Hyperventilating: The Concerted Cultivation of the Teenager

Jun 1st, 2008

Originally printed as "The Last Word" in the NACAC Journal, Summer 2007 www.nacacnet.org.

By Kirsten Olson

The last 25 years have been busy, and I've always been a little disdainful of those who had time to devote to their colleges-in short, I have not been an attentive alum, and I hadn't returned to campus since my own graduation. I am back with my four children, returning because we are now playing the Get Into College Game, and some of my children may apply here.

Almost against my will, I am stirred. During an unfocused and liminal time, my four years at this college provided me with the first real intellectual experiences of my life, and an incredibly welcome change from the pabulum and regimentation of high school. The trees, grounds and academic buildings of this school are some of the most beautiful in the northeast, and as if in a waking dream, I find myself in deep reverie on some walkways and stairways, remembering. I allow myself to feel gratitude for my college, and affection even--emotions I have held at bay all my life.

Yet because my work also explores educational equity, and the ways in which access to higher education is determined by class, race and wealth, the incredible new signs of bounty and privilege on campus cut deep. My college was always about serving the daughters of the rich-this was, in fact, its founding purpose, to produce well-educated wives and mothers to birth socially responsible and intelligent children to govern future generations. Now co-ed and "hot," on return the school looks more beautiful, more lush and sparklingly manicured than anything in my time. It has a new several million-dollar art gallery, with glass walkways that snake through gothic archways and blend old and new amidst a collection of Francis Bacons, Picassos and old masters. The massively-volumed library, one of the most beautiful in the country, is a contrapposto academic backdrop to the field house, the fitness center, the new dance studio and the black box theatre. The brand new admission building, a temple to selectivity and under-the-radar marketing, quietly knocks out the eye.

In this ethos of privilege and attainment, student life is marketed as super-abundant, and is filled with multiplicities of options. (The ability to choose, and choice as a window on self, for this generation, is paramount.) Students can construct their own academic programs from over 1,000 courses offered on campus or design their own classes. They can spend their junior years abroad, going "anywhere in the world but Antarctica," or attend hundreds of other universities domestically. They converse with their professors in a nine-to-one student-to-faculty ratio and can be taught in any language in the world, should they demonstrate the need. They can produce a Broadway play, attend an international film school without leaving campus, get field work or internships "anywhere," eat vegan or vegetarian meals and charge their on-campus Starbucks lattes to their parents on their meal cards--while still complaining about the quality of the food.

In her book Unequal Childhoods, sociologist Annette Lareau analyzes the hyperventilated world in which many of the students at my alma mater have grown up, calling it "concerted cultivation." Concerted cultivation is the intense focus of middle class/anxious baby boomer parents on the attainments and accomplishments of their children: on providing and prodding and privileging their offspring so that they can go on to be "successes" in a fiercely competitive, zero-sum world. These children, from their Mozart-themed baby playgroups, their private soccer coaches, their biological research trips to Costa Rica, to their hyper-competitive schooling experiences, have experienced an endless push for more production, more achievement, and more glory. Fueled by nightmares that one's children might simply be "ordinary," we ask these children to do a great deal-much more than we ever accomplished ourselves.

We are at a precarious moment in undergraduate college admission, where an echo boom of highly competitive children is washing up against narrow tidal sluices of institutions that will not let them in. In response, kids have whipped themselves into a frenzy, and colleges have followed happily along.

These children also expect a great deal. Decisions about colleges are made on paper-thin "differences" between institutions, all of which, like my alma mater, have extraordinary resources. These kids vacillate between the sense that they "ought" to be admitted wherever they choose and the terrifying notion that they may not get in anywhere. Our delightful tour guide, so accomplished at age 20 that one wonders how the rest of life could possibly live up to the first two decades, is funny and self-effacing. His jazz ensemble, his campaign for dorm president, his work with his media studies chair and his hopes to teach in London after he graduates had not kept him from meaningful political work, watching every television program and important film of the last three decades, or sampling every restaurant in the county. The biochemistry major we meet at the information session after our tour spoke of the joys of double majoring: biochemistry and anthropology, geology and medieval poetry, women's studies and physics. Whatever you want is possible! Whatever you want should be possible!

I wrestle with conflicting feelings. This is entitlement: you can make it all happen. (Simply make the right choices and it will. Simply choose the right college and it will.) With equal portions of anxiety and invincibility, these children are raised on the notion that any challenge is surmountable, any hurdle an invitation-- and by working hard, privilege is "deserved." How hardy are these kids, really? What if they run into real structural resistance, discrimination, outright unfairness, evil? Have they had a taste of any of this? Has their upbringing prepared them for this?

I also wrestle with the frantic demands of pace here and the frenzied picture of optimal life. Everywhere students are lauded for "more": more internships, more coursework, not just two majors but three. Produce a Broadway play while you do biochemical research. Intern in the mayor's office and start an a cappella whistling group. Make a movie and win the poetry contest. Simultaneously, while maintaining a 4.0. In this picture of life, where do adults signal that it is necessary to reflect? To think non-goal-oriented thoughts? To waste time? This is a hyper-speed version of upper-middle class American values: more and faster is better, competitive attainment is paramount, and attach a prize or a tangible accomplishment to the end for real meaning.

My 16-year-old son is clearly wrestling with these issues. "It's all such a game," he says. "The idea that we have to go to a college like this, that we have to be successful in these ways, that we have to pay so much money for a school so we can be with other kids who are incredibly rich, so that they can be incredibly rich and send their kids here." Because he spent five weeks in an African village without electricity last summer, he notes, "This college has more resources than many small countries. It's just weird how life is here."

As we listen to an admission officer "sell" us on the college, she assiduously avoids saying the obvious: this place is incredibly hard to get into and it is unlikely that more than one or two of you in this room will be admitted. (This is part of the school's appeal, of course.) Yet the college must gin up enthusiasm and applications, so that it will remain very high in its peer college rankings, so that its air of selectivity will be maintained, so that the frenzy to attend will continue, so that money will continue to flow in, so that choice, options and more will continue to be generated.

Glancing at a beautiful line of elm trees that edge a walkway as we drive away, I am newly chastened by what we are asking our children to do as they set off to apply for college. Where is the sense of proportionality, of service, of expecting less because it is the right thing to do, in this attainment- oriented undergraduate admission game? Where, in the rest of life, do you simply name the language you want to learn and an institution provides a teacher for you? And if you lead such a life, is this good for personal development?

We are at a precarious moment in undergraduate college admission, where an echo boom of highly competitive children is washing up against narrow tidal sluices of institutions that will not let them in. In response, kids have whipped themselves into a frenzy, and colleges have followed happily along. Underneath this air of great accomplishment and possibility, fear seems not far off: fear of ordinariness, fear of penury, fear of fat times coming to an end. As parents, I think, it is time to face our fears, for our children's sakes.

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