succumb to such manipulation?

A: The teachers are trapped just as the kids are. They’re overworked and overwhelmed by large numbers of students they hardly know. So they welcome kids who stand out and are especially nice to them.

Q: One of the students, Roberto, keeps his integrity and ends up getting hurt.

A: His case was such a heartbreak for me. He got hurt because he would not play games like the others and didn’t, coming from a working-class family, really know how to play the games in any case. He was falsely accused of cheating—I know this because I was there—but I didn’t step in on his behalf because he didn’t want me to. He got a D in the class. And he ended up joining the Army because he couldn’t get into college. And here’s a great kid who worked during school 20 to 30 hours a week as an assistant manager at a restaurant so he could pay for clothes, school supplies, etc.

Q: It all sounds like a pretty bleak scenario.

A: But I am hopeful that things can change. Harvard University, for instance, recently put out a letter to applicants saying kids are coming to them already too stressed out and that they’re burning out as freshmen. They’re saying, we’re not going to be looking for someone doing 80,000 extracurriculars but someone who has been cultivating a passion. Whether or not they’ll follow through, I don’t know, but it’s a step in the right direction. There’s also real hope in the school reform movement, with more schools making huge changes in assessment and trying to move away from the testing frenzy.

But, in the final analysis, it’s the parents who are going to have to change. A lot of these parents are extremely competitive on behalf of their children and go into a calling frenzy when their kids get high SAT scores and get into a good college. The attitude many have of “success at all costs” is going to make change difficult.

—David Ruenzel


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