My sons enjoyed a particularly illustrious array of caretakers in their early years. Thanks to my job, their “babysitters” included students who went on to win Rhodes, Gates, Fulbrights and other impressive accolades. I met their father as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University in the UK. My father is an emeritus professor. The president and provost of the university where I was a faculty brat before I became faculty live in our neighborhood. On any given morning, the elementary school playground could make quorum for a faculty meeting.
Although my sons imbibed an academic ethos with their mother’s milk, I struggled to protect them from the achievement anxiety that runs rampant among the ambitious but insecure. My older son entered the world as I completed my doctorate at Princeton. His grandfather spent time at MIT. His dad went to Oxford and Cambridge. These schools made up the distant dots on my boys’ educational landscape. Thus, I was perplexed when Son Number One asked me about Yale. As it turned out, it appeared in The Suite Life. If fictional Cody was worried about college, then so was my son. I held to my mantra that grades didn’t matter, but the seeds of doubt germinated. When I lobbied against exam anxiety, my irate child questioned my sanity. Apparently, parents are supposed to pressure their kids about grades, and everything counts towards college. He wanted to trade me for a tiger mother!
Son Number Two’s college anxiety commenced when fifth grade rolled around. A classmate who loves all things Apple expressed shock that my son had never heard of Stanford. The iKid thought my son might want to go there someday. My child replied that he wished to attend Northwestern as an undergraduate and MIT as an “overgraduate.” When he relayed the tale to me, I struggled to contain my mixed expressions of horror and hilarity, then explained the semantic slip. I was in trouble, again; this time, for my failure to familiarize my offspring with Stanford’s academic brand. While I wanted to lecture iKid that Steve Jobs dropped out of Reed not Stanford, I held back. The little bit of collegiate knowledge these tweens already possess is a dangerous thing. More would not make for merrier, I mused.
Kids years away from filling out a FAFSA discuss college fund investment strategies from the back seat. Do I have a college fund? Is it in stocks? While I prefer knowledge to ignorance, I harbor a lingering desire for wisdom unencumbered by worry. Surely some happy medium exists between the college seniors, who give me blank stares when I ask if they have any money remaining in a 529 account, and my son, who at age nine became obsessed with whether or not he had a college fund with shares in Apple.
Last week my younger son, now a sixth grader, asked me if my older son, now a high school freshman, would have to get straight As in order to attend college. He seemed relieved when I replied with an emphatic, “NO!” Around the same age, my older son expressed surprise when he learned not everyone graduates from college. Given his surroundings, he assumed university to be a universal stage in the Euro-American life cycle. I quickly disabused him of this notion with a turgid discussion of socio-economic impacts on academic opportunity. Again, I struggle to find balance between extreme perceptions. A few B’s would not keep a child from attending college, but an inability to negotiate the financial labyrinth of higher education frequently does.
I want my sons to follow their dreams and to expand the dreams available to others. If the playground splits into those who consider anything but Yale unacceptable and those who don’t dare dream of ivy covered halls at all, we in the US have lost the battle of the last century and a half since the land-grant universities tried to bring rarified learning to the average American.
As I wrote this piece, Princeton tweeted out an article about the thirteenth annual “Ivies versus Inmates” chess tournament. Five undergraduates played sixty prisoners with the expected outcome: the Princetonians won. The prisoners claimed to enjoy the experience, but I couldn’t help my discomfiture at the image. Inmates have already lost a far more important competition for a productive place in society. Publicizing their subsequent loss to the “winners” of the Ivy League seemed cruel. The playground scramble seeks to culminate with degree from places like Princeton. Parents’ worst nightmares feature offspring in prison. The ratio of five superstars to sixty behind bars seemed frighteningly like foreshadowing of a dark world with only 1 “have” to 12 “have-nots.”
With statistics like those, I understand why tweens are terrified.
Evanston, Illinois in the US
Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective; a contributor to The Historical Society Blog; and a senior associate director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she teaches History and American Studies. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to http://elizabethlewispardoe.com.