Right Opinion

Kids, Don’t Become Success Robots

Tennessee Tech is an amazing school, and nobody breaks the law to get admitted.

Peggy Noonan · Mar. 23, 2019

A few thoughts on the college admissions scandal in which wealthy and accomplished parents allegedly lied, cheated and bribed to get their kids admitted to elite universities.

I bet your reaction was like mine: An electric sense of “I didn’t know that was going on!” followed by an immediate “Of course that was going on!” Because there’s a lot of crazy money in dizzy hands, and there’s a lot of status involved in where your kids go to school.

It must be stressed that this is a scandal not of kids but of adults, fully functioning and wildly successful ones who knew what they were doing.

Here is something I think is part of the story. In the past decade or so I’ve observed a particular parenting style growing prevalent among the upper middle class and wealthy. It is intense. They love their kids and want the best for them, they want to be responsible, but there’s a degree to which one wonders if they don’t also see them as narcissistic extensions of themselves. They are hyper-attentive, providing meticulous academic grooming — private schools, private tutors and coaches, private classes in Chinese language and cello. They don’t want their children fat — that isn’t healthy, by which they mean attractive. They communicate the civilized opinions of the best people and signal it would be best to hew to them.

They aim their children at the best colleges, which are, to them, basically brands. The colleges too market themselves that way — “Well, we are Harvard.” Get in there and you’re branded too.

I believe a lot of parents do all this not only so their children will do well but so they will look good.

They are status monkeys creating success robots.

Which in one way is odd. Their family has already arrived! But there is something sick about America that no matter how much success you have it’s not enough, you must have more. And everyone must know you have it.

An apparently laudable goal becomes an extreme competition.

If their child succeeds they were successful parents. If they were successful parents their status is enhanced in a serious way: Everyone respects successful parents! There is no one who doesn’t! Magazine profiles of celebrities stress close families, happy children.

If Billy gets into Yale his parents won the race. If he does not, well, maybe they were average parents, or maybe not so good. Or maybe Billy isn’t that bright. (“Neither is his father,” the neighbors whisper.)

The kids pick up through cues the family ethos: The purpose of an education is to look good. When — this is old-fashioned, but let’s say it anyway — the purpose of an education is to enrich a mind, to help the young discover great thought, to teach history and science, to spur a sense of purpose and vocation.

An irony is that success robots, once wound up and pushed forward, often struggle. The president of an elite college told me recently the most surprising thing about recent classes is the number of students who ask for and need psychological services. They seem, said the president, unusually dependent on their parents.

A traditional reason for going away to college is to get away from your parents, to function and flourish on your own. But that’s hard when you’ve been so closely guided, so aimed toward achievement, even as its ultimate meaning was never quite explained to you.

I’ll tell you where I saw success robots. I go to schools a lot, have taught at universities and seen a ton of great kids and professors who’ve really sacrificed themselves to teach. A few years ago I worked for a few months at an Ivy League school. I expected a lot of questions about politics, history and literature. But that is not what the students were really interested in. What they were interested in — it was almost my first question, and it never abated — was networking. They wanted to know how you network. At first I was surprised: “I don’t know, that wasn’t on my mind, I think it all comes down to the work.” Then I’d ask: “Why don’t you just make friends instead?” By the end I was saying, “It’s a mistake to see people as commodities, as things you can use! Concentrate on the work!” They’d get impatient. They knew there was a secret to getting ahead, that it was networking, and that I was cruelly withholding successful strategies.

In time I concluded they’d been trained to be shallow, encouraged to see others as commodities. They didn’t think great work would be rewarded, they thought great connections were. And it was what they’d implicitly been promised by the school: Get in here and you can network with the cream of the crop, you’ll rise to the top with them.

Here is a school that is an antidote to that. Three years ago I went to a smallish school that enrolls mostly students who are the first in their families to go to college. It was Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. A lot of the kids are local, a racial and ethnic mix, immigrants and children of immigrants. They were so mature — gracious, welcoming, quick with smart questions on presidents and policy. At a reception I complimented a young woman on her pretty cocktail dress. She smiled and said, “I got it from the clothes closet.” I shook my head. The Clothes Closet, she explained, is where students go to get something to wear to a job interview or an event like this one. People contribute what they’ve got, the students can always put something nice together. In time they contribute clothes too.

Cheryl Montgomery, the college’s director of development, laughed when I called her about it this week and told me that the closet, which had literally been a closet, is now in an office renovated to function as one. “We’ve got everything,” she said. “Men’s suits, women’s professional suits and dresses, ties, belts, shoes. We don’t want a student to worry, ‘Am I dressed appropriately?’” Interviews are hard enough. A lot of students don’t have anyone in their lives to help them. “Last Friday a gentleman who’s a quite spiffy dresser came to see me, a very successful businessman, and he donated four sport coats, a trove of men’s dress slacks and very nice button-down shirts, all in style.” When a cash donation comes in, it goes toward clothes for the unusually large and the unusually small.

I came away from Tennessee Tech thinking what I always think when I see such schools: We’re going to be OK.

And now, because you’d be lost without it, my advice to students still considering college in the year 2019. Avoid elite universities if you can; they’re too often indoctrination mills anyway. Aim at smaller, second-tier colleges, places of low-key harmony, religiously affiliated when possible — and get a real education. Every school has a library. Every library has books. That’s what you need.

You’ll be with a better class of people — harder-working, less cynical, more earnest. First-generation college students who are excited to be there and committed to study. Immigrants who feel grateful to be there. Home-schooled kids with self-possession and dignity, who see the dignity in others.

Do not network. Make friends. Learn about the lives of others.


Reprinted by permission from peggynoonan.com.

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