Something Is Amiss

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[rant]

(What does boiling a frog have to do with the Emperor’s New Clothes?)

It’s a sickness. It’s going around, and it’s dangerous. People could die. -Stay with me.

Something that started out as a good thing has spun out of control, and it’s a Bad Thing now. It started like this.

People believed that education is good. They learned that being better educated is good for the individual and good for the society in many ways. It helps us find our way through life better; it helps us be better citizens; it helps us solve problems and make the world a better place. Fair enough. Going to college was seen as the pinnacle of a good education. It helped open doors to more income and more options. That’s a pretty sane idea.

But in the last 10 years or so, it’s crept further and further towards insanity. Here’s what I mean.

When I was teaching in Phoenix, Arizona, at an independent school much like Menlo, in 1999, I heard a student tell his peers about “life back home.” He was born in South Korea, and his parents sent him to the US to get a good education (and to help him get into a good US university). He explained how students there had become so obsessed with doing well in school that they were living ridiculous existences. I was stunned by the details he explained. It was so extreme, so much a different culture than ours.

But over the last decade, I’ve watched as the culture at Menlo (and much of the suburban US) has slid down the slippery slope toward the culture that Korean student described. Here are two examples from this fall.

“My dad told me to stop doing my work for school and to just focus on prepping for the ACT for the next week and a half,” a senior exclaimed with some frustration. She pushed back at her dad only to have him state firmly that the test was more important to her future than the school work. -Now pop quiz, hot shot: if you think “Her dad was right! The test will help her get into a better college which will in turn give her more opportunities and more income, leading to more happiness,” then you have fallen under the spell. You think the Emperor’s New Clothes are awesome. -Stay with me.

Here’s the second thing I heard from a student that scared me. “I got home from my [non-Menlo] robotics meeting at nine last night, and I had to do homework, so I started in and worked ‘till midnight. But I got up at 3:30am to finish the homework. -But it was OK: I got done and went back to sleep for an hour at 5,” she said, smiling cheerfully.

“While I respect your hard work and discipline, I have to tell you, that is not OK,”  I told her. “It’s not OK to regularly get 4 hours of sleep when you’re 15.” But her classmate defended her: “I got 4 hours of sleep last night too. It’s just what you have to do.”

Have ever heard the thing about how to boil a frog? The story goes that if you drop a frog into boiling water, it will leap out immediately. But if you put the frog in cooler water, then slowly turn up the heat, the frog will just stay there till it boils alive. (OK. It’s a metaphor; just stay with me.) -The heat on students has slowly been turned up for years. We really ought to get some perspective on what’s going on before someone gets hurt.

Oops. Too late. The attempted suicide rate for high school students has risen from 6.3% to 7.8% in the last three years according to the Center for Disease Control. One in six teens has considered suicide, and one in twelve has attempted it.

But suicide is only one (extreme) example of the the downsides of this college admissions mania. More common are depression and other stress-related maladies.

So what to do, exactly?

Stay with me. I’ll get to that in the next blog post.

[/rant]

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