I just finished an important educational read entitled, At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools (Thanks AMK!). I wanted to use this post to discuss some of the useful suggestions that flow from Dr. Gealson’s years of practice and observation of young people in elite schools and to make one of my own. Gealson contends that educators (and parents) ought to question and change (like, really change) the high pressure, high stakes school environments that many of our highly anxious, over-programed students find themselves in today. Dr. Gealson is not suggesting that this pressure is the adults fault, but, instead, he suggests that it will take the collective effort of these groups to abandon reactive approaches to student stress and move towards proactive strategies that truly help students to take a step back from it all, and simply, be kids. Oh, but this is really hard, because society demands excellence from students who attend these elite academic institutions, and well-meaning parents and teachers work tirelessly to help them get there, but, at what cost? I think my earlier Blog posts shed a light on some of these costs, so I will leave it at that.
What startled me most about Dr. Gealson’s insights is that many young people no longer even recognize the extremely stressful worlds in which they inhabit; it’s become the norm within a ‘monoculture’ of excellence. Scary stuff that can cause real damage if not addressed; sadly, I’ve witnessed this with some of my own students. There’s some really cool and applicable sociological theories that explain how we can get trapped within these worlds, how it can become the norm, and therefore, how it becomes difficult to make real change.
Pierre Bourdieu theorizes that we all live within ‘social fields.’ He also calls these invisible, but highly ‘sticky’ spaces, ‘fields of struggle.’ These social fields determine our lot in life and its hard to move from one social field into another. For example, if you hail from a working class family, the structures in your life and the fields in which you travel may inhibit you from “jumping” from this field into say, the upper classes. Bourdieu would say this happens because you do not have access to ‘social capital.’ Social capital represents a whole range of social and structural entities, such as education, skills, tastes, mannerisms, credentials, etc. Conversely, it would be difficult to try to exist in a different social field then that in which you were raised, such as in the upper class. One might feel pressure to maintain what one’s parents provided for them. Enter, pressure to perform, from a classic sociological perspective.
This seems a little grim, I know, but, there is also agency. Bourdieu argues that individuals have agency (choice and power) within the structures (schools) that circulate around them. Perhaps this is a useful sociological lens through which to view and extend Dr. Gealson’s work; the social capital that young people pursue in highly competitive schools has morphed into a competitive monoculture that is causing major stress for our young people. Most useful, is when we start to think about the interplay between structure and agency. This is where magic can happen and change can be made. I diverge from Dr. Gealson on this point; yes, structures need to change, but they must change in harmony with student agency, in that school. Without agency, students feel a loss of control; the last thing the developing adolescent mind wants.
So, how do we fix this very enmeshed social dilemma? As we know, Dr. Gealson suggests that it is time to stop telling our student to change, and to start making changes to the structures. He suggests that this will require uncomfortable moments of self-reflection on part of the adults, major scheduling changes in students daily routines (delayed school start times, no Saturday classes in boarding schools), decreases in homework expectations, recognizing and honoring the developmental stage of our students (don’t treat them like adults) and my favourite, a commitment to mindfulness meditation.
These suggestions come with years of experience and would benefit many students lives, no doubt, but my one critique of Dr. Gealson’s work, at least with respect to possible solutions, is this absence of an exploration into the power of student agency to illicit change.
Back to Bourdieu. This book is about changing structures (things that happen in these elite social fields that involve students maintaining social capital in their worlds), but I was craving a discussion of the power that students do have in shaping their own worlds. I want to hear from them; I want them to be part of the solution; I want a study where they tell us how it is and what should be done. Uncomfortable for faculty, yes. Vital for any real change, absolutely.
Thanks for reading!