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Students Pay a Price for 'Success'

When David McCullough Jr. recently told members of the graduating class of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts that they are not special or exceptional, his remarks went viral. But his view is not unique. It is shared by many others who complain that young people have an inflated sense of themselves ("Redefining Success and Celebrating the Ordinary," The New York Times, June 29).

I'm not talking about the impressive grades and trophies they've collected that are the direct result of parents pushing them to stand out. These students attend the best schools money can buy and segue into lucrative careers. Instead, I'm referring to their worth as persons. If they've never developed ethical and social responsibility, I wonder if they've paid too much of a price for their success. As the co-director and producer of the documentary film "Race to Nowhere" wrote in a letter to the editor, "success lies in the process and not in the product of their work" ("Finding Lessons in the Cheating at Stuyvesant," The New York Times, July 2).

We see this disconnect in Wall Street and in the legal profession, where elite credentials have failed to instill a modicum of integrity in so many. Their actions have hurt the country in a way not seen since the Gilded Age. Yet the obscene wealth they've amassed is glorified. Little is said about their achievements as human beings. Is self-service the only thing that matters? "For the super-elite, a sense of meritocratic achievement can inspire high self-regard, and that self-regard - especially when compounded by their isolation among like-minded peers - can lead to obliviousness and indifference to the suffering of others" ("The Rise of the New Global Elite," The Atlantic, January/February 2011).

That's why I question the direction of the reform movement in the U.S. If schools are judged solely on data that are easily quantifiable, values are overlooked. Don't these count as much or more than test scores? The cheating exposés that took place at Stuyvesant High School in New York City and at Great Neck North High School on Long Island serve as evidence. It's well to remember what Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891 in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing." It's too bad that students are not taught this lesson.

If this were not enough, young people are paying another price in the form of their mental health. "The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing as much as trauma victims" ("How to Raise a Child," The New York Times, July 29). The unrelenting pressure to excel has undermined their psychological growth. It's little wonder that so many have turned to drugs and drink in an effort to cope. I wonder how many students would thrive in a less competitive atmosphere where they could discover their true selves.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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