In mid-March a collective gasp erupted across the country as people were stunned – stunned! – to discover that rich people sometimes buy their way into elite universities. The Justice Department charged 50 people, including 33 super-wealthy parents, with paying William “Rick” Singer to bribe coaches, test proctors and others so the children of said wealthy parents would get into elite colleges.
Never mind there was scant evidence that the young adults belonged at Yale or Stanford. Mom and Dad wanted their offspring to have the best. But then the FBI launched “Operation Varsity Blues,” and the best turned bust. The revulsion over further evidence that collegiate admittance is not necessarily based on meritocracy reverberated for weeks.
It’s enough to make someone who works in higher education – this someone in particular – want to poke pencils in my eyes. Not because the scam happened or even because I wish part of my job entailed coming up with cool code names like “Operation Varsity Blues.”
No, my self-mutilation urge comes from wondering why parents haven’t heard me as I’ve howled to the universe, “Stop helping your kids so much!”
While elite universities serve an important purpose and I, for one, would give away my firstborn so I could have just one semester with Harvard’s brilliant minds, it is incorrect to think one needs an Ivy League degree to be successful or change the world, no matter what scam artists like Singer say.
What you do need, however, is to be teachable. Sadly, an unscientific review of evidence from university professors, colleagues across the country, internship recruiters and even students themselves has revealed that more and more young adults coming to college lack teachability.
To be teachable, you must have learned early on that you can try something difficult, fail at it, try again multiple times and eventually succeed. As Clark University psychology professor Wendy Grolnick has shown through research on autonomy-supportive parenting, children who push past their first urge of “I can’t” to “I did it!” are teachable. Likewise, kids who can’t work through frustration – and, tellingly, boredom – are literally less able to learn.
Some of this grit shortage comes from the hard-right turn U.S. schools took toward “teaching to the test” about 15 years go. Students may graduate high school with stellar GPAs, but ask them to figure out something from scratch in college – something without a rubric attached – and they panic. Then they call their parents, who call the university provost, who calls the professor, who meets with the student and — well, you can guess the rest.
Well-meaning parents seem to believe they should help their children 24-7. It starts with bringing a child her lunch when she forgot it at home, moves to spending all night “assisting” on a science fair project and ends with “editing” a college application essay. All this “support” has inadvertently led to less teachability and fear of the real tasks of deep learning.
Each fall I give a presentation to new freshman in the University of Arizona School of Journalism. I tell them college is about learning to learn, about making your brain grow, about building both breadth and depth of experience. Take those hard classes, I say, even if you get a C. Your brain will be better for it.
The reaction has been the same for the past four years: Students say they’d “die” if they ever got even a B, much less a C or D. They’d much rather avoid a difficult course they are desperately interested in than risk a chance of earning less than an A from a challenging professor. This doesn’t bode well for any of us.
Parents should gird their children with skills to fight through tough tasks so they build their self-confidence and resilience in the face of learning. Encourage them, yes. Help them figure out that algebra, absolutely. Set aside time for practicing that cello. But then, let them fall and fail and learn they can survive.
Pushing children out of the nest isn’t a once and done thing. It starts young and happens throughout childhood. It can be painful for everyone, but it is the only way wings grow strong enough for children to fly – and learn – on their own.