Magazine | December 09, 2019, Issue

Roads Scholar

Campus of the University of Iowa (Wikimedia)

Earlier this month, some disheartening news erupted from my beloved alma mater, Northwestern University, where I spent several delightful years in the late ’90s. In case you weren’t around back then, those were remarkably heady and vainglorious days, with professors garbling about “the end of history” and predicting that liberal democracy would soon take over the entire globe, all while China and Russia snickered and rolled their eyes. Meanwhile, students were largely apathetic about politics, meaning that college was actually fun.

Anyway, fast-forward to today, where we all know the drill: A controversial speaker comes to campus and students freak out in various unseemly ways. In this case, the “traumatic” event featured one Jeff Sessions, and the protesters gave it their all, attempting to force their way into the lecture hall — some even attempted to climb through the windows — and getting in a scrum with local police. 

As one might expect, this over-the-top, very public, very newsworthy, “look at me!” choice of extracurricular activity was photographed and reported on by staffers at the school’s storied student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern. Big mistake. 

The act of recording what happened that day, you see, “contributed to the harm students experienced,” as the Daily noted days later in a painful editorial apologizing for its transgressions. Posting photos of the protesters, for instance, was “retraumatizing and invasive.” “We feel that covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories. While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe.” 

There’s more. “Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed.” Oh, the humanity! A text! How shall we ever move on? 

Now, look: I don’t want to be one of those smug Gen Xers who sit around silently judging all the other generations as they make the world even messier than it already is — but hey, whom am I kidding? I am a smug Gen Xer. That’s what we do. As a recent Saturday Night Live skit aptly observed, while Millennials and Boomers passionately duke it out in the public arena, we Gen Xers just “sit back and do nothing, like a referee at Wrestlemania.” 

It’s really not a bad way to live. For instance, I remember attending a speech by Ross Perot at Northwestern — it must have been 1996, at the peak of his Reform-party surge — in which he essentially implied we were all a bunch of lazy bums who didn’t deserve student loans, “because y’all don’t pay them back!” I’m sorry, but how could anyone get mad at that? It was both true and hilarious! If that same message were delivered today, however, I suspect students would wail and faint en masse, the college auditorium suddenly filling with replicas of those satin-strewn despairing rich ladies in old oil paintings who slump back on couches as if they had lost all their bones.

This brings us to a larger question: What if today’s version of college — the tunnel-vision pressure cooker leading up to admission, paired with the various absurd left-wing struggle sessions popping up around the country — is driving everyone over the edge? What if the recent college-admissions scandal starring Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin was just the beginning? What if we should just call the whole thing off, or at least totally and completely shut it down until we can figure out what the heck is going on?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. In their book Dark Horse: Achieving Success through the Pursuit of Fulfillment, Todd Rose and Ogi Ogas dissect and critique what they call “the standardization covenant,” which is the supposed route to success tacitly accepted by most of America today. It’s a route that caters to institutions more than to individuals, and a system that attempts to jam and rank everyone on the same very narrow ladder — first, through a grueling SAT-obsessed high-school experience; next, through getting into a “top” college; and finally, through getting a “top” job, all without anyone stopping to ask why or whether there’s a better way. 

“Dark horses,” alternatively, achieve success off that jam-packed ladder, often by focusing on their individual talents and motives — as well as by seeing opportunities that lie in front of them, not some rigid, pre-planned goal set 15 years down the road. Lest you be suspicious, being a “dark horse” doesn’t mean bailing on society and making handicrafts in a yurt. It doesn’t even necessarily mean bailing on college, and it almost always involves dedication and hard work. “There’s no autopilot version of this,” Rose explains — which is good, given that the autopilot version of the current standardized success map seems to be driving more than a few young people bananas. 

“Oh, whatever, Heather,” you might be thinking. “Your first-grader is probably in an SAT-prep course right now.” Not true! In fact, I have a crafty plan up my sleeve for dealing with college madness, which I developed after chatting with several friends who looked like they’d been hit with an SAT-shaped steamroller approximately one minute after their ambitious children started high school. I don’t want to give you too many details, because it’s a really good idea, but it largely involves buying an Airstream and riding around the country with my kids while we ignore the SAT and visit a bunch of national parks. 

“Hmm,” said one wise friend, mulling a bit after I told her my genius plan. “Hmm.” Then she brightened. “You do realize this whole thing would make a perfect topic for your kid’s admission essay.” Airstream it is. 

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Readers write in with fond memories of fatherhood, some long-held admiration, and some prefix pedantry.

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