Friday, March 1, 2024

We are not our accomplishments

Editor's Note: The Snooze Button Generation originally published "100 Nonfiction Books I Recommend" in 2019. As we read more books worthy of recommending, the list continually updates. Today, "Never Enough" by Jennifer Breheny Wallace enters the Education category.

With my alma mater Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland praised on pages 195-199 in Never Enough: When Achievement Culture Becomes Toxic — And What We Can Do About It, it made it easy to recommend Jennifer Breheny Wallace's 2023 book.

The harsh truth is that achievement culture in schools often is toxic. Kids stay up all hours doing their schoolwork. They have a difficult time staying healthy. Many are disconnected, and they have an unsustainable lifestyle that, I believe, is an accidental and involuntary response to our cruel, billionaire-led, wealth-gap system of economics.

As a mom of three teenagers, Wallace explores this toxic culture and offers solutions for parents and educators. As a dad of two teen daughters and as a high-school teacher, I must say that she nails the culture we've been facing, but the solutions aren't anything earth-shattering.

It's real easy for parents to get wrapped up in competition and comparison, and so kids follow suit. I respond most to Wallace's parenting tips because, although I agree wholeheartedly with separating self-worth from achievement and unconditionally loving my daughters, I admit that I've talked about the college-admissions process so much, it's absurd.

By focusing so much on college, I think I undermined how important character, connection, communication and community are — among other things — in comparison to academics. Because the college-admissions process often is a divisive, self-centered exercise in disconnection, students and parents take it too seriously, and their values often become obscured by the vacuous and vague idea of "success."
We parents and educators can change our own behavior and attitudes, but we can't change the toxic individualistic culture our kids find themselves. Heck, a lot of this is old news. You've likely heard the stories of how pregnant ladies in New York City often battle for placements on waiting lists for preschools before their kids are even born. The madness often starts before birth.

Perfectionist parenting leads to perfectionist youths, and both are illnesses. We need to strive for purpose, not perfection, and, sadly, too many parents and students find themselves derailed by a culture that I continue to assert is a byproduct of "our cruel, billionaire-led, wealth-gap system of economics."

Perhaps my favorite part of Never Enough is the sense of hope that we have through genuinely connecting with our children and with positive individuals in our children's lives. However, it might be easy for Wallace to say that because she is in a position of privilege as a cultural oligarch herself.

Harvard-educated Jennifer Breheny used to be an associate producer at 60 Minutes, and Mike Wallace set her up on a blind date with his grandson, Peter. So Chris Wallace is her father-in-law. Maybe this is irrelevant, or maybe it's uber-relevant because we're living in the influencer, oligarch world, and she figured out how to be one of sorts with an extremely important topic.

And, hey, Wallace found herself interviewing Coach Mike McLaughlin, a teacher and soccer coach at St. Ignatius. Mad props! Coach Mike explained that the goal of the school is to have students "balance their own personal needs and goals with a responsibility to help others meet their needs and reach their goals, too."

I have discovered that true service, which can only involve a symbiotic relationship with those being served, is difficult to find. It can occur under the right circumstances, and St. Ignatius does its best to put students in a path of true service by requiring it and urging them to develop relationships with those they're serving.

"You don't have to fly to Haiti and build a shelter to do meaningful volunteer work," Coach Mike tells Wallace. And so I wonder why so many elite students don't actually do volunteer work close to home, or if they do, why does it have to be something grandiose they put on their college transcripts?

Maybe some just never realized they actually have the ability to make an impact in others' and their own lives, and that only can start in the home and in their actual community.