This column has been updated
By Ben Faulkner
The first time I sat down to read college applications for my job, I was incredibly nervous. Unlike most of my admissions reading peers, I wasn’t evaluating for general admission to my university; I was reading for admission into the honors program—which, by nature, meant I would be evaluating the “smart” kids. I knew they were going to be the crème de la crème of their high schools, so I braced myself for something akin to the Instagram envy of college application reading.
Without going into too many specifics, of course, I will say that these students were unbelievable—talented, hard working, and top achievers in their high schools and communities. But when I finally finished my set of applications, I leaned back in my chair and exhaled, not in relief, but in a kind of despair. These students were so incredible that I could sense them asking in their essays: when is it enough?
In the 2010 documentary “Race to Nowhere,” a student at a California high school tells the audience of parents and peers at a school-wide Forum on Stress that the worst thing you can ask a high school student is—and? “I find that that question comes up all the time,” she says into the microphone. “Everyone expects us to be superheroes. We need to be doing more. Why aren’t we doing more for our community? Why aren’t you working harder in school? Sometimes parents need to just step back and say, ‘You know what? You’ve done a really good job’.”
I couldn’t agree more. Anyone working in American education today knows that our high school students are under a tremendous amount of pressure to get into a top college. The process has become so competitive that it leaves students winded, jaded, and having lost sight of why one goes to school in the first place. They put so much of themselves on the line in the hopes of being told “yes,” that I worry this isn’t just an administrative crisis of bloat—but more critically, it is a spiritual crisis. And it is rocking our young people to the core. I use the word “spiritual” intentionally: after reading nearly seven hundred of these amazing applications, it seemed like students (and, let’s be honest, their parents) were placing their very worth as humans on the line just to get into a top college. I have to ask: what do we need this for?
To be fair, I do think it’s exciting that students are pushing themselves. It’s why I work in a university honors program. And among the pile of applications, there definitely were students who’d pioneered unique territory for themselves, avoided the AP craze, and participated in extracurriculars simply because it lit their fire. Still, they seemed to be the exception.
At no point in the process should the value and worth of our young people be in question, yet the race to get into a competitive college (and to get the academic scholarships many need to pay for it) makes it feel as if that is the case. The messaging our young people are learning is that the more productive you are, the more you’re worth. (Sound familiar?) Working hard is nothing to thumb your nose at, but much about the human spirit is lost when its value is equated solely to busyness, productivity, and stress. It is a shame we have baked this ruthlessness into our education system, which is supposed to be the main democratic tool for improving one’s life.
Those of working in this system should understand that high school students need the validation of people around them as they figure out who they are. They need both pushing and safety—not a system that ultimately turns them away from the joy of learning. Their lives matter too much for that.