Aiming for excellence rather than achievements

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Back in 2009, the New York Times ran a series with the dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, William Fitzsimmons. It was a fascinating series in which prospective students, parents, guidance counselors, and others wrote in with questions for Fitzsimmons, who commented on admissions’ standards, college affordability, future career prospects and more.

Among all the many exchanges that caught my eye, there was a particular one that has remained with me all these years. The comment to which Fitzsimmons responded came from a mother who was concerned about what she described as “pressured and stressed teenagers who have been on a long march toward college that began at birth.” The exchange between this mother and Fitzsimmons went like this:

NYT Reader, Colleen Smith: “I once attended a preschool admissions tour where a parent actually asked how many of the preschool’s graduates had attended Ivy League colleges. My daughter is now in third grade and participates in only one extracurricular activity because she values free time and wants to play. Nonetheless, when I cross paths with my daughter’s overscheduled, horse-jumping, violin-playing peers, I can’t help but wonder whether my choice to let my girl play will eventually leave her wanting in the eyes of an admissions committee.”

Harvard Dean of Admissions, William Fitzsimmons: “Students begin their sports, music, dance, and educational enrichment classes at remarkably young ages. The ‘specialists’ … do indeed hone their crafts relentlessly and, at times, joylessly for many years. Colleges are often blamed for this, but college is only one stop on the way through the fast lane to the proverbial brass ring. The ‘right’ graduate school, the ‘right’ sequence of steps in every profession — all leading to the outsized rewards of ‘The Winner Take All Society.’ … It is common to encounter even the most successful students, who have won all the ‘prizes,’ stepping back and wondering if it was all worth it. Professionals in their thirties and forties … sometimes give the impression that they are dazed survivors of some bewildering life-long boot camp. … Often they say they missed their youth entirely, never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined goal.”

Primary motivator

I don’t know Colleen Smith personally, but I like her. She gets it. In one quick stroke, she critiques what has become “normal,” or at least recommended, for modern American childhood, while giving voice to her own anxieties as a parent regarding the whole thing. She didn’t want to put her daughter on some preordained track toward accumulating marks and experiences for the sake of some distant but looming college admissions evaluation, and yet she was concerned that by not doing what she saw other parents doing with their kids, she would be leaving her child at a disadvantage later on. I suspect many parents can relate to what Colleen Smith is expressing.

Fitzsimmons’s response is no less telling, since he observes that this general college admissions’ anxiety is actually part of a larger cultural issue of “never living in the present, always pursuing some ill-defined goal.” During childhood, that ill-defined goal is often college, but it turns out that even when students get to college, that habit of chasing and seeking and measuring yourself against some remote and oftentimes vague standard on the horizon does not go away — it just shifts from college to something else.

It would seem that the easy response is to buck the trend toward credentialing our children by instead letting them choose what they want to do and following their passions. But most parents with any experience in parenting know that this is too simple. Children do not arrive on the scene as experts on their own life. While their desires do matter, they do not know in advance what is best for them. The crucial responsibility for us as parents is to guide them toward what is best. So the answer cannot be to simply let children follow all their own whims and wishes but instead to recalibrate not just what our children do, but why and how and to what end they do what they do.

Colleen Smith felt caught in an achievement-based culture as a parent. William Fitzsimmons gave voice to the perils of such a culture. The problem, as expressed in this exchange, is not with young people who become more and more proficient in skills and activities; the problem is with allowing the cash-in value of achievements to become the primary motivator, so that children become adolescents then become adults who are always dependent on standards of one impersonal system after another.

school achievement

A culture of excellence

If the achievements-based culture is what we might need to question, and if just allowing kids to always do what they want is not exactly the solution, then how else might we think about how and why young people pursue enrichment and develop competencies? Perhaps a key is to focus on excellence rather than achievement. To help draw out what I am thinking of here, let me share some recent experiences from our oldest children’s school, which we intentionally chose for them because this school is designed with the intention of liberating young people from the goal-gobbling college preparatory race for the sake of guiding them toward a love of wisdom, personal enrichment and holistic learning.

For every student at this school, there is a meeting twice a year between all the teachers educating the student and that student’s parents. As a community, you discuss how the child is doing in school, where they are doing well and where they are struggling, and how to best serve them going forward. You talk not just about performance, but also about their confidence, distinctive gifts and their relationship with peers. Since the students do not have access to their grades directly, parents can choose whether or not to share the grades with their children afterward, but even that is secondary to having a conversation with your child about how they’re doing overall.

When the students become juniors in high school, they join this biannual meeting, and in fact, the student is the one who directs the meeting with the teachers. The parents now become more like observers in the meetings. Just as with the meetings between the parents and teachers when the student is younger and absent, so now there is a clear personal focus to these meetings. It is about this student, his or her teachers’ impressions and reflections on this student, and the parents developing understanding of how their child is maturing.

At the recent midyear meeting with the community of teachers and our high school junior, one of the areas of discussion was the art history class that all juniors take. Our son was honest about his thoughts going into the class, since he, like most of his peers, expected the class to be on the dull and boring side. But then he recounted an experience toward the end of the term when the class visited a local art museum. He talked about “getting lost” in a particular painting, becoming fascinated by it and appreciative of it. What he had learned in the course helped him encounter the art well, and his knowledge was the foundation of his wonder and curiosity. He actually lit up as he talked about it. There were similar moments in discussions about Shakespearean drama, Greek poetry, watercolor painting and charcoal sketching, and even calculus. From a parent’s perspective, this was an incredible thing. For the teachers, these are the things they hope to see in their students: wonder, competence, joy. Together, it wasn’t so much about seeing this student becoming capable of doing something as it was witnessing this student having become the kind of person who learned to enjoy what he previously did not.

This experience indicated the development of some form of excellence rather than attaining an achievement. Becoming the kind of person who was enriched and could delight in something new was itself the end, rather than leveraging that accomplishment primarily or even consciously for something else. It is all too easy to dichotomize what someone enjoys and wants to do on the one hand, and what you are required or assigned to do on the other hand. Here, this was not about a young person just following his preexistent passion, since he clearly engaged in art history because it was assigned. But the way he was instructed, guided and challenged in the educational setting aimed at enrichment, personal engagement and the integration of the mind with experience and wonder. In other words, the aim was excellence rather than achievement.

The authority for motivation

The more we yield to an achievements-based culture, such as what has become commonplace with the thrust in education toward college preparatory metrics, the more we outsource the authority to form desires. William Fitzsimmons noted that the outsourcing of the authority to shape desires was far from limited to the college admissions game, seeing the college admissions obsession as only the first stop on a lifelong track of always chasing, always seeking approval. In order to reframe the perspective, how might an emphasis on excellence, personal enrichment, developing the capacity for new delights and joys, becoming conversant in a wide range of subjects and disciplines, learning how to learn new things better — how might something like that offer a healthy and more personal corrective to the college preparatory culture and the broader culture of achievement in which it abides?



Leonard J. DeLorenzo

Leonard J. DeLorenzo, Ph.D., works in the McGrath Institute for Church Life and teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame. His book What Matters Most offers more on related topics. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter, “Life, Sweetness, Hope,” at