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September 29, 2009
Kathleen Macdonell
Upper School Director and Academic Dean

Was Einstein Right?

"The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift."
                               –Albert Einstein

We just observed the 8th anniversary of 9/11, and it brought back to me how frightening and sad those first few months after it had been for all of us, and reminded me how it really changed the landscape of our minds in an irrevocable way.  Now we are facing the threat of a global pandemic as well as surviving the effects of the financial crisis– not to mention the prospect of drastic climate change and now the knowledge that Iran is working on nuclear weapons.  A world filled with anxiety.  I used to always think about medieval walled cities – how quaint to be able to keep an enemy at bay by high walls and fortified towers.  We seem to be surrounded by difficulties that challenge our very existence – difficulties that can’t be avoided by building high walls or hiding in the woods until the danger passes.  It’s no wonder that we all go around with permanently clenched jaws or tight shoulder muscles – it seems that no amount of yoga or running or massage can relieve those symptoms.

I have noticed one other effect of this anxiety, one that has an impact on our daily lives here at Lincoln.  In an effort to control the uncontrollable, in the desire to make the lives of our children as safe and successful as they can possibly be against this uneasy background, there seems to be a rise in the level of expectations for their academic performance.  A desire to make sure they have all the opportunities possible makes us strive to do everything we can to keep those options open for them.  This desire is laudable, but it can lead to an expectation of perfection, an expectation that our students can’t make mistakes, that they must do everything at the highest level in order to be successful in this crazy world.

This kind of pressure on teenagers can have unintended consequences.  At its most extreme it can “make our children sick,” in the words of former MIT Dean of Admissions Marilee Jones, who goes on to cite statistics showing the increase of control disorders and various other kinds of psychological distress.  She has become a national spokesperson advocating a less stressful approach to college admissions, an approach that would free students from their tendency to make decisions in high school about courses and activities always based on what they think college admissions officers will think, a fresh approach that would allow them to choose the courses they really wanted to take, rather than trying to take the largest number of AP courses possible, an approach that would allow them to focus on the activities they were truly interested in, rather than just embellishing their transcripts, an approach that would give students time to think, to digest what they were learning, to let them have time to indulge their imaginations.

There are other worrisome consequences for this quest for perfection.  Students can be so tense and worried about their grades that they take no pleasure in learning, but see each course, each test or paper or project, each quiz, a hurdle to be jumped over, a task to be mastered, and lose all the pleasure in learning new things, in thinking new thoughts, in discussing interesting ideas.  This quest also puts a crimp on their creativity – as they tend to be careful in their work, not risking a controversial position or a new way to look at an idea, lest they fall short of perfection while they are wrestling with finding a new, interesting way to look at a topic.  Certainly as we look to the future, to the huge problems facing us, we know that the solutions to those problems will come from those who have the ability to think and see creatively, and I fear that an education that focuses on always having the right answer will stunt the development of that creativity and intuition.

Perhaps the consequence that worries me the most, though, is a concern for how these students will face the hard things that will inevitably befall them in the years ahead.  It takes practice to learn that you can face a challenge, get a bad grade, fail at something, not get the job you wanted, have a boyfriend leave you, and still move on and have a good life.  Lincoln is a good place to get that practice, a place where students are surrounded by adults who care about them and who will help teach them how to get up when they have fallen.  My last position was at a school in California, beautifully situated on a mesa overlooking the mountains and the ocean; to reach the school you had to drive up a winding mountain road.  There were speed bumps strategically placed along the road, with signs at the bottom of the hill announcing them:  “Bumps Ahead.”  No better advice for parents dropping their children off at school – let’s hope for those bumps, and not rush in to rescue our daughters, but rather allow them to learn that they can scrape their knees, fall into the thistles, yet get up and still accomplish what they set out to accomplish, still be successful, still have a rich and rewarding life.

Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students
by Denise Clark Pope
Stanford University
School of Education

Less Stress, More Success: A New Approach to Guiding Your Teen Through College Admissions and Beyond
by Marilee Jones
Independent Counselor

A Parent's Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Your Child Roots and Wings (American Academy of Pediatrics)
by Kenneth R. Ginsburg

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