We tell our students that there is no pot of gold. There is no brass ring. No resting on laurels. The days of reward are long gone. Keep leveling up. Stay the course. There is no end in sight.
We tell our kids that their generation will struggle against the odds: Divorce rates are on the rise, markets are unstable, pensions are disappearing, careers are transient, the treadmill never stops, and only the fittest survive. They get it and now see their emerging identities as commodities, saleable parts of themselves, like the carcass sections on a butcher’s chart. A little here, a little there. Something for everybody: parents, teachers, coaches. All labeled and timetabled. Stay in the game. Be everything to everybody. Keep your options open, we say. Pursue your dream.
But they have no time to dream. They are too busy being consumed and not nourished.
We classify our kids as they perform to expectations, and so they can never know themselves for who they really are. Can they know themselves if they are identified only by what they achieve? When we have consumed all the parts, what is left?
Why do we do this?
As parents and teachers we live in a culture of fear. We are afraid that our children, our students, won’t get ahead, and we will have let them down. This fear is compounded by the flood of high achievers in India and Asia who now compete for places at our top universities and eventually the top jobs. These students study round the clock and take no vacations, and we fear that they will become our children’s bosses unless ours do the same.
In this obsessive competition, driven by fear, we have lost our perspective and we are teaching our kids to lose theirs: They will never have enough, so how can they ever be enough? If they never leave the treadmill how can they come to know who they are and what all this is supposed to mean? Failure becomes something to fear, not something to learn from. There is a sad disconnect between the individual and the achievement.
We are encouraging them to avoid searching for meaning as they pursue success. Only competition and consumption have meaning, we say to them. Acquiring replaces inquiring. Don’t ask. Just do it.
This is how individuals become strangers to themselves. They can’t be alone with themselves or with their thoughts. They aren’t familiar with making decisions for themselves. They don’t trust their own choices or voices because they’ve never had to. They can never stop running long enough to reflect on and evaluate their lives because they will only watch the rest of the field disappear over the horizon.
To borrow from Prufrock, maybe it’s time to drop a question on our plate and ask our kids what they want. Then at least give them time to think about that.
* * * * *
Are schools pushing students too hard to catch up with the competition and be high achievers? Is this quest for success harmful for our children? Share your views in the Comments section below.