Today's NYT article, titled "On Campus, Failure Is on the Syllabus," by Jessica Bennett, is a must read for parents of rising college students. See here. Children, middle school aged or older, should also read it.
This week happens to mark the end of my four years as Associate Dean for Research and Faculty Development at The University of Maryland Carey School of Law. In that capacity, I was in charge of faculty workshops and other programming, and as I so often said, whatever else happened to land on my plate. It was a position that I greatly enjoyed, although four years is about the right amount of time. The best parts were developing ideas for bringing people together and watching the magic happen. I particularly enjoyed expanding our junior faculty workshop to include junior faculty from other schools, especially the University of Baltimore Law School, our other "regulars," and also faculty from UMBC, George Washington Law School, and Hopkins Carey Business. I enjoyed helping to create, and being part of, this wonderful community of scholars. I enjoyed developing our Learning at Lunch program, allowing law students to gain exposure to ideas that they might otherwise miss with all the other curricular pressures, and to have them interact with faculty over scholarly ideas outside the formal classroom setting. I enjoyed inviting scholars from other schools to speak at our Legal Theory Workshop, and having the chance to offer feedback to them and to my own colleagues. I like to think I played a role, however modest, in helping others embark on a successful scholarly career, a career I have have so greatly enjoyed for now 25 years.
There was one part of the job I disliked. My portfolio included handling student grade grievances. I have had students cry in my office over grades that were shockingly unshocking, at least to me: C+, B-, even B+. I can understand such an emotional response to the occasional D or F, but surprisingly, those weren't the students who cried. Those students seemed to anticipate a low grade, maybe just not quite so low. It was almost always the students accustomed to doing well that found a somewhat lower-than-expected grade, one that might affect a Latin Honors status, so devastating. Some of these students have made me so concerned that I advised them to speak to someone at our campus center for mental health. I have long worried how deep an emotional toll the constant quest for top academic performance takes on our children, even those who are adults in their twenties. I once had a student describe a B- as a failing grade. This came as news to me. Although I had performed well in law school, graduating Order of the Coif and grading onto the Virginia Law Review, by her standard, I had failed in law school, and more than once!
The linked article has a particular focus on Smith College and the University of Pennsylvania; it describes "failing well" at Smith, and "Penn Face," the false pretense of holding up well despite a contrary reality, at my alma mater. I've seen the phenomena described in the article first hand with students who experience their first low grade in the rough and tumble of the law school world. I've often advised those who are thinking of law school that there are some law schools where students enjoy being, and others less so. I encourage them to tour and ask. I've personally spoken with several students making these choices. I've long prided myself that at Maryland, the faculty is deeply committed to the student learning experience. (The same was also true at George Mason, where I taught for the first half my career.) Despite whatever else might divide the Maryland faculty, helping students to succeed remains the number one commitment.
Parents should search colleges in which this is also true, in which students are less apt to define themselves strictly in terms of academic success. No college or university is exempt for these pressures. My alma mater has suffered too many student suicides, see here. One specific incident, involving a young woman named Madison Holleran, now the subject of a book, see here, shook me so deeply that I found myself in tears, and I couldn't stop thinking about it for weeks. My oldest child was then an undergraduate at Penn and knew classmates who knew her. By all accounts, Ms. Holleran was a genuine star, on and off the track field, and when she expressed her unhappiness, her father encouraged her to take the next semester off and to consider an alternative. Even so, like any dedicated and loving parent, he left the final decision to her, letting her return to the place then causing her stress, hoping for the best.
We excessively glorify academic success, often without realizing the toll. The young women and men in college, and even in graduate or professional school, too often lack the life experience that gives perspective. They too often imagine that grades really are as important as they inevitably seem. When everyone is chasing the same ball, we cannot fault them for imagining it is a prize they must have. Sheer numbers prove otherwise. Only a small number of students can be at the top of any class, and there's plenty of evidence that those students are not uniformly the most successful. We all have stories about those who didn't do so well, yet went on to great heights, and of those whose academic stardom fell too soon. The recent story about what happened to high school valedictorians, see here, is just another datum. And although that story claims that multimillionaires tend to have lower GPAs, it is, of course, misleading to imagine that most with low GPAs have a greater chance of becoming millionaires. There is a positive correlation between academic and life successs, but a loose one, one that benefits from a broader perspective and greater understanding, certainly a broader perspective than most who are aged 18-22.
We spend the early part of our lives in school; we don't realize that there's not only more to life, but that life itself is so much more. I say this as someone who has spent a career in academia. I love what I do, and I look forward to returning to my faculty, after a sabbatical and after finishing a book, Law and Economics: Private and Public (with Todd Zywicki and Tom Miceli) (West Publishing Co. 2018). I thoroughly enjoy teaching and writing. It really is who I am, and I knew this early on. I cannot imagine doing anything else. Yes, I'm lucky, and I have never lost sight of my good fortune to find a career I'm so passionate about. I also know that it takes longer, much longer, for most people to find their paths. And almost all find the path outside academia. How boring life would be were it otherwise! And outside academia, we all know that grades are far less important.
If you are sending a child to college (we are about to once more!) or beyond, and even if your children are a few years away, try to situate yourself in their position. Make sure they know that of course you wish them academic success, but most of all you wish them happiness. They will find their way, especially if they have the right perspective. Even as they approach adulthood, they need their parents and the other adults in their lives to help them gain it.
Your comments, as always, are welcome, and yes, as mentioned in my prior post, I'm headed on vacation. This was just too important not to comment on.