Now that I have two children accepted into colleges of their choice, I, like many of you, have rehearsed over and over again, “Remember, you’re not trying to get into the BEST school, but instead, you want to apply to schools that are the BEST fit! I’m grateful both my children are mature enough to understand that they will have to figure out whether their choice of university is the “best fit” for them personally throughout their entire college experience. Even with such a vague definition of “best fit” for them to perform well enough in high school to be accepted into college and even with “sage” parents in the Education field, the Race to Nowhere continues the longstanding tradition all the way through college. My daughter, now a senior at Duke, writes a terrific blog (wordsofhope.com), a small part of which exposes the harsh, psychological realities of living in an environment that has no clue it is even on the treadmill, selling the treadmill, recruiting students who only know how to run the treadmill. We were talking about my former blog post about frogs (please read if you haven’t), and she dropped a bombshell… well, actually, it was just a pithy statement I wanted to use as inspiration for this post. She simply said, “Dad, college success is 80% documenting your past, present and future and 20% learning.” I asked her what she meant, and here are the nuggets of our conversation.
Documenting Your Past?
I didn’t understand what she meant to “document your past,” but I wanted to see into the psyche of a rising college senior who purports, like most students her age, to know it all. Hope (that’s my daughter), told me that since she’s arrived on campus, she has had to make sure she can personally document what others consider necessary for success or inclusion. She’s had to go back and get her former recommendation writers to fill out even more paper work guaranteeing that her resumé is “legit for when [she applies] to all the clubs, programs majors, etc.” She’s had to prove her interest to be included in student organizations and living situations by handing over archives and artifacts and documents and assessments of her opinions and lifestyle. She’s had to show professors and administrators her transcript containing very high grades in two UPPER-LEVEL Spanish classes from another quite prestigious and very competitive university. This was for not for admissions but for professors and administrators in order to be eligible for classes and study-abroad opportunities. Thank goodness she just happened to order several copies of the two-course transcript “just in case” or she would have missed deadlines to go to Spain. Of course, she is my first-born, and, even better, an amazing progeny of my wife. She possesses everything and anything necessary to organize, locate and/or “document” important events. If she needs it, she has it… stored or saved somewhere!
Documenting Your Present?
What? At college, aren’t we by default documenting everything we do? According to my daughter…. NO! In order to be “successful” in today’s “competitive” academic institutions, it is no longer enough to be there “just to learn.” Everything one does on the campus must have a tie to some future payoff, some trajectory, some nebulous trail of completing two majors, two minors, a certificate, graduating with honors, making the Dean’s list and much, much, more. Hope provided me with amazing examples. Students document the worst professors, the hardest classes, the easiest A on campus, and much more, thanks to social media. This, in turn, informs students to take classes in strategic ways so that they can get the easiest A on campus and, hence, the highest GPA. With proper documentation, students strategically delay taking the “harder course that makes one work for an A” and purposely matriculate in an “easier university” during the summer. Many universities allow such “transfer” simply because they do not offer (those strategically avoided) required core courses in the summer. “Who cares about learning and joy, I must get the highest GPA!” Scurrying for a 4.0 is like running a sprint with “record time” but with no finish line in front.
In the present, students must be savvy to organize and document any, and I mean any interaction or accomplishment or achievement they have done or are in the process of doing, in real time, because the race to nowhere throws students off the treadmill if they have not proven themselves or they cannot prove themselves in an instant. The only defense that one measures up is to have documentation of one’s personal value… and to present it to someone who values those documented credentials. So much for the joy of learning!
Documenting Your Future?
Quite similar to any institution of higher learning, the moment students secure some reputable internship or learning opportunity, they immediately push the “accelerate” button on the treadmill. They consider their achievement as helping them “stand apart”from other students, inflating their own egos and resumés, reinforcing the desire to keep running the Nowhere Race. Running faster means you document your future internship and then run even faster to the scholarship application process to make sure you get a reputably named scholarship to fund your travel, expenses, and in some cases, even the internship itself. You see, the scholarship is not just a way to help students financially, but it is another notch in the CV, another resumé-building activity that has no planned end to the construction. In my own sardonic perspective, students won’t wipe a dog’s nose if it doesn’t have a slot on their resumé! For AMAZING ideas to help students think about learning and their own interests, I recommend Katharine Brook’s book You Majored in What?
Ultimately, Hope concluded that 20% of her time is devoted to studying, applying what she has learned, learning above and beyond what is being delivered in the classroom. Her study and organizational skills make her successful in that area, but, since so many are on the race to nowhere, she feels inferior with an A-! She feels helpless when she compares herself with other “runners” in the race. She loses focus and sight of what brings her joy and what she is designed to do and be! What charges her? Knowing she has something more to contribute to the world to make it a better place, to share with others and grow from a community of other altruistic heroes! What charges most Nowhere racers? Getting the prize before someone else! I can’t help but picture them running and narcissistically hogging the treadmill rails, making it harder for others to run ahead, blocking access for others to “succeed.” I really like this metaphor stuff!
