As much as people seem to be worrying about stress and adolescents, I don’t see much going on to alleviate it. Just in the past week I’ve had seniors in my office who are bleary-eyed from only a few hours of sleep because they have to study for finals (we have quarters, so there are exams before our spring break), complete major extracurricular projects like theater, Model UN, and the newspaper, and so on. They’re caught in the bind of wishing they could do less, not because they’re lazy but because they’d like to live at a normal pace instead of racing to the college finish line.
More and more I hear juniors and seniors say, “I want to go to a college where I can breathe a little, where I can kick back and have some time to relax.” On the face of it, this is a curious statement because you’d think that college would be where the hard work would just be starting (and in many ways it is, indeed). I used to get annoyed when kids said this, but now I know why: The road to get to college feels too pressured, too IMPORTANT, especially in my population, where going to CERTAIN colleges matters a lot more than it might elsewhere. I can’t blame my students for feeling this way, so now I just try to sympathize and hope they’ll take it easy on themselves.
But I’m competing with forces largely beyond my control: with parents who want “the best” for their children; with a school that, despite having a mixed crowd academically, still tends to keep score regarding the number of Ivy League and similar schools students get into; and with colleges that hypocritically insist that they want kids to be relaxed while punishing them if they actually do that.
I have a wonderful senior this year who’s been taking math classes at the University since she was a sophomore. She long ago outgrew our math offerings, and now is actually a TA in a course at the University. She LOVES math and it seems to energize her no end. She is capable, lively, and eager to take on all this plus tutoring and other extracurriculars. She genuinely delights in all this work because, unlike me, for example, her synapses relating to math are superhighways through which information can flow. She’s ready for any challenge a college or university can throw at her. On the other hand, I have students of average or even very good math ability who torture themselves in AP math classes (or science or whatever) because they know that the “AP” designation means so much. They lug around 20-pound college-level textbooks and we brag at how much they’re learning that’s ahead of their grade level.
Yet so often it seems to me they’re unhappy and not truly grounded in the subjects they’re asked to advance in. So many of these students are very bright, yet I feel as though we’re asking them to play Beethoven sonatas before they’ve mastered scales. (I say “we” meaning most schools that consider themselves academic “powerhouses” not to single out mine.) Critical skills like learning grammatical structures are demoted to “busy work,” yet even as seniors students have trouble navigating complex sentences. Thinking about music again: Would we allow a beginning pianist to tackle Beethoven before teaching him or her the rudiments of technique? When students are in AP calculus BC but need their calculators to figure out their GPAs, or when they’re stumped by a periodic sentence, well, we have a hollow shell of academic achievement.
Note that I’m not blaming students for this: I think they are in large part the victims of adults’ expectations that they be better and better. In the college arena, I think that colleges expect freshmen to be more like grad students than freshmen in the new world of college life. If it’s true that an MA is the new BA, then I suppose this progression is only logical; but at what cost?