Peter Pan in America

Growing up is hard to do for many 20somethings, writes pediatrician Mel Levine in his book, Ready or Not, Here Life Comes. From a Teacher Magazine review:

Levine argues that parents, especially affluent ones, tend to overprotect their children from adversity: witness those who call the principal to complain about teachers who’ve given their kids low grades. These children are almost certain, as young adults, to have a difficult time with demanding bosses. The nonstop culture of entertainment and consumerism, in which parents themselves are often steeped, further contributes to later disillusionment.

Levine also argues that good students aren’t always prepared for life.

In school, these kids were often lauded for being well-rounded, but they now have difficulty committing to the “deep and narrow grooves of adult work life,” Levine writes. Once accustomed to the cheering of teachers, coaches, and peers, they also have a hard time adapting to the indifference of employers and coworkers.

Top students, of course, tend to be those who do the best job of conforming to the many social and academic demands made of them in high school. But as Levine points out, those striving to move up the career ladder are expected to be industrious self-starters, generating original ideas rather than merely implementing the agendas of others.

I’m dubious about this last point. Industrious self-starters are more likely to be found among those who were industrious in school. Generating original ideas, which isn’t required in most entry-level jobs, is not more common among C students than A students.

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  1. I agree with Mel Levine: most workplaces are not very good for the best students. Yes, good students are industrious, and there are certain professions in which intellectual rigor is valued, such as medicine, law, and higher education. But many, many jobs require a minimum of cognitive thinking and intellectual engagement. Highly accomplished students may quickly become bored in those jobs and stagnate.

    I would argue that for most roles in business, average students end up being more successful than the best students. The world of work and the academic world could not be more different. The world of work requires an ability to work with others; academics is largely an individual pursuit, especially for the brightest and best.

    Just because you do well in the classroom does not mean you will do well in the work world. Or, rather, you should work in a profession in which you can use your talents well.

  2. Mr. Davis says:

    Mel Levine’s point is not that workplaces are not good for the best students but that schools are not good places for students who will work in the real world. Schools should be educating people, not farm systems for universities. As the EdWeek review states:

    He concludes with the wisest suggestion of all—that we replace college prep with “life prep,” so that students will be armed for “what will confront them after college or instead of college.” The college-or-bust mentality obviously doesn’t work for everyone, and Levine believes that many different paths lead to successful adulthood.

    The “best students”, whoever they are, ought to be able to thrive in any environment. Why not give the rest of the students an environment and an education that prepares them to thrive in the real world instead of just an ivory tower?

  3. Mr. Davis says:

    Apologies, It is not clear that the final paragraph above is mine and only the middle paragraph is from the review.

  4. Some time ago, I blogged about the most common complaint I get from students – that my test questions are different from the questions I gave in the homework. (This is true; however, the concepts I’m testing are the same as the ones I taught.)

    I’ve taken to responding to these students by pointing out that only in the most menial, boring jobs, will they only be given tasks that their bosses have explained to them step-by-step. Most of the time, they’ll have to apply prior knowledge in order to figure out how to accomplish their task.

    When I tell this to my students, the seem to be caught completely off guard.

  5. Mobius…very good point, and strange that the students have never thought of this on their own. Salary administration systems often use independent judgment and decision making as explicit criteria for what a particular job is worth.

  6. Tehre’s nothing that offends professors sensibilities and priorities more than C students who go on to achieve wealth and power – it makes us CERTAIN that they had help, or that it’s really so easy that we could have done it, or some such balderdash.

    In fact, excellence at a good liberal arts college predicates the ability to be an excellent student at a liberal art college – which may or may not translate into being a good professor.

    I agree that many of our better students will flail for several years (which is why so many of them flee to grad school). most of ’em will do just fine, but it has little to do with their gpa here.

  7. “Generating original ideas, which isn’t required in most entry-level jobs, is not more common among C students than A students.”

    I really don’t understand why we have to emphasize original (or, as other people sometimes call them, “creative”) ideas. As has been mentioned on this blog before, there are plenty of perfectly good and proven education solutions out there, but people breeze right past them because they’re not “creative”. Maybe the real reason is a lot of people simply don’t like old ideas.

