Troubled Students, Troubled Times, Stoic Solutions?
by Mark Harding
I was introduced to Stoicism while studying classics in high school and university many years ago, and became interested in it again recently as a way to help the many highly anxious students in the high school where I teach deal with self-imposed standards of academic excellence and the high expectations of their parents. Over the past several years, and this year especially, a number of our students have reported significant psychological distress (and this reportedly is a global phenomenon) and sometimes have been hospitalized as a result. When considering their stories, it is clear that not only the pressure to obtain admission to a Tier One academic institution is part of the problem, but so is the broader environment of economic uncertainty, international terrorism, and the threat of climate change.
However, previous generations endured the Great Depression and fought in the Second World War, fretted through the Cuban Missile Crisis, and lived through the Cold War with the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation. There appears to be no record of large numbers of that generation folding emotionally under those pressures. In fact, the reaction in several of those instances was a broadly-based political mobilization of young people The Occupy movement notwithstanding, one is tempted to conclude that the current generation is soft and disengaged compared to previous generations, but the youth of any day have always been going to hell in a handcart from the greybeard’s perspective. Nevertheless, in discussions with my colleagues over the past few years, we have noticed a tendency for students more quickly to “pack it in” when the going gets tough. They are more reluctant to take on challenges than students even in the recent past and they are also more risk-averse as a group than previous cohorts were.
One aspect of the problem is that they are educated in an environment where, because education is a right, success is considered to be a right, as well. Persistence in the face of adversity is advised but ultimately not required and leads to a mentality where equality of opportunity becomes confused with equality of outcome, producing a child who believes that he or she will be successful in every undertaking– all aspirations met, all dreams fulfilled.
This leads to better attendance in class and better retention rates in school generally, but also in the end, produces adult citizens who, like Tyler Durden in Fight Club, were told they were going to be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars–and now, realizing that is untrue, are “very, very pissed off.”
None of this is the fault of the student. Their only sin is to believe what many adults, in love with psychobabble, tell them. “You can be anything you want to be”, a lovely sentiment found in one form or another in guidance offices and classrooms, most readily comes to mind as a cliche that may do more harm than good in the long run. Helicopter parenting, emotional protection from unpleasant reality, and other vicissitudes of modern family life may be part of the picture, as well.
So, looking for a practical way to help these kids develop a philosophy rather than a pathology when the rejection letter from Harvard comes or when they are not voted Most Valuable Player or are not selected as Prom Queen, I turned to Stoicism, less the metaphysics, for its position of rational pessimism. As unpleasant as that phrase might sound to those whose default position is to be “rah-rah” cheerleading everything our young people say and do, I think it offers our students a greater possibility of happiness now and in the future, and in extreme circumstances may even save lives. What follows are a few vignettes from my experience.
I announced the test date and then came the question:
“Sir, do you have any hints about what the essay topic will be ?”
“Can you give us one?”
Earlier in the year, that little comic routine got some laughter; now Beatrice just looked down at her desk in anguish. I felt a pang of guilt because I didn’t want to appear insensitive or flippant. Beatrice had actually done very well on all the tests up to this point. However, her results seldom satisfied her and she was a frequent visitor to my office, looking for tips on how to do even better.
Beatrice, if she were a psychiatric patient, would probably be described as one of the “worried well:” individuals who are, in general, coping with life’s demands but who never feel at ease or comfortable or satisfied. Her anxiety about the test question betrays what I believe is one of the central problems of the anxious, high-achieving student–a concern about what has not happened yet rather than a focus on what one can do now..
Such students are so driven to do well that they forget that the content of the test is out of their control. Unless the students are very lucky, the test will present some material that they did not understand or remember perfectly–too many variables are involved for it to be otherwise. A teacher must remind these students (who are often so bright that they do not encounter any academic adversity until the senior years of high school or the first year of university) that only the preparation for the test is in their control. This sounds obvious to the teacher, but it is not always obvious to a student. They often look for some magic formula that will ensure perfection.
I have told Beatrice and students like her to think of it reasonably: if you have done well on the other tests, you will probably do well on this one. Have you studied thoroughly and at regular intervals? Have you focused especially on the material where you are weak? Have you been respecting your body and mind with good nutrition and adequate sleep? Then, on the morning of the test, can you honestly say you have done your best? And have you thought ahead to the worst possible combination of material on the test and considered how you would deal with it if it were to appear? Then you have done what is in your control. You have created the opportunity for success on the test. The questions on the test are out of your control and may be more difficult than you expected.Some kind of failure is inevitable, but at least you have prepared yourself to the best of you ability.
I do not know if Beatrice took this message to heart, but it was the best advice I could give her.
Melissa was so upset she was shaking. She sat in the guidance counselor`s office unable to speak. Already a painfully shy girl, she had just completed an important, lengthy presentation which she found almost unbearable to do and was convinced she had failed. She had done a satisfactory presentation for me earlier in the year and, although she was nervous, she got through it without a breakdown. The crucial difference this time was the value of the presentation for her overall course grade. That pressure resulted in a complete loss of composure.
How does the teacher help a student whose sense of self-worth rests on a grade? The current academic environment is not much help with its fierce competition for admission to the best universities. Telling students that, in the long run, their talent will be evident no matter where they go to school and therefore admission to one of the top schools doesn’t matter will probably be of no comfort, because at this moment it does matter very deeply to them. On the one hand, we want them to strive for the best and avoid complacency; on the other hand, we need them to develop a rational sense of their chances of meeting their goals.
