I am an English professor. That means that after thirteen years of elementary and high school, four years of university, and seven more years of graduate education, I decided that I hadn’t yet had enough of school.
Over the years, my position at the table has changed—now I’m the one apologizing for bad penmanship on the blackboard. But I am literally still in school, because I believe deeply in the processes and aspirations of education.
I value school. So people think I’m joking when I tell them the following: That it truly doesn’t matter where they go to college. And that my daughter can be anything she wants to be—except a straight-A student.
I’ve been affiliated with major public and private universities in California, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and now Nevada. I’ve worked with world famous public intellectuals and lesser known scholars of equal intellect. I’ve taught graduates of America’s elite high schools, first generation college-bound students, and “non-traditional” students.
I know, and don’t deny, the value of a “name-brand” college, but a “name-brand” college is no guarantee of an inspiring education, never mind lifelong success. I know that you can find committed, brilliant teachers and students in any institution—and that numerous factors determine who ends up where. And I know what it means to be a straight-A student, and what it doesn’t. I know what good grades, high SAT scores, AP exams, and admission to highly-ranked colleges get you, and what they don’t, and how, finally, irrelevant all of that is to the work of trying to live and build, for oneself and others, a meaningful, critical life.
Let me say that again, with a different emphasis. Most people agree that high SAT scores don’t equate to a meaningful life, and that GPAs don’t capture intellectual potential. But what if—when taken to the extreme—a belief in quantified academic merit is actually at odds with the pursuit of academic and personal excellence?
All over the country, educators, parents, and pundits are now asking variants of this question. Open a newspaper anywhere in the country, and you’ll read about “high-pressure” schools and the health risks associated with increased stress among those who are overly focused on grades, resume-padding, and what Frank Bruni calls, in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, “the college admissions mania.”
“Expectations surrounding education have spun out of control,” argues Vicki Abeles, author of Beyond Measure. “On top of a seven-hour school day, our kids march through hours of nightly homework, daily sports practices and band rehearsals, and weekend-consuming assignments and tournaments. Each activity is seen as a step on the ladder to a top college, an enviable job and a successful life.”
India Currents has long been attuned to this problem, given that our first circle of address includes high-achieving Indian Americans of the competitive Silicon Valley. “Let Kids Be Kids,” Nirupama Vaidhyanathan wrote in these pages nearly a decade ago, recounting the machinations of “overzealous Indian parents” who micromanage (if not complete) their children’s homework and jealously watch the successes of their peers. In 2013, Sarita Sarvate argued in Letting Children Be Children that the Indian American community in the Valley is too “obsessed with success” and filled with “Tiger moms” and dads who make comparatively less ambitious Indians “feel like pariahs.”
To be clear: This is not an indictment of achievement. You or your children might be among the Bay Area’s many Speech-and-Debaters, Spelling Bee-ers, and Intel Science Searchers. I, too, grew up in San Jose and am the product of schools known for academic rigor. But when researchers like Abeles are reporting a “nationwide epidemic of school-related stress,” it bears asking: what exactly are we emphasizing when we emphasize grades and college admissions? As a community that values “achievement,” what have we achieved?
I was beginning a graduate program in the East Bay when, in 2009-2010, Palo Alto experienced its first “suicide cluster”: six teenagers, including four from the same school, killed themselves over a span of nine months. The news was incredibly disturbing, but I soon put it out of my mind as a grotesque aberration. Part of me clearly didn’t want to believe that high schoolers now experience stresses meriting suicide-prevention and wide-scale communal intervention.
When the “echo cluster” struck—between October 2014 and March 2015, four more students from the same community committed suicide—it stopped me in my tracks. By this time, I had become a parent, and even though my own child was years from high school, I was already negotiating the delicate balance between praise and pressure, expectation and demand.
Soon after the second cluster, Palo Alto student Carolyn Walworth penned a widely-circulated op-ed that confirmed parents’ and educators’ worst fears. “As I sit in my room staring at the list of colleges…I can’t help but feel desolate,” Walworth wrote. “My stress began in elementary school, where students were segregated…as ‘early’ and ‘late’ readers…Middle school didn’t get any better. ” She wrote of having panic attacks and missed periods, as school-related stress manifested as physical illness: “We are not teenagers. We are lifeless bodies in a system that breeds competition, hatred, and discourages teamwork and genuine learning.”
It’s possible to dismiss Walworth’s cri de coeur as one student’s negative experience of a competitive high school environment. But Maya Murthy’s essay,in this issue of India Currents, suggests that much of what Walworth identifies is widely shared. “I couldn’t remember a single thing about them beyond a subject or two they’d excelled at,” Murthy writes of her freshman-year classmates. “[M]y worldview wasn’t sustainable, at least if I wanted to graduate with some sort of sanity.”
