I was at my nephew’s graduation last night.
I watched all the pomp and circumstance. I listened as the co-valedictorians shared a joint address to a football stadium full of proud parents, family members, and friends. I once again began to question the path we’re sending our young people down.
Being named valedictorian is a huge honor in high school.
These days kids compete to be the best in the class. They measure GPA’s, take as many advanced placement courses as they can, and track their class ranking all four years of high school.
These two young women received the honor of speaking at their commencement by earning the highest GPAs in the class: 4.75. I remember when I was in high school earning a 4.0 was the gold standard. Not any more. With advanced placement courses students are now reaching toward 5.0. I wonder where it will stop?
As I listened to these two young women speak, who in addition to their stellar GPAs had a long list of extracurricular accomplishments to boot, I was pleased to hear them talk about seeking happiness in life, and not just success. They spoke to their classmates about this being the end of their predetermined path. Now their lives, and their choices, were up to them. They could do whatever they want. No matter what anyone says or thinks. They counseled their friends to choose their own path.
It was nice to hear two young people recognizing the importance of happiness as a goal, particularly at an event that was so clearly focused on celebrating success.
The honors students were clearly recognizable in their designated color gowns, and by the fact they led the processional into the stadium, and had front row seats for the celebration.
The accomplishments of the most exemplary students were shared over the loudspeaker, as they were welcomed on stage to accept their awards. Students were invited to stand as their impending college name was announced, until nearly every student seated in the chairs on the field was standing.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t celebrate high school graduation or these kids who have worked so hard.
Yes, they deserve recognition. I just wonder if we’re getting so focused on grades, achievement, college, and success that our kids are losing focus on what their ultimate goal ought to be: a career they enjoy and a life that makes them happy. With all the focus on success and accomplishment, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention there’s plenty of research proving that’s not where happiness is found. If you have any doubt, you may want to check out my last book, Breaking the Spell.
So, while I was pleased to hear these two accomplished young women encourage their classmates to seek their own path, I had to wonder if they really were. First of all, let me express this is not about judgment. I don’t know these kids or anything about them other than what was shared in their introductions last night. They’re clearly good kids with promising futures. And I can only hope happy ones, too.
This is merely an observation.
A question that arose in my mind this morning as I was contemplating the ceremony last night.
Are kids who have been led by society, or teachers, or parents (who all mean well I’m sure) to excel in school and over schedule themselves just so they can get into a good college, really exercising choice when they then go to that college?
If any choice is OK and is not to be judged, why do we only celebrate the students whose next step is college, or the military? What about those who have decided they want to travel, or work, or do something else?
When 90% of the graduating class is going to college, are they really exercising choice, or are they continuing to follow a predetermined path?
I don’t believe it was always this way.
When I was in high school it certainly wasn’t. Sure, a lot of kids went to college, but I couldn’t have told you who went and who didn’t. It wasn’t celebrated the way it is today. It was just the next step for some students. I don’t remember thinking or talking much about college when I was in high school. I earned good grades but I wasn’t busy trying to earn the highest GPA in my class, or land a college scholarship. I simply did my best and when I was done, moved on to junior college. Some of my friends did the same. Some chose to go to work instead. It truly was the end of our predetermined path and we were free to do what suited us best.
Somewhere in the past 20-30 years that changed.
When my kids were in high school (they’re now 24 and 26 years old) it was getting pretty competitive, but it still wasn’t like it is today. My daughter played sports and while she was a great student, her focus was on earning a sports scholarship. So that’s where she felt the pressure.
I’m sure as parents we’re partly to blame.
We want our kids to succeed in life. We want them to have things maybe we didn’t. For example, I put myself through college and graduated in debt. The thought my daughter could have her college career paid for, and she could experience going away to school and attending a better college than I did, was enticing. I’m sure we all got caught up in the excitement and competitiveness of the entire pursuit. It was hard not to when her teammates were being recruited to great schools all across the country. And honestly, while my daughter ended up at a small division three school in the middle of Ohio (not the big division one sports programs that were the goal), that experience shaped her life in ways staying at home and going to school never could have. She also realized pretty quickly she was grateful she wasn’t recruited into a division one sports program. Her college experience suited her just fine.
