Failing at Failure: Performancism in the College Admissions Process

It’s no stretch to say that our schools serve as microcosms of society, often casting […]

David Zahl / 9.19.11

It’s no stretch to say that our schools serve as microcosms of society, often casting cultural trends and crises into stark relief. Things we can excuse/support when it comes to the free market are a bit harder to endorse when they’re having a direct and detrimental effect on children. As we all know, nowhere is the rubber of American “performancism” hitting the road of human well-being more harshly these days than in our secondary schools, specifically the college admissions process. That is, the emphasis on superhuman achievement may not only be fostering a culture of competition and fear – cynically transforming the learning process into yet another area to be “gamed” – but more and more studies are showing that it is producing children that are less likely to succeed/achieve. In part because they’ve never been allowed to fail, either by their schools or parents. In part, we might say, because the Law (of achievement) by definition cannot produce what it demands.

The lead article in this year’s issue of the NY Times Magazine’s education issue (always a highlight!) wisely asks the question, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” Much of the piece concerns itself with the noble if occasionally eye-rolling attempts of a few educators to instill “character” in their students in addition to knowledge – a dodgy project from the get-go, as the researchers are the first to admit (how does one quantify such things?! Doesn’t the very notion of quantifying character undermine the very traits they’re trying to instill?! Sounds oddly familiar…), but also one that at least recognizes the perils and counter-productivity of an exclusively performance-based system.

What appealed to [co-founder of the KIPP networks of charter schools David] Levin about the list of character strengths that [Positive psychologists] Seligman and Peterson compiled was that it was presented not as a finger-wagging guilt trip about good values and appropriate behavior but as a recipe for a successful and happy life. He was wary of the idea that KIPP’s aim was to instill in its students “middle-class values,” as though well-off kids had some depth of character that low-income students lacked. “The thing that I think is great about the character-strength approach,” he told me, “is it is fundamentally devoid of value judgment.”

A highly dubious claim, much as I wish it weren’t… However, it is the roadblocks to the initiative they describe at the end of the article that are most relevant to us here. If you’re reminded of the “Complaining About Having Nothing To Complain About” post we did a few months ago, or Bob Parr’s rant in The Incredibles, well, that’s probably no coincidence. In Nancy Meyer’s immortal words, something’s gotta give:

[The documentary] “Race to Nowhere” has helped to coalesce a growing movement of psychologists and educators who argue that the systems and methods now in place to raise and educate well-off kids in the United States are in fact devastating them. One central figure in the movie is Madeline Levine, a psychologist in Marin County who is the author of a best-selling book, “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.” In her book, Levine cites studies and surveys to back up her contention that children of affluent parents now exhibit “unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems beginning in junior high school.” This is no accident of demographics, Levine says, but instead is a direct result of the child-raising practices that prevail in well-off American homes; wealthy parents today, she argues, are more likely to be emotionally distant from their children, and at the same time to insist on high levels of achievement, a potentially toxic blend of influences that can create “intense feelings of shame and hopelessness” in affluent children.

[Teachers at The Riverdale School, and supervisors of the school’s character initiative, LC] Cohen and [Karen] Fierst told me that they also see many Riverdale parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens.”

Cohen said that in the middle school, “if a kid is a C student, and their parents think that they’re all-A’s, we do get a lot of pushback: ‘What are you talking about? This is a great paper!’ We have parents calling in and saying, for their kids, ‘Can’t you just give them two more days on this paper?’ Overindulging kids, with the intention of giving them everything and being loving, but at the expense of their character — that’s huge in our population. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have at Riverdale.”

This is a problem, of course, for all parents, not just affluent ones. It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense.

“The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” [Riverdale headmaster Dominic] Randolph explained. “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.”