The frenzy of academic competition, particularly among affluent American families, has triggered a spate of cautionary new books. The titles reviewed here are all excellent: I give them all A+’s—or, in the parlance of today’s elite high schoolers, weighted GPAs of 4.687, including 5’s in fifteen AP courses and a combined math/verbal SAT score of 1540.
Of course, I’m a biased reader; in my estimation, there can’t be enough books written on the topic. I say, let’s hurl them, one by one, at today’s frenzied “helicopter parents,” who deserve to be, if not bombarded, at least given a simple clonk over the head with a frying pan while a trained therapist yells, “Stop the insanity!”
Winning admission to a coveted college is so do-or-die that today’s über-protective parents leave nothing to chance—which is to say, nothing to the bumbling students themselves. For our most obsessively college-minded parents, it seems foolhardy to allow high-school seniors to track the progress of their own applications, to solicit their own letters of recommendation, even to write their own autobiographical essays about why they want to go to college. At a certain point, one might ask who is actually hoping to pull on that crimson sweatshirt.
In a telling USA Today essay on such parents, the MIT admissions head, Marilee Jones, wrote that they even “make excuses for their child’s bad grades and threaten to sue high school personnel who reveal any information perceived to be potentially harmful to their child’s chances of admission.” (Indeed, in The Overachievers, Alexandra Robbins points out that the number of teachers purchasing liability insurance rose by 25 percent between 2000 and 2005.)
Interviews: "Stop the Insanity!" (September 5, 2006)
Sandra Tsing-Loh describes the elite, utopian island of urban private education—and explains why she opted to steer clear of it.
And when these litigious parents’ work is well done, they need only stand back as their mini-me’s shamble forward, robotlike, hurling lawsuits for them. In 2003, with acceptances from Harvard, Stanford, Duke, Princeton, and Cornell already in hand, the New Jersey senior Blair Hornstine sued her school district for $2.7 million for the pain and humiliation of having to share her valedictorian title with another student. Diagnosed with chronic fatigue, Hornstine had completed much of her coursework at home with private tutors, while being allowed to skip gym class (where even an A+, valued at 4.3, would have lowered her AP-fueled GPA of 4.6894). Her father, Superior Court Judge Louis Hornstine, didn’t just support his daughter’s campaign; he helped complete her volunteer work, driving groceries to the local food bank on her behalf. (In June 2001, Blair Hornstine also received a Congressional Award Gold Medal, an honor that requires a student to have performed 200 hours of personal development, 200 hours of physical fitness, and 400 hours of community service. Talk about chronic fatigue!) After winning sole-valedictorian status and settling with the district for $60,000, Blair, in a bizarre twist, was de-admitted from Harvard upon discovery that she had plagiarized some material in her local newspaper columns. Also in 2003, the Michigan valedictorian hopeful Brian Delekta challenged district regulations that allowed him at most an A for summer legal work, as opposed to the A+ that—yes—his own attorney mother had awarded him. (In the suit, Ms. Delekta served as her son’s lawyer. They lost.)