Friday, October 24, 2014

I was not a sheep. Were you?

I've started reading the book Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz.  At the beginning of the book he describes the syndrome.  Students at elite universities, who outwardly look super competent and in control, are in fact inwardly quite miserable.  They play a game of jumping through the various academic hoops.  They are good at playing the game.  But they find it all artificial and have nothing behind the game that is real with which to sustain themselves.  They are so busy playing the game, acing their classes, doing xyz extracurricular activities, building the killer resume.  They have no time for themselves, to enjoy life in the here and now, to learn about their own wants and needs, to explore for the sake of exploration, and to give themselves a break when they don't meet the superlative performance standards that they have set for themselves.

In this description, Deresiewicz does not blame the students themselves.  He says, and mainly I agree with this part, that these students are simply reacting to the environment they find themselves in, one created by the adults who cohabit this world with them.  Parents are one part of the adult world.  In trying to provide the good life for their children, they have inadvertently created a living hell.  The schools are just as guilty, in how they go about teaching with an emphasis on testing and especially in their admission processes.  It reinforces the jumping through hoops mentality. 

At the outset of the book Deresiewicz says he himself was like this when he started college at Columbia University in 1981.  Apparently he grew out of it sometime later.  Reading that makes you ask about your own situation at the time you started college.  My post title comes from answering that question.  I started college in 1972.  Did that nine year difference matter for producing my answer?   As I will try to argue below, I believe it did matter, a lot.  There were also some things idiosyncratic to me that mattered too, so I wonder for my contemporaries, how they would answer this question.  Were any of them sheep in the sense of how Deresiewicz uses the term? 

The Academic and Social Environment for Kids Entering College Circa 1972

This is by no means an exhaustive list.  The focus centers on factors that seem to me to have militated against turning students into sheep.  The factors should be taken as interrelated, not orthogonal.  Indeed, it was their interplay that provided their force.  These factors may have diminished in their presence over time or vanished outright.

The Generation Gap - The expression was very popular when I was in high school and it seemed that many of my friends and classmates had a falling out with their parents as teenagers.   Where before the gap manifest the kids would accede to their parents' wishes, afterward they would be their own boss and push back against their parents if they felt what the parents were requesting from them was unreasonable.  And, of course, in a battle of egos sometimes there'd be pushback against the parents, even when what the parents wanted was perfectly sensible.  Emotional struggles are not always rationally based except on the ultimate question, who really has the authority?   That the generation gap as an expression was so well known gave license to the kids to experience it themselves at some critical juncture in their teen years.   Nowadays, perhaps, the kids would repress their anger and cave into the parents wishes, as that is perceived to be norm behavior.

The Counterculture - The emblems were many.  Long hair, rock music, smoking dope, and a strong distrust of authority were among the more prominent examples.  The Draft still mattered.  The Vietnam war was winding down but had not yet reached its conclusion.  Watergate was still to become a household word.  Most kids embraced the counterculture to some extent already in high school.  They had the opportunity to do more so when they went away to college.  Implicitly, the counterculture was an indictment against the 1950s stereotype, popularized in TV shows like Leave It to Beaver.  The counterculture offered an alternative path.  It perhaps bread cynicism as a consequence or, if not that then, then a kind of nihilism, which is what I experienced at MIT and what ultimately caused me to transfer to Cornell.  So the counterculture could be criticized in its own right.  But it had pluses too.  It did not produce sheep.

The Comparative Paucity of AP Classes and Availability of Enrichment Classes - This section heading understates the differences between then and now, because it doesn't consider the importance or not of the AP exam and earning college credit in high school.  For example, I took AP Chemistry in 11th grade, but did not take the exam.  There was nobody who argued for taking it or not, if memory serves.  The decision was left entirely to me.  I did take the exam for calculus (AB, the school did not offer the BC version) a year later yet most of my classmates did not take the exam and most of them goofed off in the class rather than take it very seriously.  So at the time the school didn't see its own reputation as hinging on how many students were in AP classes and how many took the exams and did well on those.  I did take several classes that were elective and special topics.  In my senior year I had a number theory class and a Jewish history class.  Those, I believe were for one semester only.   As a junior, I took a class called math team workshop.  That class was for the entire year. My guess is that such courses have been entirely crowded out by the expansion of AP offerings, an unavoidable consequence of the academic arms race.