    We need ideas that work. If an idea doesn’t work, it’s bad; it doesn’t matter at all if it’s “creative” or original.

    Good truly original ideas are very hard to come up with. It’s not hard to come up ideas that you personally haven’t encountered, but they’re out there just the same. Most of them have already been tried and found wanting (usually uneconomic), e.g., solar and wind power.

    I’ll go further and propose the real reason good, original ideas get the headlines – they’re really rare, so they’re news. And, of course, we like hearing about those stories because it’s nice to hear the experts missed one. We never hear about the original ideas that failed and all the times the experts were right, because that is not news.

  8. Bluemount says:

    The book “In Search of Excellence” attributes the success of every major corporation as the ability to employ the “C” student. The ability to create every job to be performed mindlessly by anyone makes every person a replacable cog and every job in the US transferable to China. The market, corporate leaders, and social planners focus on building a better buggy whip while Henry Ford, the farm boy, invented a car, built roads, and paid labor enough money to buy a car.

    Great innovators have a lot of training and experience, it’s very specialized and can’t be taught. It’s timing, interest; degrees produce people who believe they understand something others don’t, people who don’t have them question everything. In retrospect how could have early transportation have been prepared for a population explosion and the damage done by the market driven approach to innovation.

  9. I’ve also noticed – beyond non-self-starting – a trend among students to be horrified at being asked to do anything outside of class.

    I had a situation with a lab recently, where the time involved doing the lab worked out to actually less than the scheduled lab hours, but because of the way the experiment worked, students had to come in and set up the lab, and monitor its progress, over the course of several days.

    I had one student complain bitterly about being made to come in “on his own time.” I refrained from explaining to him that grading, prep, research, personal intellectual development – anything I do over and above the bare minimum – is done “on my own time.” And that in the vast majority of INTERESTING jobs, you’re expected to do work “on your own time.” It’s sort of a trade-off: stocking shelves at the Wal-Mart wouldn’t require working outside of the “posted” hours, but by God, what a boring job. Teaching requires all kinds of “outside hours” work, but it’s so interesting and fun (despite the occasional sour-attitude student) that I can’t imagine doing something else to earn my bread.

  10. “Creativity” is not a concept that is applicable only to a few inventors and entrepreneurs. There are very few jobs in which one does not have the opportunity to demonstrate creativity at some level.

    Most of the people I’ve promoted, and most of the people I’ve ever known who’ve been promoted, have gotten their promotions at least in part because of creative behavior.

  11. superdestroyer says:

    If you look at the Princton Review of undergraduate education you can see the top three majors at most universities. At most universities it breaks down to economics, psychology, and either government or business. I wonder how many of those kids majored in something in college that they did not really like but thought would get them into either a good job or the “right” graduate school? Maybe if more of them knew what adult actually do for a living they would make very different choices.

    From personal experience I can tell you that many people go into medicine without realizing that they will spend their careers working with old people who are bossy and whiney.

  12. superD…it would really be a good idea for high schools to have local people come & talk about what they do for a living, and what it’s really like day-to-day. Or maybe someone could make a videotape series on this topic.

    Re the popular college majors: Mike Hammer, who I think is one of the better management consultants, has advised that people who want to go into business should *not* major in business…rather, they should double-major in one hard scientific field and one substantive humanity. Doesn’t even matter much what they are…aeronautical engineering and theology, for an example.

  13. The skill sets required to succeed in the work place are very different from the skill sets that lead to high performance in school. I don’t know why this surprises us and I don’t see why it is a problem. Schools are designed to facilitate the acquisition of knowledge. Rarely is acquiring knowledge the top priority on the job. I think top performers in business will always be people who paid their dues in school (perhaps grudgingly) but whose hearts were somewhere else.

  14. Of those kids majored in something in college that they did not really like but thought would get them into either a good job or the “right” graduate school? Maybe if more of them knew what adult actually do for a living they would make very different choices