Race to Somewhere

UnknownAn open letter to my students at Harvard:

Some of you are upset with me for writing a piece at Cognoscenti in which I questioned the value of our punishing, sometimes brutalizing “race to the top” admissions process to elite institutions like Harvard. I called this often-toxic high school journey the “hamster wheel” of adult expectations and, to be clear, I was writing largely about kids from middle class or relatively affluent families who feel intense pressure not only to have excellent grades but to pursue multiple extra-curriculars and leadership positions, extensive testing prep, and exotic, costly summer experiences. Many other commentators have voiced similar concerns about the cultural values that are pushing these high schoolers to ever-higher levels of achievement – some would call it the race to nowhere – to gain a coveted spot at the Ivy League. For those who are interested, I highly recommend the Price of Privilege, which describes many of these concerns about the costs of this style of raising young people.

As a parent of three teenagers/young adults, I’ve been complicit in what I’ve come belatedly to see as a deeply flawed and even dangerous college admissions game. Increasingly, I wonder if we are paying too high a price for the impressive levels of “success” we are producing in young people. Depression and other mental health conditions (including suicide) are at historic highs among teenagers and young adults, especially kids from economically stable backgrounds. (In the not so distant past, these were the kids most ‘protected’ from the slings and arrows of life. Current research shows they are now at similar risk for depression, substance abuse, anxiety etc. as kids from more traditionally ‘at risk’ backgrounds. I think this is a shocking development.) From my perspective as an educator and house master, I see less tangible but also troubling signs that we have pushed young people too damned hard to get here: fear, unhealthy competition, and, in some of our students, deep ambivalence about pursuing their dreams…

I wrote the piece not from a position of cynicism, as alleged, but from a position of concern that so many of our nation’s most talented and capable (and genuinely good) kids are often (not always, but often) forced to be less than authentic about who they are and who they want to be. Sometimes we see this in a student who has come to Harvard as a declared pre-med and quickly begins to do poorly in science classes in which he/she had excelled in high school, suggesting that the student had never really wanted to be a doctor. We see it in students who have alarming discrepancies in their academic record that suggest manipulation, and sometimes outright dishonesty, on their applications. We see it in the countless stories from students who share their deep anxiety and sadness about how to square what they want to do with their life with what they think others expect of them. We also see it in the many students who express what appears to me (in my humble opinion) misplaced anxiety about the real life consequences of certain relatively trivial decisions – fear, for example, that a particular summer job (or lack thereof) will have long term consequences for success.

My proposal to conduct a randomized controlled experiment with a small sub-set of applicants (randomly admitting approximately five percent of the class from a pre-screened baseline of broadly competent applicants and tracking them over time to see how/if they differ from the regular pool of admitted applicants) was completely earnest, not “sarcastic,” as suggested. I made such a proposal because I think it’s worth examining critically, and without defensiveness, the utility of the punishing standards to which we subject our intellectually elite high school students. If we find there aren’t major differences in outcomes ten, twenty years out of college, I think this would suggest a rethinking of the expectations we have for high school students. One such area of interest, for me, is understanding the short and long-term predictive value of standardized testing. Since so many of our students have taken extensive SAT and ACT preparation to gain admission to Harvard and its peers – preparation which is not only boring, costly, and anxiety-producing but also takes time away from other kinds of learning – it might be worth a carefully designed, long-term study of the value of SAT scores of 800 vs., say, 680. If we can prove that some of the hoops through which we require students to jump are unnecessary, we might be able to ease a lot of the pressure we place on young people. On the other hand, if, as some suspect, the experiment demonstrates meaningful differences in the two groups, that too would yield valuable (and perhaps reassuring) data for maintaining the status quo. We could all rest easy that, on balance, we have the best possible process. I don’t know the answers to these questions. None of us do. But I don’t think it was irresponsible for me to propose asking them.

I see that I have hurt or offended some students who feel that I was attacking them, and this doesn’t feel good! My intention was to attack the ‘system’ (of which I am a part!) that pushes kids not to be their authentic selves. For sure, some students absolutely thrive under this pressure. Others (how many?) do not. I think it’s extremely disingenuous to pretend that we don’t all know this. The increasing evidence that academic dishonesty is endemic at all levels of our society is one data point. There are many others, among them, as I mentioned, rising mental health problems (which are not merely an artefact of better identification of depression) and so on.

At the end of the day, I think we have to ask ourselves what kind of future we want for young people. It pains me to see too many college students – not a majority, but too many – who feel afraid to pursue their dreams or even to take the time to identify them. It pains me to see these bright, accomplished students who come to Harvard and quickly come to feel like failures -– not a majority, but still too many. How many conversations have I had with students who tell me they feel like total outliers, that they were an admissions “mistake,” that college wasn’t what they hoped it would be, that they don’t know how to figure out where they are going? How many students make bad choices, such as cheating, that reflect fear more than malice? Too many.

