The New York Times had a rather odd feature piece on the cover this Sunday on "Amazing Girls" and their struggles to stand out and get into top schools. Students around the country are hearing from the elite colleges this week, which is always a time when joy comes in fat envelopes and tragedy in thin. I remember the anticipation I felt about all of this exactly 10 years ago this week. I had gone to Sweet Briar, Virginia for the weekend for a conference on women in science. I came back to my dorm to find some notes indicating packages in my mailbox. A good sign. Rejection letters would have fit in the mailboxes easily. Acceptance letters had to be held for later pick-up.
For the Amazing Girls feature, Sara Rimer, a New York Times reporter who often writes about education and gender issues, followed a group of high-achieving girls at Newton North High School just outside Boston as they waited for similar letters. Newton North is one of the nation's most affluent high schools, and so the article tries to document the angst of America's upper class teenagers who have been groomed for elite colleges since birth. They are expected to take multiple AP classes, to ace their SATs, to be on student council and play varsity sports. The article describes these high-achieving girls working until 4am on physics lab reports, at the same time that the town's BoBo sensibilities (that's Bourgeois Bohemians, the title of a David Brooks book) draws yoga studios and Whole Foods stores that tell you to relax and be yourself. The girls have grown up always hearing they can do everything boys can. But now more girls than boys apply to elite colleges. That means that it's even harder for them to get in, since most elite schools strive for gender balance. So there's the pressure to do that, as well as the standard adolescent girl pressure to be attractive, thin and happy. One mother said "you just hope your child doesn't have anorexia of the soul."
Well. I am sure life is competitive for the girls of Newton North. But I can't help thinking that articles like this reinforce the idea among America's elite (the folks who read the New York Times religiously) that this is what all schooling and teen culture is like. Esther, the lead character, has a literature class in which the teacher asks what Virgil's Aeneid teaches us about destiny and individual happiness. She's read Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, and debated what it means to be condemned to freedom. As I've written on this blog before, I had to move three hours away from home to go to boarding school in order to receive an education that valued asking questions like this. At my local school -- in a middle class town featuring a major research university -- I spent weeks in an honors English class listening to my classmates read A Separate Peace out loud, paragraph by tortuous paragraph. We were tested over what happened on p. 86. Not about the themes of friendship, betrayal, etc. If any thing approaching a significant number of American high schools suffered from the angst of Newton North -- of too many people applying for elite colleges and taking AP classes that had them working until 4am -- we would be in a much better position for future competitiveness. And the vast majority of gifted kids -- girls and boys -- would be happier.
But most schools aren't like that. Given that only 25% of high school seniors can solve a simple algebra problem (as we talked about on the TIMSS thread a few weeks ago), the Newton North experience is as rare as getting a fat envelope from Princeton is. The problem for gifted education is then that America's most affluent parents do not see the problem first hand. And so these politically well-connected people become inclined to believe that gifted kids can fend for themselves, that there's too much homework as it is, that schools demand too much, that kids need more non-academic time, etc. For most gifted kids, nothing could be farther from the truth.
That's not to say that the amazing girls of Newton North aren't appealing characters. Teen angst always dredges up certain emotions, and reading about Esther's rejection from Williams, her top choice, stings a bit. But then she got into Smith, so the story ends on a happy note. I just wish articles like this came with a disclaimer noting that Barbie still way outsells Baby Einstein in this country. And that most high schools send, at most, a handful of people to colleges like Williams and Smith.