I’m my post on 10/8/13, I said that our culture -both at the local, Menlo, level and the global level (in developed countries)- has slid down this slippery slope to what is a form of insanity about college admissions. I see it every day, but I’m not the first person to point this out. Films (Race to Nowhere), movements (Challenge Success), and writers/speakers (Daniel Pink, Madeline Levine, etc. etc.) are pointing in the same direction.
So what should you do? Here’s the bad news: the solution is not a quick “Seven Steps to Restoring Sanity” program. We’re talking about going against a major (if not THE major) force in our lives these days. Change won’t be easy or simple. But it’s doable. There are a lot of options, from the really radical (e.g., move off the grid to a farm in central Oregon…) to the more feasible. Under the leadership of Than Healey, Menlo is looking at ways to make education more “relevant” for the 21st Century; I think that’s awesome news. I think it will mean less wasted time on topics that someone thought were valuable 150 years ago, less busywork, more active, playful, meaningful learning, and better educations all around. But that’s the school’s changes to make.
What about students? What can students do today to make their lives more sane? First, ask questions.
You’ve probably found yourself sitting at a desk at 1am, struggling through some assignment that feels meaningless and asking yourself this question: “what am I doing torturing myself on this stuff?” That’s a good question! -Usually, I think, diligent, hardworking Menlo students are answering the question like this: “I have to get a good grade on this assignment…so that I get a good grade in this class…so that I have a high GPA…so that I get into the most prestigious college I can…so that I will get the best job I can (or get into the best grad school I can)…so that….
What?!! So that you can be happy? Seriously?
I think we need to question that logic. While research shows that living in poverty decreases most people’s evaluation of their lives, income above the middle-class range does not correlate with increased satisfaction (which can roughly be equated with happiness). That’s one problem with the American Dream: working hard to get rich doesn’t equal working hard to be happy. (If you haven’t seen/read A Christmas Carole recently, fear not: Scrooge is coming around in a couple months.)
That’s the big lie, the Emperor’s New Clothes that no one wants to admit is a fake. Not only do you not need to go to a big-name school to be happy, it’s quite possible you might make yourself UNhappy by trying to fit yourself into someone else’s idea of the Good Life. (Studies show depression, which can be activated by stress, is on the rise in American teens.)
I applaud our Menlo college counselors who try to help students find a good fit for each individual. That makes sense for choosing a college, for picking high school classes, for thinking about careers…and for buying jeans, but that’s another post.
In my last post, I mentioned some Menlo students who are enveloped by the smothering cloud of college mania. But here’s a counter example. I talked to one Menlo alum who is now in college. I asked her how hard it was at the high-pressure science/tech school she attends; does she work harder than she did at Menlo, for instance? She shrugged sheepishly, “Well, I didn’t really care too much about grades at Menlo…and I don’t really care too much about grades now. I’m interested in learning the stuff I’m interested in” and she doesn’t sweat the stuff she’s not interesting in. She’s having a great time at a school that fits her really well, but she’s not killing herself to be perfect. At all.
Lastly, we have to realize that teens are setting patterns for the rest of their lives. If you think you just have to work tirelessly now so that you can get into a good college, and then you can relax and it will all be fine, you’re missing something. You’re building habits and beliefs that will last a lifetime. If you think it’s good to work hard and sleep 4-5 hours a night now, you’re probably not going to stop that in college or in your working life. Your sense of what it means to be a good student or a good employee will be tied to that behavior.
So question that assumption. Ask what happiness means for you. Ask what success means for you.
Here’s a collection of Ted Talks about happiness. Find one you like or explore for others like Jane McGonigal’s talk about choosing to live a better (and longer) life; it’s awesome how she looks at dying people’s regrets and what we can learn from them.