The Magazine

Harvard or Bust

They'll get in their 'reach school' even if it kills them.

May 7, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 32 • By STEFAN BECK
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The Overachievers

by Alexandra Robbins

Hyperion, 448 pp., $24.95

In 1741, Alexander Pope and John Arbuthnot published a comic novella, The Memoirs of the Extraordinary Life, Works and Discoveries of Martinus Scriblerus. Martinus is the unfortunate progeny of Cornelius, a "grave and learned gentleman" who at the time of his son's conception "had already chalked out all possible schemes for the improvement of the male child." Here, wee Marty is taught Greek: "What most conduced to his easy attainment of this language was his love of gingerbread; which his father observing, caused it to be stamped with the letters of the Greek alphabet; and the child the very first day ate as far as iota."

Many college students would recognize their own upbringings in Scriblerus. Educational cookies have been replaced by Suzuki violin lessons and Baby Einstein DVDs, but the principle is the same: Genius is made, not born. Some present-day Scribleri and their extraordinary lives, works, panic attacks, sports injuries, Adderall prescriptions, and troubled home lives are the focus of Alexandra Robbins's The Overachievers.

The title is too charitable. How about The Basketcase Diaries or One Flew Into the Outpatient Clinic? Pope's rigorous academic model is quaint next to Robbins's depiction of how American students are "educated."

"Julie," a high school senior, is a "straight-A student . . . president and co-founder of the Hiking Vikings (named for [Walt Whitman High School's] mascot), a yoga fanatic, a member of the Spanish Honors Society, and a big buddy to a child in a homeless shelter." She also suffers from thinning hair, which her doctors attribute to stress.

No surprise, given that she and her peers are hammered with adult expectations of hard work and competition from nursery school on. Robbins delivers a satire-defying account of a Manhattan private school entrance interview--for four year olds. She later mentions a Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) tutor who was hired to prep a 10 year old. "First, do no harm" might be a good place to start.

Health falls by the wayside for Robbins's subjects. The average student's sleep schedule, she reveals, takes a cue from Count Dracula. But even if extra sleep would improve students' health, it wouldn't do anything about the mentality behind the all-nighter epidemic. Notwithstanding a statistic Robbins cites about fatigue-related car accidents, most students survive bad sleep habits. What stays with them is a need to succeed so powerful as to be its own justification for corner-cutting: No time to find a Muslim to interview for your social studies project? Invent one.

The cheating is bad enough, but more disturbing is that these students could find a mere assignment more important than integrity. Can't build a decent toothpick bridge for the physics contest? Instead of buying one from an upperclassman, don't build one. It's not as if anybody has to drive a truck over it. Yet everything is a matter of life or death. Here is Ryland, a junior:

Ryland realized he couldn't endure another period. He skipped his next class to go to the guidance department, where, still shaking, sweating, and crying, his heart racing, he feverishly attempted to cram for the source of his misery: a physics test.

It's difficult for a well-adjusted person to sympathize. While one's first impulse is to point and laugh, Robbins's book conveys with discomfiting clarity that none of this is funny. The "culture of overachieverism" is making madmen, not Renaissance men. Childhood, emotional maturity, and genuine education are sacrificed for "parenting as product development."

Let's think about the products, then. The most affecting of Robbins's portraits is of "AP Frank," a senior when we meet him and a Harvard freshman for most of the book. His nickname comes from his taking a masochistic number of Advanced Placement classes. The study routine followed by AP Frank and his younger brother--strictly enforced by their Korean mother--sounds like something out of a Maoist reeducation center:

Each afternoon . . . they were expected to sit at their desks in their adjacent bedrooms and study, backs to the hallway, doors open. From an office chair stationed in the hall, positioned precisely so that she could see every move the boys made, their mother peered at them over her newspaper. . . . From 2:30 in the afternoon until they went to sleep, with only a quick break for a dinner . . . she watched them.

By the time AP Frank reaches college, his brother lives with a foster family and his parents' marriage has collapsed. Doubtless an extreme case; but it's the just the sort of thing one imagines will happen to the students Robbins shadows. Anyone forced to do something he doesn't love is bound to crack before too long.