Am I Whining? Isn’t This Just Competitive Academia?
In short, YES! I’m whining! Yes, this is the norm for anyone who needs to or wants to “get ahead.” And, yes, in many or most cases, “ahead” is enough to become another one-percenter! But, remember my son? He, too, has been accepted into an amazing institution of higher learning. And I fear for him! I truly believe it is THE BEST FIT for him! But, the apple does not fall far from the tree! My son LOVES being! Not doing…! He is present in the moments he deems important or meaningful… which are many but not necessarily traditionally academic! He applied to this university bravely revealing his true self in the application process: academic prowess, stellar community-building skills, intellectual curiosity, independent thinking and… yes… overcoming learning differences that make it difficult to “run their (traditional) race their (traditional) way.” They graciously accepted him. He loves learning and soaks up more than the average information dump… But, he does not document his life…! Comically, he DOES document his experiences and relationships with Snap-whatever, or Insta-thingy! But he does not behave like he is on a treadmill winning the race to nowhere! He would rather make sure his friends are accompanying him, pulling them up to the front, where he will probably dwell most often merely due to his natural intellect without even knowing or caring that he is “winning.” Is this success? In the world of Race to Nowhere, turning around to help others succeed is a death sentence, a guarantee you will “get behind” or “get left behind.” Will my son have to metamorphose into something he is not merely to “succeed” at his university? He is mature enough to stay true to himself, but is he willing to document his whole life, taking him away from the things he loves and turning him into a competitive, arrogant, scheming, superficial monster? Will this university pose the same challenge/definition of success, upholding standards that don’t allow him and many others to demonstrate their learning? I’m afraid I’m the one worrying about this… which may be evidence that I am part of the problem and not part of the solution, that I want my son to “fit in” and “be successful” like everyone else. It may even mean I do not have faith that he will succeed if he doesn’t continue to go against his nature and run this pathetically exhausting and counterproductive race.
So, yes, I’m whining because I, like every parent, think my son is special. He may surprise me and jump again into Nowhere Race Training with gusto, just as he had to do for 12 years to get into a school that might bring him joy and meaning. Eighteen years old is too late to change a child or an entire system of Education. I am hoping he will rise above the dehumanizing manner in which academic environments “compete.” I am praying he will remember how to take the knowledge he learns and turn it into wisdom, compassion and servant leadership. I so want him to succeed and be self-sufficient and happy. Perhaps going to college, whether the institution espouses the Race to Nowhere or not, really is about growing up, maturing and becoming comfortable with oneself in an ever-changing society while also learning a “cultured,” predetermined curriculum prepared by an institution of higher learning.
Do any of you have advice for me? Insight into how to guard ourselves and our children from losing their humanity in this crazy treadmill Race to Nowhere? I welcome your comments? I also offer you my own counsel if you so need. Together, we can learn!
I am so far /not/ doing all the things a new PhD in Ed ought to be doing, precisely because of the Race to Nowhere. I’ve published one article and spoken at two conferences–and got a look at what it would mean to get a job teaching in an Ed Dept at a university. The job itself might be okay–since I’m in Cultural Foundations of Ed, we’re teaching teachers to do everything they can to question and undermine the system–but what about the second, unpaid job of writing articles and books that no one will read or act on, and going to conferences to give talks that no one will listen to or act on? And until I were to actually get one of those hard-to-get Cultural Foundations positions, not only is that unpaid job taking up tons of time, but those conferences cost a significant amount of money, and if one wanted to do open access publishing, there’s no university to pay for it. AND–even this exploitative grind would be a rare prize to get, since universities are doing what every other business is doing–eliminating full-time positions and outsourcing, in this case to adjuncts who make next to nothing and piece together classes at multiple schools.
What I /am/ doing this year is teaching at Forysth Tech, as an adjunct instructor, with two classes this fall, and three in the spring. The pay is terrible, but the students and colleagues are terrific and I”m working with students who need me and who are less into gaming the system than students at prestige schools. And, this is much more likely to turn into a real job than adjuncting at Wake, where they’re happy to exploit you and then hire full-time someone with more books or better journals on their CV.
I’m in education because it’s where social change needs to happen, but the system sure is disgusting, and the idea that you can participate in it and make things better rather than being a part of how it hurts people is, to say the least, challenging–
Stephanie, it has always been a great field in which to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Your story makes me think of two things very lacking in education and many other fields: humility and gratitude. You, your service at Forsyth Tech and the students there epitomize what is necessary to make lasting, grassroots changes in our educational system. Congrats on entering the Ph.D. world and the next level of Racing to Nowhere! Your humor, hard work and inspiring character will sustain you through what can be a grueling, surprisingly closed-minded and inhumane field called Academia! I always appreciate you! Thanks for the reply!