Under the Oak, September 2015

On Rigorous College Preparation 


By Lise Goddard


Lise's Chapel Talk, September 17, 2015

The proverb goes:  A fish can’t see the water he swims in.

Meaning… water is the only world the fish knows, just as air is the primary medium that we live and breathe in. To a fish, the water does not carry a sense of “other,” nor does it cause the fish to question any fundamental premise about, well, what is the nature of this thing called water?  

But when a human or a fish moves between worlds, say a fish into air or a human into water, then we really notice a difference.

People have the ability, and some might say the obligation, to ask:  What is the nature of this world I live in?  What are its biases and what do they mean to me?  What do others accept as truths?  What can I change, and what can I not change?  

I ask you to reflect for a moment on one aspect of the the world we all live in, which brings us here to this Chapel this night - the world of RIGOROUS COLLEGE PREPARATION.

What, like the fish, might we NOT be seeing about this world?

You, my friends, live in a world that is different than the one I lived in when I wrote my college applications in 1987 - for a lot of reasons, yes - but certainly for what has happened in this college game.  And it is a game.  One that no one knows all the rules to, so everyone is anxious when they put their hat in the ring.  

My hope in this Chapel talk is that, by exposing a dark side of this world, you see that you have more control than you may think you have, if not in admissions, then at least for your sanity and health.

Let’s start with looking at the pinnacle of college prep.  It’s all about getting in.  Right?  Too often, high achieving kids strive to get into the most selective, sought-after school they can get into.  The wisest ones seek the best match, but in general, there’s often a frenzy and a race to the top. How many of you have seen the movie, Race to Nowhere?

I’ve been following this storyline for awhile.  I was influenced by seeing a talk in Santa Barbara several years ago by Denise Clark Pope, a teaching faculty member at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.  At the time she was heading a project called S.O.S., the “Stressed Out Students” project.  It addressed a new-ish wave of overly high-strung, stressed students, who were programmed at a young age to perform and be successful in schools, and fell apart when they received anything less than an A in their work.  They were so fragile that colleges adopted an informal name for them - tea cups and crispies - meaning, they were brittle and could shatter at the slightest upset.  They had never failed at anything, so they had no coping mechanisms when they encountered failure (like getting a B).  Their parents came to their rescue, not expecting their kids to be able to cope with adversity.  No resilience, no grit, no process for learning from setbacks.  One of the take home messages I heard that night was that these crispies had impeccable high school transcripts… perfect… all A’s, involved in activities that looked good on paper… yet our most selective schools didn’t WANT these kids who were permeating the Ivies.  The stressed-out students were high maintenance, and not particularly interesting.

I started hearing more and more through educational channels about helicopter parents, or parents who would swoop in to protect their kids from setbacks that, a generation before, were considered not only typical, but good for us.  Helicopter parents bolster their kids with praise.  I’ve even read about bizarre extremes of helicopter parenting, that is, parents going with their students to college - to manage their schoolwork, tutor them, bolster them, do their laundry....  (Midlanders understand this is code for: These kids are robbed of the chance to learn how to meet their own needs.)  

Last year I read The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, and here my eyes were opened even wider.  I learned that this is a true crisis, a 5-alarm fire, for a seemingly unlikely population - affluent families - who are suffering record levels of clinical depression.  Far from having it all, (or perhaps in part because they do have it all, if “all” means material comforts that insulate us from challenges that make us a little uncomfortable or help us develop an inner self), these kids are in trouble.  In fact they’re desperate.  They are empty and lost.  They’re pressured to be successful according to external measures - grades, trophies, achievements, awards.  Levine writes, “Fewer and fewer affluent teens are able to resist the constant pressure to excel.”  Many “work primarily to please others and gain their approval.”  

Madeline Levine explores what is behind the rise of affluent kids who feel EMPTY, and who flock to her practice and those of therapists around the country in record numbers.  It’s not the affluence in and of itself, but the values often associated with it, that seem to be the culprits:  materialism, perfectionism, competition, putting too much energy into trying to get an edge over others, and most sadly of all, children’s perception that parental love is conditional (based upon achievement).

Levine writes, “Parents who persistently fall on the side of intervening for their child, as opposed to supporting their child’s attempt to problem-solve, interfere with the most important task of childhood and adolescence:  the development of a sense of self.”

This past summer I read even more about this phenomenon in Excellent Sheep - the Miseducation of the American Elite by William Deriesewicz.  Deriesewicz is the fish in the water at the pinnacle of elite education - a faculty member at Yale University - who has taken a closer look at the water.  Through the course of his personal life path and the stories he has collected from many students over the years, he was compelled to do something brave, and question the status quo.  He took a close look at the water he swam in, and asked if might be contaminated.  My God, and he delivers a fire hose of critical commentary.  

