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Tales from the Competitive Marketplace Once Called Schools

Publication Date: 2006-04-27

The competitive frenzy begins in a child's most tender years.

The competitive frenzy begins in a child's most tender years. I imagine it gets worse as you go up the ladder of socio-economic wealth and influence. We are in a rural-like suburban setting but are not far from the competitive influences of two major cities. Our part of the county is home to many high-level government employees, lobbyists, and various affluent professional families. There are pockets of average-income communities, and a smattering of surviving rural communities but they too are changing as real estate is booming and waterfront or water-access is a coveted lifestyle here.

By the time the children are in elementary school, these competitive behaviors have been firmly engrained. The same parents who followed prenatal techniques to prepare their "genius" embryos for designer pre-school activities groom children who literally run over their peers for the opportunity to be first in line.

By first grade my very small, late-birth date child, who practiced polite social skills, verbalized frustration over repeatedly being elbowed into a coat cupboard located by the classroom door. Every time the class would line up to go somewhere, in the frenzy to "be first," someone would knock her right into the cabinet and the doors would close her in. This not only often resulted in hurting her, but terrified her, as the door stayed shut with the weight of the children in line, and her screams of terror were easily masked by the noise of pushing, competing children. By the first week of school, she developed a strategy of sitting at her desk until the frenzied group was outside of her classroom and she learned to covet the end of the line spot.

Early in elementary school, long before they were prepared for or were capable of sophisticated science projects, the children were encouraged and then required to participate in the Science Fair. The projects were a nauseating competition of parents who got right to work on the projects using the latest technological and marketing devices, displayed in the manner of state-of-the art graphic promotions, with calculated entries based on ecological issues (known to be winning entries,) and which were scored by "community members" who had the "inside scoop" on the projects that "should win."

Inevitably, the child who created their own project, chose their thesis, monitored their own results, and presented them in a child-appropriate manner, did not even have the least opportunity to win recognition-- as hand-scrawled signage, and age-appropriate projects wilted next to the expensive, professional displays.

I made a point of visiting the various Science Fair presentations and ventured to ask a few simple questions of the students with the most sophisticated exhibits. I would consistently discover that the student had not participated in nor learned anything about their project but focused, exclusively, on the win. I asked several children questions and quickly discovered that they, like me, were viewing their own projects for the very first time. Obviously, they had gained nothing from their parent?s efforts, including the ability to even pronounce the title of ?their? project. Repeatedly, children, ?reading? from impressive signage could not even correctly pronounce the lofty descriptions nor identify the project as their own.

While the rules for entries prohibited the use of live animals, poisons, or photographs identifying the contestant, one such presentation recorded the fatal results of household cleaners, such as drain-cleaner, on shrimp. The professionally produced "results" prominently featured images of the daughter of one high-level, influential, public school parent leader. Questioned about the child's use of live animals, the principal misguidedly re-classified the shrimp as being part of the plant kingdom.

As winning competitors in the Science Fair, these particular children could not answer the simplest question about their project, the materials, the outcome, or the basis for their "research." Asked by a local reporter to clarify the use of live animals, the parents of one of these children berated the reporter with intimidation and accusations that the trauma of such questioning resulted in a need for therapy to help the child recover from the speculation about fairness and the questionable humane treatment of animals..

The pressure lasts the entire childhood and by high school, the students have been indoctrinated into a mindset of competitiveness that is ugly. My senior daughter is aware of one such fiercely competitive student who, upon receiving rejection letters for her applications to the top 5 Ivy League colleges, has begun a petition to ?make? them reconsider her acceptance. What is pathetic about this is layered and complex, but the child, on a mission to market herself for this goal since her earliest years, is simply not prepared for the answer: ?no.? She did not bother to make ?safety? applications (which is the new college admission security tactic) and is indignant and inflamed over the insult of her rejections. This child believes that by winning various and assorted competitions over the course of her schooling, by completing an orchestrated campaign of community service-like endeavors, by maintaining a competitive grade edge cumulatively, by creating or joining the right club or organization, by taking a torturous load of advanced classes, she has earned the right to the ultimate reward of ?her choosing?: The Ivies.