We cannot point to impassioned student writing and think that it is merely a product of teen angst. Adults are a big part of the problem, and the statistics confirm that these are widespread, community issues. In July 2016, the California Healthy Kids Survey found that “one-third of California’s 11th-graders and one-quarter of seventh-graders reported feeling chronically sad or hopeless over the past 12 months.” Earlier this year, Dr. Stuart Slavin of Saint Louis University School of Medicine announced the results of a wellness study he conducted at a major public high school in Fremont. 54% of students surveyed were suffering from depression. 80% showed moderate to severe anxiety levels.
I talked to Slavin about his findings. “My sense,” he told me, “is that parents are generally motivated…by wanting what is best for their children. The problem [is] that their view of what is ‘best’ is in my opinion often too narrow and in some ways misguided.” He noted that Indian American parents in particular, given the highly competitive environment around college admissions in India, might believe that “the more prestigious/elite the college that a student gets into, the better path that puts this student on in life.” But increased pressure can have serious effects on children’s mental health. Are the possible costs of depression, eating disorders, self-injurious behavior, and other adverse outcomes worth it? “What we should be encouraging is a healthy pursuit of excellence,” Slavin says, “rather than a potentially damaging pursuit of perfection.”
When I first read Slavin’s report, it brought to mind studies that have found high rates of depression and suicidal tendencies among graduate students. I thought, too, of the demand for “effortless perfection” that haunts high achieving university students, especially young women, who are supposed to have, do, and be it all without manifesting effort or stress. Clearly, these problems are not contained in grades 9-12. When the over-burdened high schoolers reach college, the anxiety, unhealthy habits, and burden of expectation come with them.
Slavin confirmed my anecdotal suspicions, noting that “depression in adolescence is associated with a higher risk of depression in adulthood.” He added: “Parents can’t be comfortable in the belief that their [high school students] will be fine after they get through with all of this.” Well over half the college counseling directors surveyed in a 2014 study reported steady increases, since 2009, in college students with clinical depression and anxiety disorders. Every year, more students arrive at university on psychiatric medication.
After four years of high school lived in preparation for a fantasy future in that perfect college, college students find heightened challenges and new stresses—if, that is, they aren’t already entirely burned out. Now they must delay the development of deep relationships and practices of self-care for life post-college. “Real life,” they tell themselves, is what they’ll be living in the future, an imagined future that eclipses childhood years spent in a blur of anxiety and worry, a future that they will one day come to view as the ever-receding horizon of the unlived past.
In 2015, The Atlantic’s Hanna Rosin asked just what it was about the Silicon Valley that had created this particularly volatile pressure cooker. Her hypothesis? Affluence and Asian exceptionalism.
On the first point, Rosin cited the work of child development scholar, Suniya Luthar, who has shown that children from upper and upper-middle-class families evidence depression, anxiety, and high-risk behaviors like substance abuse and promiscuity at a rate two to three times the national average. As Luthar writes, “Affluence leads people to believe they are wholly responsible for their own success or failure…they believe that they can control most aspects of their lives…They come to expect perfection. This is a double illusion, since neither complete control nor perfection is possible.”
Obviously, not everyone in the Silicon Valley is wealthy. While researching this story, I read numerous, wrenching stories about Bay Area college students who can’t afford rent, and who have to choose between buying textbooks and eating dinner. 20% of San Jose State University students surveyed in one study report “sometimes” or “often” not eating for a full day. Bay Area housing costs have driven countless families away from their communities; now, some students make commutes as long as 70 miles in order to remain in the schools they know. The students I teach at a land-grant university in Nevada face similar economic challenges. They ask for extensions on assignments because they can’t afford childcare or they’re simultaneously working two jobs.
Given the material challenges faced by these comparatively disadvantaged students, it can feel politically incorrect to dwell on what Luthar calls “The Problem with Rich Kids.” But there is a problem. A disproportionate number of students at the Silicon Valley’s elite public and private high schools are from wealthy families, and while it’s possible for wealthy people to raise well-adjusted children, what Luthar terms the “high rate of maladjustment among affluent adolescents” is a mounting concern. At issue are the development of “acquisitive” rather than “philanthropic” values, “narcissistic exhibitionism,” criminal behavior, shallow senses of self, extreme vulnerability to parental criticism, acute status consciousness, and inability to form close friendships. As Luthar warns,“[The] values [of today’s highly educated youth] will disproportionately shape norms in education, politics, and business.”
Then, there is the question of whether the dominance of Asians in these schools, including us Indians, is part of the problem. This is not a new charge. In 2005, the Wall Street Journal held up two high-performing Bay Area high schools as exemplary causes of “The New White Flight”: “Many white parents say they’re leaving because the schools are too academically driven…[The] schools, put…bluntly, are too Asian.”
In her reporting, Rosin found that “some non-Asian parents” still attribute the increased pressure in high school to the changing ethnic demographics of the Valley. One well-known Palo Alto high school is now 40% Asian; another in Saratoga is “about three-fifths Asian.” Four of the last nine students to commit suicide in Palo Alto were of Asian origin.
