Today, I spent two hours interviewing high school seniors who were competing for top scholarships at the university I work for. Prior to meeting them, I had a chance to review lists of the activities in which they have been involved throughout the four years of high school. Each young person’s list was more than a page in length, meaning that the activities for each numbered in the high teens through the twenties. Band, sports, community service, church-sponsored activities, peer mentoring. The lists were impressive.
However, when asked to tell us about an issue in her community or the world about which she felt passionate, one student told us that she is concerned about how stressed high school students are these days. They have pressures from family, from friends, from teachers, the community and the colleges competing for their enrollment. She felt that more attention should be given to helping students develop a sense of self-worth and self-determination, rather than so much effort expended in making them marketable.
According to the National Survey of Freshmen, the entering college class of 2010 is the least emotionally healthy class ever. And for the first time, anxiety has overtaken depression as the leading mental health issue reported by students.
Taken together, the student’s words and the survey results give me pause to reconsider the activity lists submitted to us. Were they impressive? Or an example of our society’s desire to put form ahead of substance?
These days, students arrive on the steps of our institutions of higher learning carrying some pretty heavy baggage (both literally and figuratively). They come with plenty of self-focus but very little self-knowledge; having dabbled in many things, often without developing true passion for any one activity; expecting to face difficulties, but with very little resilience when problems arise. Perhaps the root of this is the very idea that our role as the adults in their world is to help them see themselves as a commodity to be groomed for the market – whether that is the college scholarship market or the job market.
Working with college students has been both my career and my vocation. I am not afraid that today’s young people are any more likely to screw up the world than previous generations. I am, however, very concerned that we are likely to screw them up in lasting ways. I recently listened to a TED lecture by Sir Ken Robinson: Bring on the learning revolution! in which he talks about the absurdity of three year olds being interviewed for pre-school. He goes on to make a case for a revolution in education, as opposed to reform. I believe that if such a revolution is to occur, there will need to be a concurrent revolution in the way parents and communities talk about and model what it means to be a mature human being. Otherwise, our adolescents will continue to be stressed, and we will never move beyond this Age of Anxiety in which we are living.