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The ‘Price of Privilege’ – An American Obsession with Achievement

By November 25, 2014 April 14th, 2017 College Counseling

Price-of-Privilege

Through their consultations, our directors are exposed to the diverse worlds of students and parents. We learn about the distinct life events that lead families to Compass and the powerful college aspirations that color their futures.

In spite of having such a unique perspective, we prefer to steer conversations to what we know best: the mechanics of standardized tests and their role in admission. Still, in order to derive full meaning from our work, we stay attuned to the topics closest to our clients: the latest discourses on parenting, secondary and post-secondary education, and the scholars and pundits that shape these discourses.

Fortunately, the blog now provides a space for us to openly discuss ‘big ideas’ and to invite parents and counselors to the table. Rather than reflecting our personal opinions, these posts will serve as unbiased explorations of contemporary debates. I hope to give equal footing to opposing arguments and allow our readers to determine where they stand.

There are a couple divisive questions that I’d like to address across a series of posts. The first question: Is there a damaging obsession with achievement among American families (with affluent parents leading the way)? The second question, which will be addressed in another post: What role do colleges play in remediating and/or worsening this obsession?

‘The Price of Privilege’

For years, I’ve noticed a common source of stress for families and staff at (primarily) private high schools in California. Many students bearing the hallmarks of success – excellent grades, extracurricular involvement, and deft interpersonal skills – are experiencing high incidences of depression and anxiety. To make matters more confusing, these ‘high-achievers’ appear to be raised by attentive, financially stable parents with many resources at their disposal. Given the circumstances, shouldn’t these hard-working teens experience the greatest amounts of happiness?

The paradox of the deeply troubled, highly privileged teen forms the crux of Dr. Madeline Levine’s critically acclaimed book, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. After seeing Levine give a presentation at a college counseling conference earlier this year, I picked up a copy of her book and quickly tore through it. To inform you and encourage further reading, I’ve decided to summarize some of Levine’s research here.

Levine holds two culprits responsible for the suffering of her teenage clients: 1) an overwhelming pressure to achieve in school and 2) isolation from parents.

Achievement Pressure

Let’s begin by examining the characteristics of ‘achievement pressure.’ Throughout her book, Levine includes case studies with similar plot points: her clients seek therapy because they are ‘stressed out’ by school and worry that the tiniest missteps will result in total rejection from parents. For these teens, parental love and acceptance are entirely conditional. Validation can only be procured by lofty academic accomplishments: immaculate transcripts, perfect test scores, and acceptance to top-tier universities. As a consequence of having such high expectations, students develop a crippling perfectionism that inhibits creative thinking and an authentic desire for learning. For these kids, the processes of learning, which hinge on reasoning around mistakes and small failures, are devalued in favor of the outcomes of learning. In Levine’s words, “Parents pressure their children to be outstanding, while neglecting the very process by which outstanding children are formed.”

Simply put, being a well-adjusted human being requires the experiences of failure and loss. Although these life events are painful, they yield illumination, humility, and if nothing else, an understanding of ‘what not to do next time.’

Materialism and Achievement

Of principle concern to Levine is the materialistic nature of achievement. She likens the manic acquisition of A’s to the conspicuous consumption of material goods. The fleeting rush that comes with big purchases – designer handbags, cars, smartphones, etc. – also occurs when Levine’s clients ace their quizzes. Rather than deriving lasting confidence from academic successes, students’ egos are only temporarily buoyed by achievement. In fact, for some teens, the whole structure of the self threatens to collapse without a steady supply of A’s (we’ll review the idea of the ‘fragile self’ in just a moment).

To worsen achievement pressure, many schools are now utilizing online grading systems that give students real-time updates of performance in their courses. To the displeasure of many teens, parents are able to closely follow the progress of their children, scrutinizing the results of every pop quiz and paper, often before these assignments are handed back in class. With their awareness of being monitored, perfectionistic students see every grade as an opportunity to win or lose the approval of their parents. The stakes are always high regardless of the size or significance of an assignment.

