Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Overachievers

Stephen Colbert just had journalist/author Alexandra Robbins on discussing her book "The Overachievers." Here's the Publisher's Weekly blurb:

"In this engrossing anthropological study of the cult of overachieving that is prevalent in many middle- and upper-class schools, Robbins follows the lives of students from a Bethesda, Md., high school as they navigate the SAT and college application process ... The portraits of the teens are compelling and make for an easy read. Robbins provides a series of critiques of the system, including college rankings, parental pressure, the meaninglessness of standardized testing and the push for A.P. classes. She ends with a call to action, giving suggestions on how to alleviate teens' stress and panic at how far behind they feel."
Sounds interesting.

I think part of the explanation for the obsessiveness among the overachievers (and their parents) that I have discussed recently is the lack of supply response to the growth in demand for selective colleges. In spite of limited evidence that selective colleges produce better long term outcomes, demand for slots at top schools increased substantially over the past several decades. However, the number of slots in the top schools did not increase by much. This obviously createed a more competitive admissions process. However, more competitive admissions are also more arbitrary admissions. The attempt to control this semi-random process prompts much of the crazy, obsessive behavior. (I discussed the one of the associated behaviors, applying to a bunch of schools, in more detail in this previous post.)

It is weird, though, that the distribution of youth (at least as depicted in various media) appears to be drifting toward bimodality with the crazy, overachiever types in one group and the slacker, underachiever types in the other. I am not sure what to think about this (or if it even an accurate description of the world), but if true we should probably figure what is actually changing and what is ultimately responsible.

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