For that, I’m grateful and so is she.
I also remember sitting on the airplane getting ready to fly home after dropping her off as a freshman and someone sitting across the aisle who saw me holding a college brochure, commenting “your daughter will be able to do anything when she graduates from that school.” Of course, it was a proud moment for me. And a promising one. Who doesn’t want their child to be able to do whatever she wants?
But I’m not sure kids graduating from college nowadays really can do anything they want.
They have college loans to pay off and many have trouble finding work in their field of study. Or at least satisfying work.
Eight years and two degrees later my daughter is now working full time in her chosen field of study and would be the first to admit it’s not all she expected it to be. I have to wonder how much of it is the job and how much of it is mismanaged expectations because of the system she came through.
When I think back to when I graduated from college I was thrilled to begin working in my field of study. Yes, it was a full time job but I looked forward to going to work and making a contribution. It was an exciting time. Interestingly, I also took a year off college mid way through because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I only went back when I was motivated to work toward a career.
With so much focus on education, I wonder if we’re not truly preparing kids for life.
Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that I don’t believe in education. I think it’s a wonderful thing, when it’s used appropriately—as a means to an end. Or, as a time to grow and experience life. But not as an expression of, or reward for, success in and of itself.
I have to wonder if we’re not hyping up education as the destination so much that kids can’t help but have unrealistic expectations. If they’ve gone to college because “that’s what you do”, or what parents or teachers or society expect you to do, and not because they know they need a degree in X to get a job doing Y, or just because they want to have the experience, what happens when college is over?
On a seemingly unrelated note, there’s another movement that may indicate millennials are re-evaluating the path they’ve been given and are deciding to change things: The tiny house movement. A recent USA Today article shared that recession-scarred millennials are fueling a big part of the tiny house movement in an effort to avoid debt and being slave to a job they hate, as many watched their parents do.
This is not a commentary on whether college is good or bad.
Clearly it’s the right choice for some kids, and not for others. What I’m asking is whether we are giving kids the chance to make that choice. Or, are we leading them all down the same path, whether it’s the right one for them or not. And, are we silently shaming those who choose not to attend college. Not by saying or doing anything explicit, but more by what we don’t say or do. By the fact they don’t seem to matter or be celebrated as much.
I wish I could wrap up this post with an answer or some wise words of wisdom.
However, as I said at the beginning, this is merely an observation. Albeit, one that has concerned me since I wrote Breaking the Spell back in 2012. And, one that continues to concern me when I attend graduations each spring and when I see twenty-something’s with great educations feeling dissatisfied with life, and working for the weekend. They have their entire lives ahead of them and they ought to be excited, not dreading Mondays.
I suppose in closing I would say my wish is this…
I would love to see more emphasis placed on helping kids decide what they’d like to be when they grow up. To identify careers that will make them happy and enable them to make a contribution to society. To take advantage of their unique gifts and talents. To discover the best way they can become responsible adults and support the lifestyle of their choosing. To truly identify their best career and life path, whether it involves college or not. To see individuality celebrated, and to honor those who pursue trades or travel or volunteer work… or simply go out and get a job until they decide what they’d like to do with their lives.
I guess what I’d really like to see is a real end to the predetermined path and a celebration of each child as an individual with their own gifts to share with the world and the true freedom to pursue whatever suits them best.
What does this have to do with Meaning at Midlife?
Many of us are parents of these kids. As one of those parents, I feel a responsibility to step back and look at what role I may have played in creating this situation. And, to consider what we can do differently to help the next generation of kids. If nothing else, my hope is to raise the issue and start a conversation.