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OVERACHIEVERS, THE: THE SECRET LIVES OF DRIVEN KIDS Hardcover – Bargain Price, August 8, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In this engrossing anthropological study of the cult of overachieving that is prevalent in many middle- and upper-class schools, Robbins (Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities) follows the lives of students from a Bethesda, Md., high school as they navigate the SAT and college application process. These students are obsessed with success, contending with illness, physical deterioration (senior Julie is losing hair over the pressure to get into Stanford), cheating (students sell a physics project to one another), obsessed parents ( Frank's mother manages his time to the point of abuse) and emotional breakdowns. What matters to them is that all-important acceptance to the right name-brand school. "When teenagers inevitably look at themselves through the prism of our overachiever culture," Robbins writes, "they often come to the conclusion that no matter how much they achieve, it will never be enough." The portraits of the teens are compelling and make for an easy read. Robbins provides a series of critiques of the system, including college rankings, parental pressure, the meaninglessness of standardized testing and the push for A.P. classes. She ends with a call to action, giving suggestions on how to alleviate teens' stress and panic at how far behind they feel. (Aug.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Robbins, author of the revealing Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities (2004), investigates yet another troubling aspect of today's youth, the culture of high-school high achievers, a group to which she once belonged. To see if things had changed during the 10 years since she left high school, Robbins returned to her alma mater, one of the most competitive high schools in the country, to observe several students (juniors and seniors and one recent graduate, who was admitted to Harvard) as they balanced intense academic pressure, parental expectations, personal interests, social life, and their own drive to succeed. What she discovered is no surprise: the welfare of the individual has taken a backseat to academic success. Nor is her call for "massive change of both attitudes and educational policies" new. That said, it's difficult to ignore her perspectives on such issues as the influence of the SAT or the day-to-day struggles of the kids, who can't rest until they "outwit, outplay, and outlast" the competition. An addendum directed to parents, schools officials, counselors, and students sets benchmarks for activists who want things to change. Stephanie Zvirin
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
While we appreciate the advantages and luxuries that such top schools can provide, and wanted our kids to enjoy them, we have never come close to being the caricatures described in this book, nor are our kids, who both attend great colleges and are enjoying what they have to offer.
The book is written in the tone of a breathless "Cosmopolitan" feature article, and after reading the first few chapters and some skipping around the rest of the book, I simply found nothing that would compel me to keep reading it. The same points are made over and over, but no real insight or thoughtfulness comes through. A reader with any sophistication or experience of the issues explored in the book gets that "Overachieverism" -- a cumbersome term that is presumably the author's neologism -- is a pernicious thing. "AP Frank" -- the stereotypical Asian nerd who takes every possible AP class, and aces them all, and gets into Harvard, with his monstrously overbearing Korean mother breathing down his neck every inch of the way from the womb to Harvard Yard, is such a caricature that one wonders if the young man really exists, or is just a composite character.
Having just run this gauntlet with our kids, I want to know what the gatekeepers and other persons in a position to lead us out of the current rat-race-tocracy are doing to address the problem, which is really a deeply-rooted cultural phenomenon. It has developed since the most selective universities turned the corner in the 60s from being old-boys clubs for families of multi-generational wealth, to being the allegedly more meritocratic institutions of today. In so doing, we've traded one set of problems for another.
I happened to become close friends with Harvard Law's dean of admissions after she read a satire on law school admissions I wrote for my college newspaper. She was a wonderful woman of great wit and warmth -- and I wonder what she'd think of how the admissions game has evolved since her untimely death in the early 90s. I suspect she would have been a leader in trying to counteract the toxic trends that have developed in the intervening years.
This reader would enjoy a thoughtful book that explores what can be done to remedy the situation, but found nothing in this book but bromides and platitudes.
I did think the sampling of students was far too narrow, and I wished she had explored more in depth other high schools, both public and private. There are super-driven kids out there who don't have the same IQ power, or the same access to academic, financial and political resources these Whitman students do. I am certainly interested in knowing how less-fortunate students compensate and adjust their goals and expectations. OTOH, by choosing to follow a fewer number of students and in an environment with which she was much more familiar, Ms. Robbins is able to communicate her understanding and empathy and go into more depth behind-the-scenes with their individual stories. To be fair, she does choose quite a few different types of students, those who are driven from within and those who are pressured by outside expectations. Unfortunately, the follow-ups on the students' post high school lives that Ms. Robbins claims is available on her website are missing. She may have had very good intentions as the book went to press, but she was unable to deliver. There is only one student follow up available on her website.
Still, I think it's a mistake to assume that super-driven, overachieving students is some kind of current "epidemic." There are no more of these obsessive students now than there were 30 years ago when I was in high school. I knew quite a few of them, even if I wasn't one myself. What makes their stories stand out more now is the fact that more kids are attending college now than ever have in the past, and as a result, colleges and universities at all levels have become more expensive and more selective than ever. Actually, I think the LACK of performance-oriented achievers is a bigger concern. Too many kids these days think that they deserve high academic rewards for little or no work whatever. The kids feel entitled to top grades simply because they show up for class (and sometimes, even when they don't,) and not because they put in any effort to earn them.
Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed this story at its face value and recommend it as interesting information. I have enjoyed several of Ms. Robbins other books as well and I intend to read the rest of them.
The book is well-researched for its publication date (I would love to see an updated version) and many of Robbins' sources were spot on in their predictions of more pressure and more problems for students as they attempt to navigate the pressures of achieving at peak levels in all areas of their lives.
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