One fascinating thread Robbins tracks is a growing similarity between the overachieving culture of the United States and the legendarily rabid edu- culture of East Asia. By the age of six, some Asian students are doing homework until after midnight. By adolescence, they’re suffering such high rates of suicide and anxiety that they make the likes of Winona Ryder seem rather cheerful.
But—one might coldly ask, with a certain gestalt bent—don’t the miserable survivors at least make better widgets? Even in this, though, the results are mixed. Studies indicate that Asian students achieve some of the highest scores in the world in math and science comparisons. However, owing to excessive focus on memorization, done solely for the purpose of passing tests, these gloomy idiot savants demonstrate surprisingly little practical know-how and often are unable to apply what they’ve learned. And this is the educational system we mistakenly aspire to, argues Robbins, who traces the U.S. overachiever culture back to President Reagan’s 1983 Department of Education report “A Nation at Risk.” Its authors identified a “rising tide of mediocrity” in U.S. students’ poor scores on standardized tests. In so doing, according to an education expert Robbins quotes, “the members of the National Commission tightly yoked the nation’s global competitiveness to how well our 13-year-olds bubbled in test answer sheets.”
Of course, until recently in many Asian countries there were frighteningly rigid educational systems, which in turn tracked into few good jobs. Failing a single test as a child in those not-so-bygone days could put you on a path to permanent economic hardship, social failure, and a windowless apartment the size of a telephone booth—making all that anxiety tragically somewhat understandable. By contrast, professional futures in America aren’t so instantly or firmly etched—see, for example, the famous college dropouts Steve Jobs and Bill Gates. Getting into college isn’t so much of a worry, either: Robbins points out that only about 10 percent of the more than 2,000 four-year undergraduate programs nationwide have selective admissions. And how important, really, are those one in ten? Granted, for graduating directly into high-paying jobs in consulting and finance, very important. But the most definitive longitudinal study so far indicates that a degree from a prestigious school isn’t ultimately worth more, earnings-wise, than a degree from any other school—though the former will certainly set you back more.
Still, a deep river of must-have school mania runs through the chattering classes. There is, of course, the parental adrenalin rush at suburban cocktail parties that comes from announcing one’s son or daughter as an Ivy Leaguer. But even at the preschool level, parents now fight to be the last family in, frenetic as the eels in that horse’s head in Volker Schlöndorff’sTin Drum. Why? Because getting into that $25,000-a-year preschool is now seen as a toddler’s de rigueur first step down the yellow brick road that winds from preschool to private school to Harvard to Goldman Sachs. That said, however perilously narrow such families may seem in their worldview, certainly their academic clarity is enviable. For those of us still feeling our way through the meritocracy, successful career paths are much more complicated. Many of us, unsure of how we got where we are in the first place, are just as unsure of what education will best prepare our children for an unknowable future. (Perhaps your child can indeed get more personal attention at a good state school than at an Ivy League one, where TAs teach all the classes while the professors are away doing research. But when your child interviews for a job, can you trust that her interviewers will be smart enough to see how Personally Attentive that state school really was?)
And then there are matters of character. Typically, middle-class educated parents’ search for their children’s schools takes on the feel, if not of teen girls trying on different outfits, of adolescents trying on various selves. In our own experience negotiating the educational Byzantium of Los Angeles, my husband and I asked ourselves: Are we leafy-tree/Waldorf School people? Are we hip/Johnny Depp–friendly/progressive people? Are we hybrid-SUV enviro-Democrats? Are we white? It turns out that all of these questions were moot, as the answer was simply that we are, if not poor, too poor for our two children to be developmentally nurtured at $15,000-plus a year. (Which raised an alternate question: In our reaction to all of Los Angeles’s excesses, are we half-price closet conservatives of a Lutheran or even Catholic shade?)
Actually, to my surprise, I’ve turned out to be a big-barreled Mother Jones–like figure—in this case, a defiant urban public-school mother, which in today’s middle-class zeitgeist practically feels like being a communist; I’m given to wild-eyed rants against the perils of affluence, particularly when I’m in my cups. Then again, while waiting for the school bus among Mexican day laborers and Armenian grandmothers with strangely dyed magenta hair, I do sometimes gaze longingly at the Los Angeles private-school parents whizzing by in their Priuses—the writers, the composers, the actors, the thinkers … so intelligent, so creative, so sensitive, so incensed about global warming, so angry about Bush. Then I think of the administrators I met in those private schools, when we were interviewing (as I said, to my surprise I’m a Mother Jones–like figure …). Given that independent-school business (and middle- class urban fear) is booming now, “the front office,” as I call it, is always manned by mercenary professional gatekeepers—the lion-maned admissions directors, the women with important scarves—who let you know, in no uncertain terms, exactly what on your Visa is nonrefundable. But in “the back office,” there is always the gentle little gnome who lives in a woodland cave of the mind. In Los Angeles, this woodland gnome is typically a sweet and fragile eighty-something educator (think wonderfully old-fashioned cardigan, white hair perhaps growing out of the ears) who in Austria in the 1950s invented some sort of benevolent alternative- learning theory whence gently flowers the school’s educational philosophy. If he or she is the emotional figurehead of an independent school (one possibly even bearing his or her name) that now allows in, by breakneck competition, only the most affluent and privileged (with the occasional Savion Glover–brilliant inner-city child, for color; or perhaps an heir of Denzel Washington), thus exacerbating the twenty-first century’s Grand Canyon–like divide between rich and poor, it’s not the helpless and unworldly little gnome’s fault—it’s just something that happened along the way. Hey—you wouldn’t blame John Dewey!
The irony for me is that although I see and decry these social divisions, there’s some lingering part of me that wants to sit obediently before the gnome, manipulate blocks, and be patted on the head and called exceptionally creative, and gifted.
And clearly I’m not alone.