How Not to Get Into College:
The Preoccupation with Preparation
by Alfie Kohn
Copyright 2002 by Alfie Kohn
(www.alfiekohn.org). Reprinted with the author's permission.
Education…is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.
-- John Dewey
In 1981, while I was teaching at an independent school, this journal published my very first article about education. It was an ironic commentary, perhaps a tad short on subtlety, entitled "How to Make the Least of Your College Years," and it consisted of ten rules that had already "helped literally millions of students successfully avoid meaningful learning experiences." Among them:
Let grades control your life. All decisions about how to spend your time and plan your academic schedule should be arrived at with grades in mind. Anything that increases the probability of an A is time well spent; conversely, anything that distracts your attention from boosting a grade is time wasted. . . .
Most important of all, always think in terms of "product." . . . If an activity most likely will not lead to a tangible reward…you're better off without it. Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to enjoy something for its own sake.
These bits of paradoxical advice were intended to satirize something that I continue to write about, more than two decades later. Now, however, the sensibility in question shows up long before students even get to college. Indeed, teenagers are making the least of their high school years in large part because of their desperate attempts to get into college.
There's another respect in which my article might need updating. It seemed to imply that students simply choose to act this way and ought to wise up. In effect, I was blaming the victims rather than looking at the systemic factors that turned them into grade grubbers: pressure from teachers and parents, broader social forces, and the existence of grades themselves. The students' behavior may even be an indirect result of well-meaning articles advising educators how to be more effective at preparing each student to triumph over his or her peers and get into the most selective colleges. Such advice distracts us from the terrible costs of that process, particularly when it eclipses other values and goals. Take a step back from discussions about the relative benefits of SAT I and SAT II, or the effects of early admission, or other aspects of the search for more efficient methods for grooming students' transcripts, and ask the deeper, more subversive question: What are we doing to our students in the name of college prep?
A friend of mine who counsels high schoolers in Florida once told me about a client of his who had amazing grades and board scores. It remained only to knock out a dazzling essay on his college applications that would clinch the sale. "Why don't we start with some books that had an impact on you," suggested the counselor. "Tell me about something you've read for pleasure -- not for an assignment." A painful silence followed. There were no books to be listed; the very concept of reading for pleasure was unfamiliar to this stellar student.
A number of years ago, I wrote about an experience I had while addressing the entire student body and faculty of one of the country's most elite prep schools. I spoke, by coincidence, during the cruelest week in April, when the seniors were receiving their college acceptances and rejections. I talked to them about the implications of the race they had joined. For many of these teenagers, it was no longer necessary for parents to stand behind them with a carrot or a stick: each had come to internalize this quest and see his or her childhood as one long period of getting ready. They were joining clubs without enthusiasm because they thought membership would look impressive. They were ignoring -- or perhaps, by now, even forgetting -- what they enjoyed doing. They were asking teachers, "Do we need to know this?" and grimly trying to squeeze out another few points on the G.P.A. or the SAT, in the process losing sleep, losing friends, losing perspective. Many of them may have been desperately unhappy, filled with anxiety and self-doubt. Some of them may have had eating disorders, substance abuse problems, even suicidal thoughts. They might have gone into therapy except they had no spare time.*
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