Superhero Undergraduates and the Culture of Overachievement

From a rather frightening article in the recent Harvard Alumni Magazine entitled “Nonstop: Today’s Undergraduates […]

David Zahl / 2.23.10

From a rather frightening article in the recent Harvard Alumni Magazine entitled “Nonstop: Today’s Undergraduates Do 3,000 Things At 150 Percent”. We talk a lot on this site about the perils/realities of achievement-based identity (justification by works), yet after reading this article, one honestly wonders how much further we as Americans can take it. While the article approaches the “crackberry” phenomenon from an understandably Harvard-centric perspective, we could easily substitute “New Yorker” for “Harvard undergraduate” – or “undergraduate at any remotely competitive college” or “high school student” or “30something suburbanite” or almost anything else, for that matter. Ernest Becker would have a field day… The entire thing is worth reading, but here are a couple of excerpts (the section on “snowplow parenting” is particularly insightful/alarming):

“I’m more terrified of being bored than busy,” [one Harvard undergraduate student] explains. “Though I’m scared I’ll work myself into a pile of dust if I don’t learn when to stop.”

“One thing we discovered in our research is that kids look up people whom they don’t know on Facebook, because they want to see how much they’re achieving. If you’re on the Crimson, but someone else is on the Crimson and the swimming team, well, then….”

“People are going nonstop,” says Olivia Goldhill ’11, a philosophy concentrator from England, “and there are a lot of negative implications. You don’t have time to dedicate to your friends or to yourself—or to thoughts that you haven’t been taught to think.”

“Students are very conscious of what it will take to get into graduate school or to get a job,” says dean of freshmen Tom Dingman ’67, Ed.M. ’73. “I regularly have conversations with freshmen who say things like, ‘This summer, I have a chance to go back to the yacht club where my family has been involved, and I would run the sailing program. But I don’t think I should do that. I should be doing an internship in an office somewhere so that next summer I can build on that, and maybe ultimately get an internship with Goldman Sachs.’ But they’re not paying attention to the things they really enjoy, and not seeing the opportunity to develop themselves holistically—it’s more strategizing about how best to build a launch pad.”