Exposing The Overachiever Culture

The Overachievers: The Secret Life Of Driven Kids
by Alexandra Robbins

Everyone wants to hear their child is an overachiever, right?

It's a parent's dream: a child who gets straight A's, is active in sports and extracurricular activities, scores high on the SAT, and takes all honors and AP course. Right?

For the child, it might be a nightmare. And it might be far less good for the child's future than it might otherwise appear.

The overachiever culture is what journalist Alexandra Robbins set out to explore when she returned to her high school, Whitman, ten years after she graduated. There she spent a year with students investigating in depth the effect of the Ivy and other college admissions frenzy that fuels the pressures on the lives of kids.

The result of her research has been gathered in a highly readable, endlessly fascinating book, The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. Even if you aren't a high school student or the parent of one, it's a book that sounds a clarion call and warns us that perhaps it is time to take a step back from the huge amounts of pressure that we put on students and the striving for perfectionism and overachievement. It's a book that every person who is at all involved in or cares about education should read.

In this book, Robbins follows the lives of several students, using their lives and experience to explore such issues as admissions counselors, prescription drug abuse, the cheating epidemic (by both students and teachers), the harm caused by standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, teen depression, and sports rage. She even gets into the preschool and kindergarten admissions programs in such places as New York where it can be more difficult to get into an exclusive private kindergarten than it is to get into Harvard. She uses great finesse to combine rich anecdotes with shocking statistics and heart-breaking news stories. The anecdotes of the kids' lives are followed up with news stories, statistics, and analysis, all presented in a highly readable fashion.

Each chapter introduces new facts that can leave anyone who cares about kids alternately shaking one's head or grimacing in frustration. It's a book that acts challenges the nation to change the way we rank our schools and judge our children. There are times when one doesn't want to believe the stories--or to believe that this is a regional problem suffered by an elite few. However, Robbins continually presents evidence that this is not the case.

While this is a topic that could have been dry or pedantic (too many educational tomes are), Robbins manages to completely avoid that. The book was a compelling read and written in such a way that it kept the reader turning the pages, often shaking one's head in wonder at the information presented on the page. Robbins writes in a very clear fashion, providing evidence that is interesting to read and that supports all her points. There are a few times when there might have been extenuating circumstances to explain away some of the issues, but she mostly hit each issue spot on.

The students that she follows are likewise fascinating and highly sympathetic people. There are times when you have to remind yourself that you're not reading fiction--there isn't necessarily going to be a resolution that explains everything or provides a happy ending for everyone. Rather, these are very real teenagers, teenagers who work extremely hard and still struggle with knowing whether they're doing the right thing or not.

Thankfully, she doesn't stop at just illustrating the problems and their severity. She follows up her report on the year with the students with concrete, practical advice on action steps that can be taken by schools, colleges, counselors, parents, and students. They range from such prosaic (though biologically sound and backed up with medical research) advice as delaying high school start times and reinstituting recess for younger children, to boycotting college rankings and scrapping the SAT.

My one complaint about this book is technical in nature. The chapters have no titles other than dates. Yet, each chapter has specific topics that it deals with, topics that you can't find in any easy fashion. A descriptive table of contents would have been exceedingly helpful--especially when re-reading the book or looking for specific chapters.

Robbins' book tells us that we need to scrap the superstar mentality. There are too many students who think they are a failure if they get a B or if anyone is ranked above them in anything. She doesn't encourage mediocrity, but she does advise that students carve their own path, a path that is meaningful and rewarding to them. She advises that students be more than a sum of their numbers (class rank, SAT, GPA) and to embrace a well-rounded life that brings them personal satisfaction.

It's a message well-worth listening to.

--B. Redman