My thinking is that perspective–through a knowledge of other people’s experience, famous or otherwise, who faced similar adversity–can help students in this situation. Changed thinking can lead to controlled emotions, which can lead to equanimity in the face of future trouble. Although I have not yet had a chance to talk to Melissa about this problem, if I do have the chance I will probably point out that the schools she is interested in attending admit about one in one thousand applicants. Should she give up? No, because the application process is still in her control–the admission decision is not. Thousands of highly talented people are turned away from these institutions every year and, nevertheless, do tremendous things with their lives. Indeed, only one of the CEOs of the top ten Fortune 500 companies went to an Ivy League school, not to mention the pillars of the high-tech sector who were admitted to such schools and left them before graduation to pursue more creative and, one might argue, important accomplishments. Am I filling her with false optimism that her brilliance will win the day, no matter what? No, I am pointing out that anyone’s life is full of variables beyond one’s control, and sometimes things work out and life is pleasant, and other times they don’t and life is hard.
Would advocating a mindset of ‘rational pessimism’ destroy the dreams of a student such as Melissa? I do not believe so. Once again, the teacher has a duty to encourage students to pursue their cherished aspirations combined with an equally important duty to cultivate a rational and critical way of thinking. In the Meditations, Marcus reminds himself that every day he will face the arrogant, the devious, the unsocial, and so on, and thereby prepares himself to be composed during the day. A similar inventory for a student looking to the future might be realizing she will enter a school not of her first choice, assignments of doubtful value, and mediocre instructors. However, these adversities also create the conditions for developing personal excellence and resilience in an unpredictable, possibly chaotic environment..
As he was leaving the room, Anthony made an obscene gesture and a petulant remark to a classmate. The classmate had made some slightly mocking but otherwise benign comment that Anthony inflated into a major attack. This was not the first time Anthony had behaved inappropriately when under pressure in class and the remark, combined with Anthony’s state of sleep-deprivation, triggered an emotional meltdown. I had many discussions with Anthony over a few years regarding his plans for the future, and his plans were very grand. Entrepreneurship, investment banking, and diplomacy (among others) were all possibilities for him. Through his results on the SAT and Advanced Placement exams, he had shown that he had the academic and cognitive abilities at least to be considered by several top twenty universities and, even if he were not admitted to one of those, would find his way no matter where he went to school. As he studied for his SAT’s, he often came to chat with me about his misgivings, especially when comparing himself to other highly-qualified students from years gone by. At those times I was careful to point out to him, ‘Those people are 70% water, just like you’.
I know that remark may sound facile, but I was trying to tell him that success on these exams is not a superhuman feat, although it can often seem as remote to a student as winning an Olympic gold medal. However, Anthony faced a deeper and more poignant problem: could he maintain his courage to follow through with all this extensive testing, knowing that he probably will not achieve his dream of being accepted to an Ivy League school? Anthony displayed much confidence as a scholar: he was an excellent parliamentary debater, he was well-read, and he had good capacity for critical thinking. However, that was all in the context of a fairly small school where only a few of his peers demonstrated similar gifts and, therefore, he did not face much competition. Could he risk the blow to his ego of playing in the big leagues, facing competition from very clever people from all around the world?
Once he confided in me that education had been the most important thing to him, ever since he was little. He has taught himself several languages, plays several different musical instruments, and is a budding poet. Comparing what interested him to what interested me at the same age (rock and roll, sports, girls) made me feel like a philistine, and also made me feel that it would be a grave injustice if he failed to fulfill his ambitions. He then asked me if I thought success was purely a product of hard work.
I hemmed and hawed around that one, it being one of the convenient lies we casually tell students to keep them motivated. He stared at me and would not let me off the hook. Finally, I had to tell him honestly that hard work does not always pay off. In fact, more often than not, in highly competitive fields such as sports, the arts, and academics, the majority of hard-working people do not fulfill their dreams. From my own experience, I confessed to him that I am one of a multitude of doctoral dropouts–people who started but never completed their Ph.D. I also pointed out that in Canada, 97% of new doctoral graduates will not get a tenured position in a university. I could see he was crestfallen and I wished I could erase the previous five minutes of conversation. He picked up his study guides and excused himself.
A few days later Anthony was hospitalized, having made some threats of self-harm. He was observed and assessed and released a short time later, deemed unlikely to hurt himself. Cynically, some thought his behaviour was an attention-seeking device. I reserved judgment. But was I to blame because I did not repeat the “hard work will get you where you want to go” lie? I hope not. If the worst had happened and he had taken his life, would my failure of sunny optimism have been part of his motivation to end it all? What is obvious to me now is that Anthony was not yet secure enough in himself to face the prospect of dashed dreams with “stoic resilience.” How can we effectively educate students like Anthony that recovering from failure is actually more important (and more frequent in life) than achieving success, when so much of the broader society through mass and social media makes wild success seem normal and rubs your face in it in the form of cars you will never own, vacations you will never take, and beauty you will never have.
I don’t have an answer for that yet, but I am working on it.
Mark Harding teaches in the Advanced Placement Program at York Memorial Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He has also taught at York University (Toronto) and Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, British Columbia). At present, he teaches English, Psychology, and the Seminar course of the new College Board AP Capstone Diploma Program.