The Case For Breaking Up With Your Parents


| 5/14/2012 2:35:31 PM


Tags: Education, Helicopter Parents, Millennial, Multitasking, Chronicle of Higher Education, Terry Castle.,
College Green

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Time: last year. Place: an undergraduate classroom, in the airy, well-wired precincts of Silicon Valley University. (Oops, I mean Sun-Kissed-Google-Apps-University.) I am avoiding the pedagogical business at hand—the class is my annual survey of 18th-century British literature, and it's as rockin' and rollin' as you might imagine, given the subject—in order to probe my students' reactions to a startling and (to me) disturbing article I have just read in the Harvard alumni magazine. The piece, by Craig Lambert, one of the magazine's editors, is entitled "Nonstop: Today's Superhero Undergraduates Do '3000 Things at 150 Percent.'"

As the breaking-newsfeed title suggests, the piece, on the face of it, is anecdotal and seemingly light-hearted—a collegiate Ripley's Believe It or Not! about the overscheduled lives of today's Harvard undergraduates. More than ever before, it would appear, these poised, high-achieving, fantastically disciplined students routinely juggle intense academic studies with what can only seem (at least to an older generation) a truly dizzy-making array of extracurricular activities: pre-professional internships, world-class athletics, social and political advocacy, start-up companies, volunteering for nonprofits, research assistantships, peer advising, musical and dramatic performances, podcasts and video-making, and countless other no doubt virtuous (and résumé-building) pursuits. The pace is so relentless, students say, some plan their packed daily schedules down to the minute—i.e., "shower: 7:15-7:20 a.m."; others confess to getting by on two or three hours of sleep a night. Over the past decade, it seems, the average Harvard undergraduate has morphed into a sort of lean, glossy, turbocharged superhamster: Look in the cage and all you see, where the treadmill should be, is a beautiful blur.

I am curious if my Stanford students' lives are likewise chockablock. Heads nod yes; deep sighs are expelled; their own lives are similarly crazy. They can barely keep up, they say—particularly given all the texting and tweeting and cellphoning they have to do from hour to hour too. Do they mind? Not hugely, it would seem. True, they are mildly intrigued by Lambert's suggestion that the "explosion of busyness" is a relatively recent historical phenomenon—and that, over the past 10 or 15 years, uncertain economic conditions, plus a new cultural emphasis on marketing oneself to employers, have led to ever more extracurricular add-ons. Yes, they allow: You do have to display your "well-roundedness" once you graduate. Thus the supersize CV's. You'll need, after all, to advertise a catalog of competencies: your diverse interests, original turn of mind, ability to work alone or in a team, time-management skills, enthusiasm, unflappability—not to mention your moral probity, generosity to those less fortunate, lovable "meet cute" quirkiness, and pleasure in the simple things of life, such as synchronized swimming, competitive dental flossing, and Antarctic exploration. "Yes, it can often be frenetic and with an eye toward résumés," one Harvard assistant dean of students observes, "but learning outside the classroom through extracurricular opportunities is a vital part of the undergraduate experience here."

Yet such references to the past—truly a foreign country to my students—ultimately leave them unimpressed. They laugh when I tell them that during my own somewhat damp Jurassic-era undergraduate years—spent at a tiny, obscure, formerly Methodist school in the rainy Pacific Northwest between 1971 and 1975—I never engaged in a single activity that might be described as "extracurricular" in the contemporary sense, not, that is, unless you count the little work-study job I had toiling away evenings in the sleepy campus library. What was I doing all day? Studying and going to class, to be sure. Reading books, listening to music, falling in love (or at least imagining it). Eating ramen noodles with peanut butter. But also, I confess, I did a lot of plain old sitting around—if not outright malingering. I've got a box of musty journals to prove it. After all, nobody even exercised in those days. Nor did polyester exist. Once you'd escaped high school and obligatory PE classes—goodbye hirsute Miss Davis; goodbye, ugly cotton middy blouse and gym shorts—you were done with that. We were all so countercultural back then—especially in the Pacific Northwest, where the early 1970s were still the late sixties. The 1860s.

The students now regard me with curiosity and vague apprehension. What planet is she from. 

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captblood
5/19/2012 4:34:48 PM

Great article. What is insidious about our 'success' culture is that it permeates almost every stage of growth. I see now where parents are hiring tutors for sports because the parents either don't have the time to interact with the child, don't have the skills, or are more interested in their child being highly successful at baseball, soccer or other team effort. All of these activities (sports, learning, etc,) would best be done for the love... not to be in a race to the top. But hey, we made this culture.