This competitive environment has thrived and evolved with the policies of NCLB. The school?s promotion of AP classes, as included in the premises of the act, has students taking 5 or 6 AP classes in their senior years. In another week, many of them will be facing the same number of AP tests. While a handful of students may have looked forward to the enrichment opportunities promised by advanced classes, the reality is that these classes function primarily as test-preparation. Students are instructed by teachers on test-taking skills and are repeatedly drilled to master them. What they are taught is that understanding the subject matter, whether it is a foreign language, or advanced science, or math, is secondary and insignificant when compared with the mastery of test-taking technique.

The parents, driven by the concept of ?advanced? placement and by the school-promoted advantage of saving time and money when using these classes to skip basic academic classes in college, have the test-prep market hopping with tutoring and books and programs dedicated to their own child?s ?success? on the tests. The problem is, the students are bored, the teachers are exasperated and jaded, and ultimately, how practical is it to think that the poorly evolved AP classes would substitute for the opportunity to study and learn the fundamentals of any of these subject areas at a good college or university?

The repercussions of the competitive child-rearing strategy follow these children on into their college and university years. The effects of life-long encouraged disregard for other people, lack of socialized empathy, or fairness, or honesty, the lack of personal responsibility, and the cut-throat competitive training, provide a recipe for anti-social behaviors and dysfunctional college-age students. The compromise of meaningful academic study, the lack of intellectual engagement, or relevant knowledge, or anything but generic test-based skills and minimal proficiency as measured by mandated tests, is creating a generation of young adults who are stunted emotionally, socially, and who have no basic disposition or skills for making independent, rational choices or adapting to the independent environment that once was the hallmark of college life.

What will they study in an environment that stresses the fabricated national, but empty, promise of high-tech science and math or Chinese jobs for the future? Is every child really prepared with the fundamental skills, endowed with the aptitude, exhilarated with the interest and passion necessary to pursue these fields? How will they function with the ingrained self-absorption coupled with narrow awareness and lack of self-direction? How will they vote when they are so unaccustomed to and unprepared for seeking out relevant information about current issues? How will they analyze or evaluate for unbiased information when they have been handed sound-bite clips of information for the test and have become so skilled at rote memorization of ?facts? and standards? How will they make or become friends with the same people they were groomed and taught to push out of their way?

No doubt, human nature is a resilient and often almost magical spirit; I hope my presumptions are proven needlessly pessimistic and that the colleges and universities will not follow suit with the principles of NCLB as readily as have the public schools.

Interesting to note, though, as I watch these children, who I have known since my eldest child?s earliest years of pre-school activities and programs, tumble into their next phase of life?it is the same ?pushers? and the ?shovers? who remain at the top of the NCLB game of competition. And, it is these very same children who are beginning to reap some of the payoffs for their fiercely coveted spots at the head of the line. They boost their scores and their averages up for top places in their class performance lists. But, I see also, the effects on them when they face the consequences of having to jump into the water without a parent for a life-preserver. Heads full of rote information and prepared by the most expensive tutoring programs, pockets full of money and entitlement, parents full of power and influence, it is still, at some point in time, up to the child to break out on their own.

I see children, full of fabricated merit awards and commendations being elbowed out of first place by peers who spent a lot of time at the end of the line in their public school careers. These cupboarded students, whose cultural and social strengths, perhaps their own family determination not to sacrifice individuality, these students who looked beyond the academic bars and limits put in to place at their schools, have grown into students who, despite grave odds against it, have risen to the empowerment of self-awareness, and have been welcomed into the remaining independent academic communities for the pursuit of learning and knowledge. You may or may not find them at the Ivy League schools, but you can bet these students will find and be found by the academic institutions that still cherish the art of learning.

Spirit, and spunk, a sense of humility, a cherished sense of individuality, honesty, awareness, and a desire to learn about the world, thankfully, can still triumph over rabid, shallow, competitiveness. It can happen. The battle is just fiercer. The stakes truly are higher. What is at stake now is our humanity.

In another 10 years or so, this generation will hold the torch. ?Who,? I ask my children, ?will you admire?? ?That is easy,? says the youngest, ?I will admire the people who have been kind, who have been helpful, and honest, and cared the most for other people.? ?Who will you be?? I ask. And the eldest responds: ?I will laugh a lot, have great friends, and take walks by the river. I will paint, and play music, read wonderful books, and make delicious meals for my friends and my family. And, I will have a beautiful garden?

On balance, I am happy with their idols and ambitions, and I can?t wait to see the garden.

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