On a more minor point: A couple of students have suggested to me that I do not have the “authority” to express my views. I hear this criticism of my writing a lot, and I wonder how many other writers do too. This is probably worth a sidebar conversation but I think healthy debate, which is essential to democracy, requires us to suspend disbelief about a person’s ‘right’ or ‘authority’ to speak on an issue. Criticizing a person’s credibility to have an opinion just derails conversation and I don’t think that’s fair.

Moreover, the assumption that I lack the standing to speak about these issues (which were dismissed as “snippets of conversation” without evidence etc. etc.) reflects a misunderstanding, or possibly lack of respect, for the professional work I’ve done for decades and most recently as housemaster at Harvard. For years I’ve worked with families and students across the whole educational lifespan, including parents of very young children who are already genuinely worried about where their children will go to college. At Pforzheimer House, I’ve spent many hundreds of hours in deep conversation; counseling students; conferring with colleagues; and working on university-wide committees on topics such as substance use, sexual assault, freshman life, moral development, health and safety, career development, and more. I’ve seen the academic, admissions, and disciplinary records of scores, if not hundreds, of students and have consulted on various cases that come to the Ad board. I am also an alumna of Harvard College as well as the parent of current and future college students. I don’t think there should be a litmus test of who gets to speak. Everyone should have a voice! But, in any case, I do feel qualified to comment on the stressful high school experience of which I am critical and guilty in more or less equal measure.

Thanks for reading my piece and thinking about the issues I raised. I know there are many worthwhile perspectives and I look forward to hearing them.

Sincerely yours,


About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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4 Responses to Race to Somewhere

  1. shorelineliz says:

    Hi Erika,

    I really like what you wrote above in this article. I especially am glad, relieved in fact, to know that someone is tracking these students in this way. I think this discussion is way over due. I found it shocking that you were labeled “cynical” and “sarcastic” for endeavoring to broach this subject in public discussion. But, I also know that “tolerance” for certain matters is a sticky wicket these days. I have often disliked the academic culture in America for the set of reasons you honestly stated above. There is a sickening need to succeed in America based on a set of cultural norms that someone has set forth and upon our society as a whole. Who is this someone? Academic institutions afraid to look at their own cultural requirements in fear of what? Coming up short themselves? Is this just low self esteem covered up by appearing to “know it all?” Why must we “know it all” and if we don’t then we fear being labeled “stupid?” Who can know everything anyway? Is this part of the sheer arrogance of our society as masking our fear of being found out to be not as smart or knowledgable as we would like to think we are? Is it some sickening need to “get one up” on others? Is it the nature of competition in America or the world? It personally disgusts me when people say over and over that “time is money.” Is “time” really “money” or is “time” just time? What do we believe about ourselves as a society and what do we value about ourselves as a society of human beings when we are driving ourselves so hard to cheat on exams and be ill with depression over academic achievement? That may or may not pan out into a job with huge salary and benefits after graduation? Which it might for some and not others? Are we driven with money lust? Can we not define success in some other way in America rather than academic degrees, huge salaries, prestigious jobs of someone else’s opinion and material possession? What is success in America and in life? Success in life is doing what you love and doing it well. However great or small. And being appreciative of that. I love to walk to the corner espresso shop when I am in a certain part of Seattle, WA called “Diva Espresso.” It has three locations in Seattle, WA. It is a hole in the wall. It looks like someone’s little house converted to a coffee shop. It is NOT Starbucks. yet, I love it. The walls are a weird mustard yellow. There are cool avante garde photos and art. Lots of Bohemian looking people. The best espresso ever. This is success to me. A little coffee shop making a wonderful cup of espresso. Perhaps because it is not the “corporate” or “popular” Starbucks where “everyone” goes that I like it so much. It is not a cookie cutter place. It is unique. One of a kind. Like human beings are supposed to be. Themselves. Yet, we are losing this sense of the “unique self” in this cookie cutter, one size fits all, think all the same, speak all the same, dress all the same, drink the same Starbucks coffee same culture. This is not healthy because we are all made to be individuals and I can tell you from my size 22 dress that one size does NOT fit all. Please keep speaking up and out about what this cookie cutter culture is doing to our kids inside and outside of academia. I am proud of you and proud you are doing this. Let the naysayers push back with their Starbucks low foam, half calf, skinny lattes with low fat muffin. I am going to (Divine) Diva Espresso for a double shot with real sugar and a brownie. Love, Liz+

  2. Dave Hussar says:

    While I often disagree with your solutions, you have an amazing ability to identify problems we don’t like to admit and present them in a clear thought provoking manner. I think that qualifies you to write about any subject.

  3. Well, thank you! That is high praise. And I don’t always agree 100 percent with my proposals, by the way, but I think we all owe it to the world to keep searching for answers… which of course starts with asking hard questions.

  4. evreaches says:

    In any case, it’s nice to read a logical, respectful response to your critics.

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