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When Childhood Has Become a Race

Aug 26 2014
Goodbye busy summer, hello busy school year: What have we lost in the rush?

In a July article for The New Republic, William Deresiewicz admonished parents to abandon Ivy League ambitions for their children. Having spent 24 years at Columbia and Yale, he surmises that students at our most elite universities have lost their sense of purpose.

These high-achieving students may be “winners in the race we have made of childhood.” They may have mastered “a double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, [and] a few hobbies thrown in for good measure.” But if they are great at what they’re doing, they have no idea why they’re doing it.

Joshua Rothman, in a response published in The New Yorker, draws a different conclusion about the apparent soullessness of today’s best and brightest. He concludes that Deresiewicz mistakenly ascribes “to his students, as personal failings, the problems of the age in which they live.”

According to Rothman, Stanford and Brown aren’t the problem but the symptom. Modernity itself is the culprit. Everything and everyone is running at breakneck speed (not just at Harvard), and the busyness masks a troubling ambivalence of our era: “Careers means more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.” We may be racing—but are we sure of where we’re going? Have we defined the goals worth pursuing?

Christians can imagine a different kind of flourishing for our children and grandchildren—something other than busy lives built on the sand of impressive resumés. But it will require self-examination: How guilty are we of making childhood a race? Though we may not entertain ambitions of sending our children to the Ivies, have we not surrendered ourselves and our children to the dizzying, soul-destroying pace of modernity?

I’m apt to think the Christian family on the block is as busy as their neighbors. With parental fervor, we chauffeur our children to music lessons, math tutoring, karate class, AND Awana.

Playing the role of dutiful parent, we enroll our children in travel leagues, sign them up for SAT prep classes, and fill their summers with important occasions of cultural exposure (even mission trips). This is what is expected of us, and we oblige, despite our nagging sense—and frequent complaining—that we’re too busy.

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