Reading Frank Bruni’s latest column you would think that American college students are chronic overachievers who have been overworked to the point of becoming suicidally depressed.
And you would think that they are suffering because they were brought up by Tiger Moms, not by Koala Dads.
Bruni describes the scene in Stanford, CA, not only home to the most prestigious and selective university in America, but to high schools where achievement has become an obsession:
I HAD heard about all of the dying, about all of the grief, and still I didn’t immediately understand what I was seeing when, at a railroad crossing here, I spotted a man in a blaring orange vest, the kind that road crews and public-safety workers wear. He wasn’t carrying any equipment. He wasn’t engaged in any obvious activity. He shuffled his feet, staring into the distance.
Hours later, at the same crossing: an orange-vested woman. Like the man, she just stood there, without evident purpose.
“They’re on the lookout,” a friend of mine who lives here explained.
“For what?” I asked.
“Suicides,” my friend said.
Between May 2009 and January 2010, five Palo Alto teenagers ended their lives by stepping in front of trains. And since October of last year, another three Palo Alto teenagers have killed themselves that way, prompting longer hours by more sentries along the tracks. The Palo Alto Weekly refers to the deaths as a “suicide contagion.”
… the contagion has prompted an emotional debate about the kinds of pressures felt by high school students in epicenters of overachievement.
True enough, a small cohort of American high school and college students is obsessed with overachievement. And yet, compared to their peers around the world, these same students are seriously underachieving.
A recent Washington Post story about the achievement levels of the millennial generation suggested that they lagged their peers in all measures of achievement. Even when they compared America’s best with the best in other countries, our best were not very good at all.
Of course, you can be obsessed with overachieving and still underachieve. It depends on how you go about it, whether you have developed good study habits and whether you have good character.
If you are not taught good character—the basis for Tiger Momming—your exertions will feel like stress and strain.
Bruni offers a number of possible explanations:
These are to some extent problems of affluence and privilege. But they have relevance beyond any one subset of our country’s populace. They reflect a status consciousness that bedevils Americans at all income levels, and they underscore an economic trepidation that is sadly widespread and is seemingly intensified by the gaping divide between the haves and have-nots.
The suicide rate among all teenagers has seemingly risen a bit over the last decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it was 8.15 per every 100,000 Americans between the ages of 10 and 24 in 2013, the last year for which complete data is available; the rate was 6.74 in 2003.
Many more children think about taking their own lives. According to a 2013 survey by the C.D.C., 17 percent of American high school students had considered suicide in the previous year. Eight percent said they’d attempted it.
And suicide clusters have at least as much to do with imitation as with environment, each instance of self-annihilation planting an idea and heightening the possibility of the next.
All human societies are status hierarchies. Blaming it on status consciousness feels less than plausible.
Bruni’s argument about the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots is more cogent. In a time when the middle class is rapidly contracting, there is more pressure to belong to the haves. If you are not overprivileged you risk ending up in the lower middle class.
And then there’s the imitation factor. Bruni is also correct to note this, but he should have added the influence of the media. Epidemiological studies have suggested that excessive media coverage of emotional problems, like suicidal depression and anorexia encourages students to develop symptoms.
In his book Crazy Like Us Ethan Watters reported that a child in distress may look to the media to discover which set of symptoms the medical profession (and perhaps also parents) will take most seriously. By developing socially recognized symptoms a child is more likely to be taken seriously and less likely to be dismissed as a hormonal adolescent.
Bruni, however, seems to side with those who want to blame the suicides on bad parenting coupled with white privilege and Tiger Mommery:
Are kids here getting to be kids? Does a brand of hovering, exactingly prescriptive parenting put them in unforgiving boxes and prevent them from finding their true selves and true grit?
Since when did schools become therapy mills? Going to school to get an education is not the same as learning how to find one’s true self. As David Hume famously discovered, when he went looking for his true Self he could not find it.
True grit or perseverance represents an important personal virtue. One agrees with Bruni that a child needs to learn how to fail, without being hectored constantly by anxious parents.
One might add that overbearing and anxious parents are very likely to communicate their anxiety to their children. Isn’t anxiety contagious?
Beside, being a Tiger Mom is not at all the same as being a helicopter parent. The Tiger Mom follows a program involving strict discipline and strict rules. She did try to protect her children from noxious influences but she was not involved in every aspect of their lives. She was, after all, a law professor, and that is a full time job.
One must wonder how it happened that today’s modern women, having both careers and families can have the time or the energy to helicopter-parent their children?
One writer, quoted by Bruni, blames it on parents who are:
… not only overprotective but overbearing, micromanaging the lives of children, pointing them toward specific mile markers of achievement and denying them any time to flail or room to fail. They wind up simultaneously frazzled and fragile.
Surely, the Tiger Mom allowed her children to fail. She did not indulge the modern rage for high self-esteem. Effectively, that was her greatest virtue.
Bruni offers the chilling testimony of a high school student:
Here is what Carolyn Walworth, a junior at Palo Alto High School, recently wrote: “As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges I’ve resolved to try to get into, trying to determine my odds of getting into each, I can’t help but feel desolate.”
She confessed to panic attacks in class, to menstrual periods missed as a result of exhaustion. “We are not teenagers,” she added. “We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning.”
If American children were competing effectively on the world stage, it would be one thing. The problem is: they aren’t.
However much their parents urge these students to compete, the culture, in its many manifestations does NOT promote competition and competitive striving. It promotes flourishing or flowering, terms that do not cover the virtues of competition.
When Tom Brady was playing in the last Super Bowl, would you say that he was flourishing? When Eisenhower was commanding his troops on D-Day, would you say that he was flourishing?
Overworked students in places like Stanford, CA are living in stark discord with the culture at large. If you are an overachiever living in a culture that does not value it, you will feel that you are not part of the culture and are on the road to becoming a permanent outcast.
How does it feel to be overachieving in a culture that does not allow you to feel pride in your achievement, that dismisses your success as a function of privilege and that tells you to feel guilty for what you have achieved?
Children might excel in STEM subjects, but courses in literature and social science-- to say nothing of the ambient culture-- severely devalue earned achievement and exhort them to feel guilty about being more privileged than others.
As I argued in The Last Psychoanalyst, the opposite of depression is pride. How much pride do children have in their own or their parents’ achievements when they are taught that their success is a symptom of social injustice?
And how much pride can they have in their achievements when they are taught that they should not have pride in their country, that the nation has been built on a foundation of racism and sexism and other assorted sins?
Under the circumstances their achievements will provoke guilt as much as pride. The harder they work, the better they will do, the more they will feel guilty for being part of a criminal class that owes its success to privilege, not to hard work.