This is not an issue unique to the Silicon Valley. Amy Chua, the original “Tiger Mom,” lives in New Haven, Connecticut. In Anjali Enjeti’s recent telling, the problem extends to “ethno-burbs” all over the country, including her neighborhood of Johns Creek, Georgia, where whites are moving out of their school district for reasons like, “Asian parents take their kids for extra tutoring…My kids won’t get into a good college because of all of the Asians.” The tacit racism of such claims is the subject of Enjeti’s article. Less frequently discussed is how Asian students themselves are impacted by these trends. Too often, an Asian student’s “average” performance is construed as failure relative to that of “model” peers.
Silicon Valley high schools are increasingly attuned to this constellation of problems. In 2007, the “Stressed Out Schools” conference brought parents, educators, and researchers together to brainstorm stress reduction strategies like “‘college free’ zones in which [families] don’t discuss SAT scores, college applications, where you are applying.” Scholar Denise Clark Pope spearheaded the effort. “[High school students] are not mini-adults,” Pope stressed. “They have very different developmental needs…They need 9.5 hours of sleep each night…their brains are not fully developed, and their bodies are still changing…They’ll be ready for ‘reality’ soon enough.”
Slavin similarly advocates limiting homework, the amount of time that can be spent on extracurriculars, and the number of AP classes that students can take. This April, the Mercury News’ Sharon Noguchi reported that Bay Area schools are taking steps to “ease up on pressure” by changing school start-times and bringing therapy dogs to campus.
Are such measures effective? High schools are now trying to support depressed students, which is commendable, but depression is a symptom of the crisis—not the underlying cause. In our exchange, Slavin stressed that the idea that “depression is a disease or an illness” is itself part of the problem. “Depression,” he said, “is often what’s called reactive; it is produced or at least initiated by the toxicity of the environment. When viewed purely as an illness, it lets all of us off the hook…We should be looking at this crisis as an environmental health issue.”
Put differently, a teenager driven to despair by school stress is not an example of individual pathology. It’s not a parenting problem. It’s a communal plague in which many actors from teachers to college recruiters to coaches to parents to students, are complicit. This is the water in which we now swim. And everyone in question—from the Bay Area, to other ethno-burbs, to any one of many high-pressure, achievement-oriented, affluent, competitive communities—needs to move from a reactive mode to a proactive one, in which we are not simply, to paraphrase Walworth, “putting bandaids over gunshot wounds,” but actually getting rid of the guns.
In the movies, the iconic American high school is one of prom queens and homecomings, football games and locker-room sociality. High school is the playground of independent, sexually liberated, seemingly “adult” teenagers whose parents are rarely seen on camera. College is a pervasive subtext, but never really the point.
When I started high school in 1999, it was immediately clear that my experience was not going to look like what I’d seen in the movies, and not just because I went to an all-girls Catholic school. My experience was different because, as an Indian American, I grew up in a community that does not view high school as a terminal degree or an end in itself. My mother often dismissed the importance Americans place on high school graduation, as if children become adults at 18, as if college were icing on the cake of maturation, and not the first stop in a journey of higher education that would, ideally in her view, extend beyond the first post-graduate degree.
And yet, the thing that saved me from the Silicon Valley pressure cooker is that I didn’t actually go to one of those high-stress schools. I went to a school that was good—some programs, like English and History, were excellent—but it was patently not, between 1999 and 2003, one of the Bay Area’s “best” high schools. Our average SAT scores were lower. We didn’t send students to the Intel Science search. Frankly, we didn’t have as many Asians. The majority of my classmates intended to remain in-state for college.
I couldn’t fetishize AP courses because there weren’t many, so I wrote for the school newspaper, started a column in this magazine, was selected for theMercury News’ Board of Contributors, and came into my own as a writer and thinker. I didn’t fetishize any particular college because our school had no admissions track record at any of them, and so when I got a university opportunity I didn’t expect, I could embrace it wholly.
As a Bay Area-bred Indian American, I feel sad saying this, but not being surrounded by other Indians was probably the making of me. Not going to a “better” high school was the making of me. Being a relatively big fish in a small pond was the making of me. Being surrounded by peers who had aspirations beyond getting into the highest-ranked college was the making of me. Having classmates for whom high school was potentially a terminal degree taught me something as well: to live life in the present, not to defer real learning, growth, and meaning to the next stage of life, when I would, finally, have “arrived.”
Times have changed. My old high school now resembles those more competitive schools, and I wonder if there’s any place left in the Valley, in the country, that hasn’t been touched by the pressure machine. I wonder, because I’m going to have to make hard decisions about my own child’s education soon enough. You may be making or living with such decisions now. I’m not worried about my daughter’s grades, how much she eventually earns, or what college she goes to. At three, she is already radiantly bright and driven. All I can ever ask of her is that she become more fully herself.
But I do worry about us parents, educators, and community members. Will we be able to recreate an educational system that values curiosity, openness to failure, and engagement in the world? And, when we do, will we defend it?
Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has been a regular contributor to India Currents since 2001.
This essay was first published in October 2016