Ah, the rituals of American spring: the unpacking of the flip-flops, the exchanging of leaf-blowers for lawn mowers, the first traffic jams on the highway to the beach—and the annual spate of reports on the stressful lives of high-school seniors. Last year, in the months between winter college-application deadlines and spring college-acceptance letters, the New York Times infamously ran what amounted to a multipart series on the subject, printing columns and letters with titles like “Young, Gifted, and Not Getting into Harvard,” as well as meditations such as the one on the Massachusetts high school that requires its overworked students to do yoga.
But this year is no different. Only days ago, the Times again ran a piece on the Westchester high school that now requires its overworked students to eat lunch, while the Washington Post described, with a certain amount of awe, a Maryland couple who track their five children’s complex school and sports schedules on a color-coded spreadsheet. This sort of thing is not unique to New York and Washington, of course, you can find the same kinds of articles in USA Today, Time, or Newsweek. I know this for a fact, because a lot of these stories invariably turn up in the “Most Popular Article” lists, where, just as invariably, I click on them.
There is nothing strange about these stories. Since the university admissions process really is unbelievably fraught, readers of newspapers, many of whom might have college-bound children, naturally find them engrossing. But there is also a weird way in which these stories, and the very real national conversation that inspires them, reflect a kind of schizophrenia in American ideas about education, one that I didn’t fully appreciate until I moved abroad.
Without question, Americans, whether wealthy or just upwardly mobile, are nowadays obsessed with preparing their children for a supercompetitive, globalized job market. They will therefore go a long way—switch neighborhoods, borrow money, create color-coded spreadsheets—to get their children into high schools that force them to study and test them regularly. Those who play the game most intensively are often rewarded: The child who takes 15 AP courses, plays the clarinet in three orchestras, runs a Cambodian refugee camp in the summer, and eschews lunch all winter really does have a better chance of getting into college than the child who plays kickball after school in the empty lot next door.
Yet at the same time, the parents of many driven children, raised on TheAdventures of Tom Sawyer and Little House on the Prairie, retain a kind of nostalgia for a pre-industrial America, one in which childhood involved breaking horses and building rafts, in which “schooling” was optional, and in which dropping out was a romantic option. Layered on top of this collective memory is often a rose-colored recollection of their own high-school experience, a Happy Days whirl of sports, proms, and dates. Today’s children always seem to be working harder than yesterday’s children, having less fun, and taking more tests, at least according to everyone I know.
It’s notable, this nostalgia, because it isn’t necessarily shared by other countries. Certainly not by the British, some of whose children start taking serious, life-changing exams at age 11, nor by the Koreans whose children declare they can’t let themselves “waste even a second” during their 15-hours-a-day, seven-days-a week quest to get into college, preferably Harvard. In fact, any country committed to meritocracy has to impose exams on its high-school seniors. Otherwise, university admissions will necessarily depend upon wealth, access, and parental connections.
More strangely, our nostalgia also clashes oddly with the other important American education narrative, the one that focuses on the 46 percent of high-school seniors who test below the “basic” level in science (only 2 percent qualify as “advanced”), the “Dumbest Generation” of semi-literates glued to their cell phones, and the enormous number of teenagers—a stunning one-third of the total—who fail to graduate from high school on time. Since 38 percent of these teenagers recently told one survey that they dropped out because “I had too much freedom and not enough rules in my life,” it’s no surprise that solutions to the drop-out crisis often involve the imposition of stricter school regimes, with more organized hours of teaching, more pressure, and, yes, more testing.
Thus are our kids both stupider than we were and harder working—though perhaps this makes sense. America is, after all, the industrialized country with the fewest paid vacations, as well as the only nation, as far as I know, that considers the “pursuit of happiness” a fundamental right. We invented the assembly line, and we invented the modern notion of “leisure.” So, welcome back to work today, if you even bothered to take Monday off. Spring is here, the beaches beckon—and you’ve only got a few weeks left to find an impressive summer job for your high-school junior.