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The Case For Breaking Up With Your Parents

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. 

But I have another question for them. While Lambert, author of "Nonstop," admires the multitasking undergraduates Harvard attracts, he also worries about the intellectual and emotional costs of such all-consuming busyness. In a turn toward gravitas, he quotes the French film director Jean Renoir's observation that "the foundation of all civilization is loitering" and wonders aloud if "unstructured chunks of time" aren't necessary for creative thinking. And while careful to phrase his concerns ever so delicately—this is the Harvard alumni magazine, after all—he seems afraid that one reason today's students are so driven and compulsive is that they have been trained up to it since babyhood: From preschool on, they are accustomed to their parents pushing them ferociously to make use of every spare minute. Contemporary middle-class parents—often themselves highly accomplished professionals—"groom their children for high achievement," he suspects, "in ways that set in motion the culture of scheduled lives and nonstop activity." He quotes a former Harvard dean of student life:

This is the play-date generation. ... There was a time when children came home from school and just played randomly with their friends. Or hung around and got bored, and eventually that would lead you on to something. Kids don't get to do that now. Busy parents book them into things constantly—violin lessons, ballet lessons, swimming teams. The kids get the idea that someone will always be structuring their time for them.

The current dean of freshmen concurs: "Starting at an earlier age, students feel that their free time should be taken up with purposeful activities. There is less stumbling on things you love ... and more being steered toward pursuits." Some of my students begin to look downright uneasy; some are now listening hard.

Such parental involvement can be distasteful, even queasy-making. "Now," writes Lambert, parents "routinely 'help' with assignments, making teachers wonder whose work they are really grading. ... Once, college applicants typically wrote their own applications, including the essays; today, an army of high-paid consultants, coaches, and editors is available to orchestrate and massage the admissions effort." Nor do such parents give up their busybody ways, apparently, once their offspring lands a prized berth at some desired institute of higher learning. Lambert elaborates:

Parental engagement even in the lives of college-age children has expanded in ways that would have seemed bizarre in the recent past. (Some colleges have actually created a "dean of parents" position—whether identified as such or not—to deal with them.) The "helicopter parents" who hover over nearly every choice or action of their offspring have given way to "snowplow parents" who determinedly clear a path for their child and shove aside any obstacle they perceive in the way.

Read the rest of this story at The Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Image by Bizzleboy, licensed under Creative Commons