An Abundance of Free Time for Playing with Friends, Watching TV, or Self-Nurture - Homework existed but didn't take very long to complete, no more than a half hour per day.  This left many hours in the day to do as I wanted.  I had several friends with whom I had something I'd call an intellectual social life.  It created a taste for the same in college.  In high school these include Jimmy K., who was also my doubles partner in tennis, Lenny G., who was clearly the smartest kid in our class yet was genuinely a nice guy, and Michael S., with whom I went to a math summer program at Hampshire college and the following year attended some Saturday classes at NYU aimed at bright high school students.  Related to this, there were a bunch of kids who hung around the Math Department office and played a lot of Chess there.  I also had a different group of friends for playing schoolyard basketball or going to the movies.  And I read quite a bit on my own, often challenging myself with the reading, even though I also watched a lot of TV.  There was time for all of this.  While I may not have reflected upon this till much later, implicitly I came to believe there was as much or more learning in these informal channels as there was with the formal schooling.  I expressed this view many years ago in a post called PLAs Please.  

Little Emphasis on Credentialing via Extracurricular Activities
  - This is one that might have been different if you were pre-med.  (I was not.)  Or perhaps it differed too if your GPA wasn't quite as high and you were trying to compensate for some perceived academic deficiency.  Then, maybe you did some extracurricular activities so you could have these as bragging points.  Otherwise, you did the extracurricular things because you had an interest in doing them.  In that sense, while they were more formal they were still an extension of the self-nurturing idea.  And for many of them, they were actually done during the school day.  You got excused from your regular class to do the activity.  That was true both for Math Team competitions and for practice sessions for It's Academic (which got me out of Hygiene Class, yippee!)  Of course, if you wrote a piece for one of the school's periodicals, that was done on your own time.  I did a bit of that too, but not so much that it sucked away all the free time.

* * * * *

When I was in college, especially after I had transferred to Cornell, I had the sense that many of my peers put on an act when interacting with adults, particularly their professors, quite possibly with their parents, and if they had a job on campus then with their boss as well.  These people might have also put on an act with other students, especially if they didn't know the other students very well.  Here, putting on an act means saying what they believe the other person wants to hear.  These same people would be much more forthright with their friends, where they felt comfortable opening up and saying what was actually on their mind.  I had one floor mate during my senior year when living at 509 Wykcoff Road who definitely led this sort of dual existence, Sue S.  She was a Hotel-ee, quite attractive, and capable of producing a very good performance.  She relished her time with the rest of the people who lived on our floor, when she didn't have to try to impress any of us.

I mention Sue here, because in spite of my list of factors above it seems clear to me there were forces to produce sheep even when I was in college, and Sue gives an example where I saw this sort of performance.  These forces didn't just suddenly appear from out of nowhere when Reagan became President.  They've been there right along.  The list above was meant to argue that there were counter forces which helped to establish a more healthy balance.  Thus, one type of reading of Deresiewicz's book is that the gaming of the system, which accelerated since I attended college, has crowded out those counter forces and, to use some math jargon, what we now have is a corner solution where before we had an interior solution.  If that makes sense, the issue is how to restore some balance.

Now I want to turn to factors that may have been more specific to my circumstance, which worked against my putting on an act in college and kept me from becoming a sheep.

As a Tiger Mom my mother had a spectacular failure - A few of my classmates from Junior High School went to Bronx Science.  Another one went to the School of Music and Art.  Doing this was a major schlep and would also clearly put the kid in a more competitive environment.  For both reasons, I didn't want this.  I wanted to go to the local high school, to be with the kids I knew from Junior High.  My mother, who was a language teacher, had a different idea.  First, my local high school was brand new and had no established reputation.  She wanted me to go to a place known as a good school.  Fair enough.  Second, she wanted me to take Latin.  Benjamin Cardozo HS, the local school, did not offer Latin.  So I ended up going to Bayside High School on a zoning variance so I could take Latin.  This proved a disaster because there was an important factor that my mother hadn't anticipated.  When my sister had followed this same route, four years earlier, Junior High School went through ninth grade.  So she started High School in tenth grade.  But I was in the first cohort of students where the Junior High was converted to a Middle School, so I started High School in ninth grade.  But the old model was still largely in place.  Most of the students who were at Bayside for ninth grade at that time were poor students - such as kids who had attended parochial school but couldn't get into the Catholic High School.  Apart from the Latin, which was okay, the academic environment wasn't stimulating at all.  I quickly became very unhappy about it and then transferred to Cardozo as a result.