In Excellent Sheep, Deriesewicz identifies “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”  In elite education (our top universities), Deresiewicz sees smart students “with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”  

Deresiewicz uses a great phrase about the profiles of many kids trying to get into the most elite colleges.  He says, “the admissions process has homogenized the experience of high-achieving kids across the country.”  In other words, in an attempt to distinguish themselves, some high achievers are actually becoming more similar, and certainly more anxious about finding the edge they have over others.  It’s so hard to get into Ivy League schools (or rather, the rejection rate is so high) that kids are driven with a frenzy to fill their transcripts with that which looks the most impressive - absurd numbers of AP classes and service learning in far-flung countries.  But here’s the question we all have to ask:  Does external achievement promote a sense of self, or does it demonstrate competency in a field that has little to do with self?  Does being successful in school correlate with being successful in life?

Deresiewicz asserts that many of our best and brightest are “excellent sheep,” not leaders.  He offers a compelling solution to this problem.  Asserting that “the central intellectual ability that you’re supposed to develop in college is that of analyzing other people’s arguments and formulating your own.”  “...and formulating your own,” he turns to the craft of teaching. True teachers ask students to make an argument, then offer feedback on the student’s logic, how the student presented evidence, opportunities missed, places where objections should have been anticipated, suggestions for additional lines of inquiry, and, of course, praise for ways in which these things were done right.  

This type of education resides in true liberal arts education, with teaching, dialogue, critical thinking, and development of self at its core.  In particular, Deriesewicz says, the Humanities offer windows into understanding ourselves through the lenses of timeless works of literature and characters who teach us about the human condition.  Indeed, a good liberal arts education - where the craft of teaching is valued and students feel known and appreciated - is an intellectual path towards developing a sense of self.

But there is also the work ethic path, where we learn who we are and what we can do. At Midland, we call it our Work Ethic Hierarchy, where we move in developmental stages from showing up, to doing our job because we’re told to, to doing it because we like the feeling of finishing, to doing it well because we start to identify with good work, to passing it on - teaching and helping others to do it well.

I think that all of us are drawn to Midland because we see its value in developing a sense of self through both education and honest work.  I believe that Midland’s character education and stewardship puts us at the epicenter of fulfilling an urgent new educational need – an antidote to the Race to Nowhere and the trappings of materialism and misguided competition.  Midland offers daily opportunities to complete tasks that have value and meaning, and that meet needs within our community.  Everyone has a job and everyone is needed.  Midland’s agrarian schedule of everyone pitching in and being of use helps students learn their strengths and find purpose.  This is essential.  Midland fills this profound need in elite education.

I think there is something we need to keep in mind, though, in order to fulfill this promise.  It is to take moments to pause, reflect, and feel good about a job well done.  This can be a clean window, a swept Stillman Porch, a clean cabin, a warm shower, a healthy farm-to-table meal, a student-made dessert, a clean Dish House, or the moment when the kitchen is clean and the slop gets carried out to the pigs.  These moments represent wholeness or completion… but they are ephemeral.  We have to catch them.

Here’s the thing that we do have control over.  These moments have to be rewards in and of themselves - the rewards of a job well done.  Not because someone else is grading you or giving approval, but because YOU know you did the job well.  This develops a sense of self.

It’s something I often think about as the most powerful thing about Midland.  We ALL have moments in every single day when - because we’re so intimately involved in doing the work of making this place run - we complete something that has meaning.  Not just a HW assignment or a paper, but something that has value to someone else.  This is not something that all teenagers get to experience.  It is a privilege.  Yes, it’s more work, but it is a privilege.

In our August planning days and faculty meetings, we were talking about this, and Johnny Ninos said something that resonated.  He said that sure, the Job Heads and underclassmen know when the job is done and done well, but they often can’t take a moment to breathe and appreciate it because they’re thinking about the next thing they need to run and do, and the thing after that, and after that...  It is the truth.  We do swim in the water of rigorous college prep.  Let’s see it for what it is.  Our days are full and our tasks can become blurred and frenzied because there’s so much to do.  

BUT… one of the most important things we can do is to resist that busy-ness, and pause to notice and linger on that good feeling of completion, that feeling that comes from inside without needing approval or validation.

Johnny also gives us the words, weekly in fact, that remind us of one of the most important things we do each day.  And that is:

Take a deep breath in…

Let it out…

Let us give thanks for the work that we do,

the air that we breathe,

the water that we drink,

and the food that we eat.



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