Thursday, June 14, 2012

When "Success" Becomes Lethal

This past Sunday the New York Times ran a lengthy article about students (high school and college) who use "study drugs" -- ADHD medications like Adderall are regularly sold under the table in schools to help stressed students get ahead. 

This shorter article excerpts poignant testimony of student addicts. Many of their stories follow similar themes: overwhelmed by the pressure from teachers, society, and parents to perform well and be successful, they succumbed to the pressure to enhance their attention with easy-to-get ADHD medication. Contrary to their expectations (based on the anti-drug themes they'd grown up with), the results were instantaneous and first.  Now, many are addicted and regretful.

In Their Own Words: "Study Drugs" 

I found this student's comment especially telling:
Let me say first off that I take full responsibility in choosing to take Adderall as a study drug. It definitely helped me get good grades during finals, but plenty of students get good grades without it, and I would understand if somebody in my classes felt cheated because I took it.
That being said, the immense pressure put on students by parents and educators has made taking speed a socially acceptable thing. I come from a family that gets disappointed and chews me out for B's or even B+'s and A-'s. My whole life I've been told that, no matter how smart I am, the only way to be successful (see: acceptable) is through academic excellence. Now, would my parents be upset that I've taken study drugs? Probably, and that's just symptomatic of the problem.
I'm sick of the expectation of a “perfect” kid. The parents and educators in this article who express shock at kids using study drugs ought to look in the mirror; they are equally responsible. College is harder to get into today than it was and it is much more stressful and difficult once you get in. Change your unrealistic expectations or take the My Kid is an Honor Student bumper sticker off your minivan.
I've been at the giving end of that kind of pressure. Teachers know that a push to achieve something beyond what a student believes is possible may be necessary to get some students out of a rut or laziness or low expectations for themselves and moving toward real growth and change.

But I've also been the one pushing students into "faster, higher, stronger, better" when it probably wasn't the best choice.  You don't really know until you see them break, and then you realize "that was probably too much."

So how do we know when to push and when to relax? Many people worry that we coddle kids too much these days. What's the balance?

The students cited in the NYT article all cite unmanageable workloads and unrealistic expectations.

We need to delve into the definition of "success" in the educational venture, and even consider the purpose of education in the broad sense, to begin to unravel what "realistic expectations" should be in a biblically normative classroom. 

Any definition of success that defines a person's worth by what they can do rather than what they are (character) seems to emphasize product over process. I am more interested in a student becoming a life-long learner, curious about the world and how it works, than what they "know" at any given point.

Put another way -- if our purpose on this earth is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever; if we  want our schools to equip students for Kingdom living -- shouldn't our schools recognize more than just academic accomplishment?
If I speak with the tongue of a Harvard Business grad but have not love, I sound like a clanging gong played by a toddler.
If I gain admission to a top-20 school, but have not love, it's not really worth anything.
If I define success according to academic performance or career goals but ignore the child's own desires and talents, it hurts both of us in the long run.
If I make a student think I am proud of her when she gets good grades and unhappy with her when she doesn't "perform" to the level I think is appropriate, have I not redefined my relationship with her into a performance-based hamster wheel?

It's time to challenge the established 5-hour SAT testing sessions, cut-throat races for scholarship money, and underlying assumptions about the role of a college education as the route to success for the overwhelming number of high school students.

It's time to question the usefulness of worksheets and homework, the validity of the school day chopped into 7 or 8 45-minute periods, a 3-month summer vacation, or the value of the lingering 20th century American curriculum in a 21st century world.

It's time to reclaim a more biblical notion of "success."

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