Monday, April 02, 2007

Amazing Girls

Phantom said that as soon as she finished the NY Times article on the Amazing Girls of Newton North High School, she checked my blog to see what I had to say about it. I'm not sure if this means that I am predictable or wise, but I figure I better satisfy her desires.

There's a lot one could talk about here, from the increasing difficulty of accessing the top strata of American society (I could not believe that, after all that, Esther did not get into Williams, Middlebury, or Amherst, though I can imagine her being happy at Smith), to the fact that Amazing Girls are not such a new thing (we were Amazing Girls, though I will say that we did not worry about being hot, which, as Dr. B points out, is one depressing bottom line). But I'm going to go personal here, because, well, because I am.

When we decided to move back to East Coast Big City, I spent a lot of time researching where we should live (this is how things work in our house: I do tons of research, then I present my research to S as if I am giving him a choice, but I really have already decided, and my presentation is biased, and he goes along with my decision, and by now he doesn't even pretend to be empowered by this process, because he's mainly relieved that I do the work) (except for the new blinds, which I refuse to deal with, so he is taking action). Given affordability, location, and, of course, schools, it came down to two places: Town and Another Municipality.

Another Municipality has a high school that is just like Newton North. And that's one of the big reasons we didn't move there (other reasons included proximity to grandparents, geographical considerations, and long-term prejudices--on our part). I didn't want my kids to go to a high school where everyone was striving to be the best so that they could get into Ivy League colleges. I also didn't want my kids to go to a high school where everyone (else) would get a car for their sixteenth birthday. Town is a normal kind of place. There are kids who will go to the best colleges, and there are kids who will go to Blue State University, and kids who will join the military, and kids who will go nowhere. My kids will have the chance to achieve, without the pressure. And I'm happy about that.

However, what makes me sad is that they will not have the intellectual opportunities that high school students like the ones in the article have. Our high school is fine and getting better--they just initiated a course in Middle East history and politics, there is a nice creative writing program, there is theater and jazz band and a good batch of A.P. classes. But I am quite certain that M and E will not read Descartes in high school. It's just not that kind of place.

I went to a fancy private school that was known for its academics. Not only did I read Descartes, but I read Locke, Hume, Kant, Wittgenstein, and Chomsky (women? eh, not so much--I made up for that later). I read Emma and Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Seize the Day and Dubliners. And while I had lots of issues with my high school, it was a profoundly important intellectual experience that I doubt my children will have, though they will have other good experiences.

Is there a political take-away here? I think there is. It has to do with the way in which cultural capital accretes to the wealthy. Now that towns like Newton and schools like Newton North are increasingly available only to the super-wealthy, kids who could blossom under such an educational experience can't access it. Meanwhile, in middle-class and, especially, poor high schools, the curriculum is increasingly tailored to the workplace. There are some great programs that bring a meaningful, rigorous liberal arts education to the underprivileged (I am totally blanking on the name of this awesome project that teaches a classics course in low-income community centers), but of course they are few and far between. Sometimes it's hard to make the case for the liberal arts, especially given the economic exigencies of contemporary society, but look how Esther and her friends blossom as they think deeply about meaningful issues.

That's an opportunity we should be giving all our kids.


Phantom Scribbler said...

Hey, you owed me one, right?

Honestly, though, I wonder how many of these kids will end up like I did after my experience at a incredibly intellectually stimulating private school: That is, too frickin' tired to do anything with all that cultural capital I had accreted. By the time I got to college, I was running a sleep deficit so severe that I probably could have spent my entire 18th year sleeping, like some extremely non-feminist fairy tale figure.

I did fine in high school and in college, but by the end I was completely burned out, and in no shape to even consider some sort of high-pressure, high-income career. And that's why my kids aren't going to attend Newton North -- because on my husband's one (more than adequate!) income, we can't afford to live there. Sorry, kids, but Mama was too tired to consider law school after college...

Yeah, I feel bad that my kids won't be reading Rawls in their high school classes. But if it means that they're able to enter adulthood without having spent all their energy just navigating the passage out of adolescence, then I'm OK with it.

parodie said...

I am not that far out of the high school/university pressure cooker, and I think that while on the one hand it is so wonderful to be exposed to excellent, complicated topics and a well-rounded "classical" education like the one described, on the other hand the experience of pushing oneself to lead such a "scripted" life for the sake of resumes can lead to some serious burnout.

I had a similar schedule in high school (and, I will admit, quite enjoyed it), with music, sports, scouting, school, and "leadership activities" all showcasing my ability to be the Most Deserving Scholarship Recipient Ever (up here in the Frozen North, there is much less pressure about getting admited to schools and much more about getting offered money). However, I didn't rebel. I hung out with friends in oh-so-wholesome ways. And when I got to university, I read about unschooling and lamented my non-existent motivation.

I think my main beef with this approach to life is the search for balance leaves out the possibility of truly falling in love with something, of finding true inner motivation. How does one find one's path if one has done everything in a reasonable but not in-depth manner? And how does one find motivation to do something if there is nothing one has explored and pursued with energy and passion?

I hear Phantom's burn out, and can echo it in my own life. I did my degree, did it well, and then ... got a job as a nanny. I couldn't stand the thought of doing anything remotely academic. How to fix it and what would I change? I'm not sure. I think the British tradition of a "gap year" before university is an excellent one, providing perspective and pause before being plunged into university and its inevitable career focus.

I have no answers. However, I also find it interesting that while the article discusses girls, in my own subjective experience I didn't see it as gendered (though in retrospect I don't recall boys seeming pressured in the same way). I wonder why.

jackie said...

This article made me think a LOT, being both the mother of two girls and a teacher who will start a job this fall at an exclusive & rigorous private all-girls school!

As a mother, I want my children to have that kind of well-rounded and stimulating education, full of opportunities, and one that opens many doors as far as higher education and careers.

As a teacher, I see girls with anorexia, girls with substance abuse problems, girls breaking down in tears over exams, girls saying at 17 that they feel incredibly stressed/burned out already by their education. I see girls who are so worried about being perfect that they have little room for adventure, passion or originality.

It's a terrible, though very priviledged, dilemma to have on either side, for me.

Chris said...

I was a driven girl 30+ years ago, and have consciously supported different choices for my daughter. She loves, loves science math and technology, and would rather not debate philosophy or find the theme in a novel, so I support her in her passions (regardless of their resume value). I am sure she is not going to get into a top notch school, but I think her enjoyment of life and learning about herself is more important at this age. If she is having to stay up past 11 on school nights to study, then something will have to be cut out. Life is indeed too short.