The Case For Breaking Up With Your Parents

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Excerpted from an article that originally appeared inThe Chronicle
of Higher Education

Time: last year. Place: an
undergraduate classroom, in the airy, well-wired precincts of Silicon Valley University.
(Oops, I mean
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
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 atThe Chronicle
of Higher Education

Image by Bizzleboy, licensed under Creative Commons

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