Worrying about the angst of high-achieving students has become a minor industry. “America’s culture of hyperachievement among the affluent” has led to suicides, depression, and anxiety among college students, suggested a July New York Times feature. “These cultural dynamics of perfectionism and overindulgence have now combined to create adolescents who are ultra-focused on success but don’t know how to fail,” wrote Julie Scelfo. The rhetoric of concern barely conceals contemptuous disapproval.
In this popular narrative, America’s best college students are making themselves miserable trying to please pushy parents and grab lucrative jobs. They’re soulless grinds — the products of insensitive parenting and a sick culture. This fable leaves no room for intellectual enthusiasm or the pride of seeing oneself as smart and accomplished. It assumes every activity these students pursue is instrumental, undertaken merely to look good on an application for the next stage in their upward climb. Their drive for success, it suggests, cloaks an ignoble lust for fame or money. The moralism of this tale may flatter the tellers, but the story itself largely misses a deeper underlying struggle on elite campuses.