Here’s a refreshing New York Times Week in Review article from April 11, 2004. The title says it all and I agree.
“Straight A’s Can Hurt a College Education”
Straight A’s Can Hurt a College Education
By SARA RIMER
OU can’t blame the undergraduates at the nation’s most selective colleges for feeling confused.
They started building their résumés in high school, or even earlier, for entry into the top colleges that they had been led to believe would assure their future happiness. Following the advice of school guidance counselors, college admissions consultants and parents, they worked relentlessly to amass all the right academic and extracurricular credentials.
Now they are at their prestigious colleges, and increasingly they are told to relax and enjoy their educations. Colleges today are preaching the value of “balance,” “unstructured time” and “learning for learning’s sake.”
In a letter to Harvard undergraduates written three years ago, which is still widely circulated, Harry R. Lewis, who was then the dean of Harvard College, encouraged students to slow down. “You may balance your life better if you participate in some activities purely for fun, rather than to achieve a leadership role that you hope might be a distinctive credential for postgraduate employment,” he wrote.
But what is a student, trained to be hyper-efficient and overachieving, to do? The “slow down” movement on campuses reveals the many mixed messages sent out to students. Universities tout their exclusivity, their low admissions rates, and scour the country for the most desirable students. Then, the newest freshman class of academic superstars – who also happen to be prize-winning scientists, professional-caliber musicians, athletes, leaders and do-gooders – arrive on campus and are promptly told to cool it (but still get high grades to get into good graduate schools).
At Bowdoin College this year, everyone from the president, Barry Mills, to the dean of student affairs, Craig W. Bradley, to the director of counseling, Bob Vilas, has been talking about savoring education, taking the time to enjoy learning. The students are all for the joy of learning. In fact, many of them say that Bowdoin, a small elite college in Brunswick, Me., has been a happy intellectual awakening after the grim pursuit of grades and extracurriculars that was high school.
But as Karen Jacobson, a senior, pointed out, if she and her classmates had rebelled against the résumé-building path to college that had been laid out for them, they might not have gotten into Bowdoin at all.
At Harvard, which just last week admitted 2,029 freshmen for next year – out of 19,750 applications – William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admissions and financial aid, said that he understands why students feel confused. “It is a conundrum,” said Mr. Fitzsimmons, whose office wrote the now-famous “Time Out or Burn Out for the Next Generation” paper, lamenting the fast-track lives of students. “In a way we can be viewed as hypocritical ourselves. I think in a way we’re trying to be helpful. Not just life in high school, life in college – all of life presents a set of tradeoffs.”
It is not easy to slow down when you’ve been programmed and scheduled since elementary school. And then you get to high school, and all you hear about is how hard you have to work to get into a prestigious college (not going to a prestigious college is somehow not an option).
“Not only do you need to be involved in a lot of different things, but you need to be the head because you need to show a commitment,” said Kyle Staller, a Bowdoin senior, who was a straight-A student at Beverly High School, in Beverly, Mass., president of the school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, editor of the school newspaper, vice president of the junior class and co-captain of the track team, among other achievements.
Mr. Staller said he has discovered multiple passions at Bowdoin – the German language that is his major, pre-med classes in biology and chemistry and the student newspaper, the Orient, where he is the editor. But he wants to be a doctor specializing in family practice, and one of the medical-school admission guidebooks has him worried.
“I tell everyone, ‘You come to college to find out what you love, how to make mistakes, how to follow your passion,’ ” said Elaine Tuttle Hansen, the president of Bates College, in Lewiston, Me. “It’s very hard to follow that message and act on it when there’s so much competition to get in, in the first place, and with all the hype around rankings, and when there is so much competition for every job. All those forces in American culture are working against students.”
In a way, the ever-intensifying competition grows out of a profoundly democratic movement toward meritocratic admissions. Increasing numbers of young people have been admitted to institutions that were, just 40 years ago, bastions of wealthy, privileged, Protestant white male elites.
Now, constantly growing numbers of applicants compete for the same number of slots.
“You want to make this resource of an outstanding faculty and an outstanding library and laboratories available to the very strongest students you can find,” said James O. Freedman, president emeritus of Dartmouth College, and the author of “Liberal Education and the Public Interest” (University of Iowa Press, 2003).
What concerns Mr. Freedman and other college officials is that some students have been so programmed that they haven’t had time to be reflective, which gets in the way of their educations. In his book, Mr. Freedman wrote that a liberal education is about grappling with life’s most important questions as preparation for the moral dilemmas and disappointments of life beyond the college years. The “hyper-managed lives of contemporary students” get in the way of these questions, Mr. Freedman said.
Nor is taking chances an easy thing for students to do. “By the time we get these young people, what they bring with them are often very high levels of perfectionism and a kind of fear that blocks the joyful intellectual exploration that college ought to be about,” said Steven E. Hyman, the provost at Harvard and the former director of the National Institute of Mental Health.
Meanwhile, at Bowdoin, Elliott Wright, a senior, said he has renounced the compulsive busyness of his high school years and is now “on a mission to find my mission.” Instead of preparing for medical school, as originally planned, he is starting an organic vegetable garden and hoping for a career in the nonprofit world.
“You know what’s scary to me?” Mr. Wright said recently. “When my sister at age 13 came to me with a small pile of certificates from elementary school. She was résumé building. I couldn’t believe it.”
The message is still very meaningful four years later.