Isolation from Parents

Now let’s address culprit #2: isolation from parents. This issue is more complex than achievement pressure, because parental isolation often masquerades as its inverse: over-involvement. Levine argues that within affluent communities, it is common for busy, distant parents to conflate parenting – the cultivation of intimate, supportive relationships with children – with academic management. Instead of looking deeply into the interior lives of their students, distant parents prefer the ‘bird’s eye’ view offered by external assessments: report cards, appraisals from teachers and coaches, and standardized test scores. With the advent of the aforementioned assignment-trackers, there is a prevailing sense that parents are both everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Levine elegantly describes the duality of isolation and over-involvement:

While affluent kids often feel that adults are crawling all over their world, intruding into territory that rightfully belongs to the child and directing their development with something approximating military precision, this does not mean that kids feel connected.

Although parental isolation is typically a product of absence, it can also surface when a parent is present but fails to fully engage in his child’s life. Levine spends a good deal of time criticizing parental narcissism and how it impacts the self-concept of children. For the narcissist, the child becomes a vessel for fulfilling personal wishes. According to Levine, these wishes often take the form of academic, social, or political successes earned by children. Because the child is seen as an extension of the narcissist, the parent is able to take full credit for achievement that isn’t his own. Simultaneously, the child is unable to take complete possession over her successes, because they were originally conceived of (and often assisted by) her parent. When children can’t cultivate private opinions and interests that differ from those of their parents, they often develop into vulnerable, psychologically impoverished adults. Levine writes:

For many children in this culture, parentsdemands for achievement have all but crowded out kids’ internal push toward autonomy. It is hard to develop an authentic sense of self when there is constant pressure to adopt a socially facile, highly competitive, performance-oriented, unblemished ‘self’ that is promoted by omnipresent adults.

A Caricature of the Narcissistic Parent: the ‘Tiger Mother’

Before concluding this post, I’d like to cite a writer and former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz, who bridges Levine’s thesis with his field of interest, undergraduate education. As I indicated earlier, academic perfectionism and parental over-involvement are ordinarily pointed toward the same horizon: the Ivy League. In some social circles, all of the grade-mongering and narcissism are forgiven (even lauded) if children are admitted to an exclusive college. According to William Deresiewicz, this is backward thinking at its worst. In fact, he openly chastises a central figure – and perhaps the biggest proponent – of achievement culture: Amy Chua, Yale professor and author of bestsellers Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and The Triple Package.

For Deresiewicz, Chua wholly embodies Levine’s notion of the narcissistic parent. Chua’s relentless efforts to pound and polish her daughters into the image of the ‘Ivy League student’ are rooted in deep personal insecurity. In his most recent novel, Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, he skewers Chua’s approach to parenting:

The needs that drive her reign of terror (the term is not too strong) are a compound of panicked perfectionism and an infantile sense of entitlement…Chua’s psyche seems to balance on a knife edge between glory and abjection…No wonder she is willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that her daughters don’t turn out to be ‘losers’…even if it means destroying their happiness.

After his systematic critique of Chua, he ends with an important point – the thesis of his book – which provides the perfect segue into ‘Part 2’ of this blog series. He goes on:

As for her own children, the fact that one has gotten into Harvard is not a validation of her methods. It is a condemnation of Harvard’s, and of the system as a whole…[Chua’s] is exactly the kind of parenting the system rewards.

Deresiewicz’s indictment of parental narcissism, the Ivy League, and how these things feed one another will figure squarely into my next post.

Matt Steiner

About Matt Steiner

Prior to joining the Compass team, Matt obtained an M.A. from the University of Chicago and a B.A. from the University of California, Santa Cruz. They have a decade of experience in the field of test preparation, working for multiple well-regarded private tutoring firms. Matt currently teaches graduate-level lectures on college admission testing through UC San Diego, UCLA, and UC Irvine. In their instruction and public speaking, Matt endeavors to build transparency around college admission tests.

2 Comments

  • Avatar Chris Tokuhama says:

    Matt,

    The following is more a series of thoughts that were raised by this piece as opposed to a formal response. I think there are good ideas here and my hope is that you are able to engage people in developing a thorough discussion.

