Judith Warner in the New York Times reacts to an article about the high-achieving high scool girls of Newton, Massachusetts, a wealthy, liberal enclave. Warner's message is that these girls are chasing for the brass ring by trying to outperform their academic peers in high school in grades and in extracurricular achievements; yet for what purpose? The only two students from Newton North who got into the top universities this year are called Dan. Why were these two Dans so successful while the Danielles were not?
Warner doesn't really tell us, but the feeling I get from her piece is that she somehow thinks it's because boys don't try so hard:
I still remember the day when I was in my mid-20s that Cate, my best friend from college, told me her cousin had gotten into Harvard.
She laughed as I expressed my congratulations. "She doesn't know that it's all downhill from here," she said.
I've thought about this exchange many times in the course of my adult life. It came to mind, most recently, when I read Sara Rimer's intriguing piece in The New York Times last Sunday about the "amazing girls" of Newton North High School.
These were girls who took multiple Advanced Placement classes while playing multiple sports and musical instruments, winning top prizes, starring in plays, helping the homeless and achieving fluency in one or two foreign languages. More amazing still: despite all this incredible accomplishment, they weren't guaranteed access to their first-choice colleges.
I felt a bit sick at heart, at first, when I read this.
And then I thought: It's probably the best thing that could have happened to them.
We should also maybe — and I can feel the rumble of disapproval starting already — take another look at our boys. They're said to be failing, wretchedly falling behind the girls in the great grades race. Yet they still account for half the admissions to top schools. (The trend toward the "feminization" of higher education doesn't hold up in the Ivy League; in Rimer's piece the two who made it into Brown and Harvard both were named Dan.) And their elders still, in the long run, out-earn and outperform our girls. Is it possible that they're onto something, like the fact that in the long run getting perfect grades and winning all the top prizes doesn't really matter? That what really matters is how you live your life after graduation and how you function in the world, channeling your energies at the right time and place and when the right people are watching? Time will tell.
Warner says a lot of interesting and useful things in her column. For instance, she points out the impossible chase for perfection that so many upper class students are told to follow as a practical guide for life, and she points out that perfection is impossible and later on may start feeling to them as if they were living "life with a gun pointed to their heads. Every day brings a new minefield of incipient failure: the too-tight pants, the peeling wallpaper, the unbrilliant career."
And Warner also stresses the importance of passion, the fire and wind that in the best scenarios fuels our career choices and our lives in general, and whatever else passion is it is certainly not goody-two-shoes perfectionist. Passion prefers to be roughly right than exactly wrong, passion is as likely to kiss you in the face as to slap you in the face.
But she is also very, very silent about the reasons why these very privileged and fairly unusual girls try so hard. What is it that birthed their desire for perfection? Why do they think that they must please everything and everybody to succeed? And why does Warner not point out that men might be more likely to succeed because of the old-boy-networks and because of both individual and institutional sexism in the labor markets?
And why is it that I have an uncomfortable deja vue feeling all over again, a feeling that if only women tried harder (in this case that would mean trying less hard) then they would be happier. If girls did THIS and not THAT then they would have good careers and happy families and love lives. Let's open up the skulls of these girls and let's really poke in their to find out why they are performing too well.
Warner is quite correct in arguing that the upper classes in the United States and in many other countries are overeducating their children in this sense of the futile search for perfection. But something is lacking in the advice I glean from her column. What is it that these liberal and wealthy parents should do to make their daughters happier? What is it that these liberal mothers should do, because that is the audience for this column? Should they just let their daughters hang out, listening to misogynistic hip-hop or rap music? Should they let their daughters obsess about boys and about how to be sexy? I'm grasping for the concept I'm looking for, but it ultimately boils down to the feeling I have that these mothers are offered different patriarchal scripts for their daughters and not the real script.
The real script by necessity would include discussing the wider social ramifications a little more, and it would start by pointing out that girls this lucky are very rare in reality, that the problem the column addresses applies to extremely few American families.
The script would then point out how lucky these girls truly are because they have opportunities that other women in the past and even now do not have, and suggest ways for helping the rest of the women who are not as lucky. But the script would not deny the sexist expectations that limit these young girls' futures, either. It would ask some probing questions, such as the question about why women need to be goody two-shoes to succeed. Because they do need to be that, as anyone who has studied women's labor market experiences can tell you. And the script would ask why these girls might not be mistaken in their assumption that they HAVE to outperform everybody just to get a level playing field later on. Finally, the script would point out that feeling disappointed at the rest of your life doesn't necessarily mean that your initial choices were wrong. It might also mean that the world treats you by giving you impossibly patriarchal scripts to play and then blames you for not getting the roles down pat.