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.
Could it not be that our ambitions for our children’s success, however we define it, busy our children out of opportunities for their real formation? In my own family, what’s most important seem to be the insignificant events: meals together around the table, Saturday chores, Sundays in the pew.
When our week bulges with hurry, we lose valuable time for practicing neighborly courtesies with each other, for learning good habits like putting away one’s shoes, for engaging conversations that are heart-oriented and gospel-centered. And this only addresses what is lost in our relationship with another. It doesn’t begin to admit how our bustle turns to callous neglect of the hurting and lonely beyond our front door.
For what purpose, parents might ask, have we banished boredom? And for what price have we filled the nooks and crannies of the everyday, cramming out the teachable moments as we sit in our house, and when we walk by the way, and when we lie down, and when we rise (Deut. 6:7)? Will someone finally ask what gets lost in the rush to get somewhere?
I wonder what would happen if Saturday mornings yawned awake, and the day loomed expansively before us. If the summer stretched into boredom, and our children whined about having nothing to do? Or, even if our schedules weren’t zealously overprogrammed, we considered with intentionality how we invest our children’s time?
What if they never developed proficiency in Mandarin, never learned to play the violin, and at 8, didn’t try out for travel soccer? Are we failing our children to refuse to do all that’s necessary to make them “winners in the race we have made in childhood?”
My husband and I are the kinds of parents who should be ambitious to have our children attend an Ivy League school. We believe strongly in the value of good education, and our own graduate degrees, considered by some as impressive, have indeed opened professional doors that might have otherwise remained closed. What’s more, with sacrifice, we could try affording the “ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college-admissions game” (Deresiewicz).
But if the Ivy Leagues were our ambition for our children, we would seem careless to many, leaving far too much “idleness” in our children’s lives than admissible by admissions’ standards. (And far too little, compared to our grandparents’ and parents’ generations.) It seems to us that the price tag of “success,” as currently defined by many American parents (and colleges) is too high. We aren’t willing to pay the time and money for senselessly speeding up childhood.
In our home, there remains time, though still not enough, to play and to argue, to ride bikes and to read. We’re mastering the skills of preparing dinner, of discussing current events, of making an apology. These aren’t impressive credentials, perhaps—but the process of teaching a child to learn to love God and his neighbor can look rather mundane.
I rehearse this to myself as the school year starts—and the rush begins anew.