    1. In your second paragraph, you mention that “these posts will serve as unbiased explorations of contemporary debates” and I want to sort of push back against this. My perspective on topics is informed by both my training and my experiences and I don’t know that it is ever possible to be truly “unbiased” or that a discussion as a whole can ever remove elements of that. Instead, I offer that what is most helpful is for us to be honest about how we approach the topic at hand and how our bias can possibly impact our argumentation in both positive and negative ways. That being said, I think that the goal of not pushing ideology is a good one to have; the blog is not designed to indoctrinate but to be the battleground for argumentation with the intention of cultivating critical analysis.

    2. Stance is actually interesting to consider given the first question that you pose: “Is there a damaging obsession with achievement among American families?” My instinct here is to wonder whether this is a question that has a sense of its answer in that the phrasing is skewed in a way that suggests a particular range of responses. I’m inclined to ask, instead, “What effect might a culture of achievement have for American families?” as it is a broader question that allows for the types of things that you are interested in. I don’t want to presume that “damaging” or “obsession” are parts of the conversation (i.e., are those value labels that I’m inserting and thus impacting my response?).

    3. Minor things aside, I think that the core question that you are trying to get at is an interesting one, particularly given the demographic that we sometimes work with. (I mean, on some level, I think I need to acknowledge that my everyday experiences are shaped by interactions with students and families that generally represent a specific socioeconomic class and that these individuals do not represent the entirety of the voices in the college admission field.) If I recall correctly, Levine’s practice is in Marin County, which likely indicates that she approaches this problem from a very specific point of view and, as a result, the findings can only be extrapolated so far.

    Based on anecdotal experience, I think that we might be inclined to agree with the problems that Levine outlines in The Price of Privilege: a focus on achievement that manifests through an expectation for things like “immaculate transcripts, perfect test scores, and acceptance to top-tier universities.” You pick up on an important connection that Levine makes between the culture of achievement and materialism in your next section. I would push back against Levine a bit and suggest that although “achievement” is perhaps the most obvious term to employ here, what is really going is a form of results-oriented thinking that champions “obtainment” in the sense that it values the acquisition of status markers. For me, this provides a more direct line between the culture described in educational settings and a larger emphasis on free-market capitalism in America. Put another way, the issues that Levine describes in her book are actually an outgrowth of a larger set of internalized logics that result from a belief in capitalist structures; materialism might not be the issue so much as a warped form of consumerism?

    The pessimistic reading is to decry these folks for building their identities around external markers like designer brands, perfect grades, and name of college attended but I think that this is ultimately a less productive position to take. If we take the time to understand how branding culture has come to exert influence in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, we begin to be able to glimpse the processes at play and thus think about how we might counteract them. Part of the solution is certainly to develop internal measures of worth but I think there’s also a way in which this message gets lost in the era of post- movements like post-feminism that encourage “empowerment” and self-esteem but to ends that can be managed by corporations (e.g., Dove, Nike, etc.).

    4. An understanding of the forces that drive parents—the logic of capitalism is only one potential lens—also helps us to contextualize the second issue that you raised regarding parental over-involvement and/or isolation from parents. The culture of college admission has generally designated particular types of things (e.g., a strong transcript or a perfect standardized test score) as more valuable than others, a value structure that makes a certain amount of sense for an American public that has already adopted the logics of a branding culture that, by its very nature, establishes and maintains hierarchies. One result of the internalization of this perspective is that there is a focus on results or markers—tangible things—as opposed to the thought processes and inner lives that you note.

    Applying this sort of perspective to mothers like Chua—and here I think we need to be very careful to think through the ways in which the culture of America has sold immigrants a particular model of success and the ways in which parents enact those scripts—allows us to reframe the discussion in ways that do not necessarily include a measure of narcissism. Although we might disagree with Chua’s tactics, I often wonder if her approach is, in fact, completely aligned with the American mentality that forwards a sense of individual exceptionalism. That we can beat the system? Deresiewicz is correct in his condemnation of a system and it is perhaps fair to use Chua as an example to work through that but ultimately Chua is, as Deresiewicz notes, a symptom and not actually the problem.

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