The upshot from this failure is that my mother lost her authority over me.  I simply didn't trust her to have my real interests at heart.  I held this experience against her for a very long time.

I had my "crisis" in tenth grade - One of my questions in reading Excellent Sheep is why the kids Deresiewicz writes about didn't have their own crisis in high school, while they were still living at home.  One infers from how Deresiewicz tells the story that while the seeds for such a crisis may be there the reaction is to cover up the the situation and seemingly capitulate to the many demands that are placed on the kids.  In this telling, the kids are at or near the breaking point when in college for a couple of years, but they still have some reserve left while in high school so don't fall over the cliff then.

I had quite a very hard time that year, so I wouldn't prescribe a crisis as the cure to the problem, but looking backward at the that time it was very liberating in its aftermath.  (Perhaps a more healthy cure would be simply to disobey parental mandates and then argue with the parents afterward.  The kid needs to seize control of some parts of his life and if that requires disrespecting the parents for a time, so be it.)  First, the doubt I had about playing the game of getting good grades didn't have to be so secret, so I didn't feel compelled to do things for the grade when otherwise it didn't interest me.  Second, and equally important, it took some pressure off regarding parental push, for fear that would send me over the deep end.  And, third, it allowed me to search for some alternative way to frame those factors that drove me to learn.

There was subtraction (of activities) not just addition - The first of these that I recall was stopping attendance at Yiddish school, which I went to on Sunday (or perhaps Saturday, I can't remember) mornings till I was 11 or so.  There were lessons in reading the language, singing folk songs, and Jewish History.  I was okay with it for a while but eventually lost interest.  My parents were okay with me stopping and did not contest that.  The next thing I stopped was music, being in the band at school and playing the clarinet.  I also took clarinet lessons from one teacher and piano lessons from another teacher.  I was in the Queensboro band in 8th grade and the orchestra in ninth grade.  We had practices Saturday mornings at a Junior High School in Forest Hills.  (A parent had to drive us there and pick us up.)  That all stopped after ninth grade.  The reason here was a bit different.  I may have maxed out on the piano at that point but I still had some interest in the clarinet.  However, our school was on split session and when in 10th grade we were on the late session (11:40 AM to 5:40 PM).  I took two science classes that year, both Bio and Chem, so my schedule was quite full.  I had to drop something to fit that in.  The only thing I could drop was band.  Then, after 10th grade, I dropped French.  I might have enjoyed French had my mother not been a French teacher.  Under the circumstances, it was my least favorite subject, and given my emotional state I was able to drop it once I passed the Regents exam, which fulfilled the language requirement. 

I learned to relish personal idiosyncrasy - My sense of humor developed right along, cultivated by my dad who relished telling a joke, even if he wasn't the greatest with his delivery, and perhaps also a prior disposition that was basic to my makeup. But it wasn't till later in college and then in graduate school where I consciously recognized it as a value that for me was on a par with academic achievement.  It helps a great deal in keeping the demons at bay and in enjoying whatever I engage in.  It also helps when being with other people, whom I hope enjoy being with me.

* * * * *

Now as a teacher of college students, the core hypothesis of Excellent Sheep seems readily apparent in some subset of the students I have.  It appears particularly strong in many of the students from China and Korea.  But it also is quite evident among many of the higher achieving White students.  I had always thought some of that was the Midwest versus the East Coast.  New Yorkers, in particular, tend to be more brash.  Kids from Illinois, particularly those from downstate, are more circumspect.  Yet it is evident that other factors have come into play to exacerbate the jumping through hoops mindset.  My belief is that No Child Left Behind has had horrible consequences on students who aspire to go to an elite college, the unintended consequence of the excess in accountability.  And there may be an equally important change as curricula have been modernized - parents are unable to do the homework the kids are assigned.  So the parents can't tell by other means whether their children are learning.  Grades get emphasized as a consequence, to the detriment of actual learning.

Parents may be surprised to see a low correlation between GPA and real understanding (also real creativity).  Likewise, faculty may also be surprised this way.  Making that point more overt is a first step about having a very public discussion on how to change things for the better.  It is my view that prior to such a conversation, each person needs to ask themselves, was I a sheep?  And, especially if not, then they also need to ask, why not?  Any change for the better will find its basis in the answers to those questions.

So ask away. 

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