As someone who had flipped through a fair few novels and essays in high school, I surprise myself every time it dawns on me that I’ve never taken an English course at Stanford. The most recent of these realizations surfaced upon reading Stanford English Professor Terry Castle’s opinion piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education.
In her column, Professor Castle speaks about the high-strung students at Stanford and Harvard, and the curiously intimate relationships we seem to have with our parents. Finally, she makes an intriguing suggestion that perhaps it is in our best interest to just not pick up when our parents call (or maybe not as much!).
Perhaps I am a product of our uber-competitive generation (oh what’s the point of hiding it?) and therefore cannot imagine a world decades in the past when teenagers would be hanging around the malt shop after school instead of padding their accomplishments. However, I cannot help but think that just as the passing of time has morphed the college student into a whole new beast, our ideas of self discovery must have changed as well.
Why did I just drop that ubiquitous and stereotypical college student complex into the mix? Because Professor Castle’s piece revolves around exactly that- what does it take for a young man to find himself? The enlightenment period taught us to focus on the self, and Professor Castle explores, through a remarkable mastery of knowledge of literature, how we are fascinated by the concept of the orphan.
An orphan, or even a quasi-orphan, is the self made individual, with no parental expectations, restrictions, or guidance weaving the course of self discovery. What a fascinating concept!
Moms and dads of the “helicopter parent” generation, according to Professor Castle, are much too heavily involved in the lives of their children. They do not allow the kids to explore the world by themselves, for themselves, while being dependent on mostly just themselves. They impede the Rumspringa that is college, by guiding students, willingly or not, in a direction that is not truly their own.
Before I raise any objection to this, I must admit that I cannot fathom what it must be like to be a teacher who has felt the brunt of parental intervention, in the form of having to deal with catty or super-concerned guardians.
Although it is true that many of our professors have had those unnecessary and uncomfortable conversations about paper grades, assignment deadlines et al, I can also recognize that none of Professor Castle’s article has much to do with how parents offend teachers and universities- it is about the ways in which, directly or otherwise, they hurt their children.
Here I must go back to a concept I had brought up earlier. In the 60’s, kids were not using Google calendar (or whatever your alternative may be). They did not schedule in sleep or, as Professor castle notes, time slots for showers! While it is understandable that the culture of busyness that is to prominent now is a product of a changing economy, it is also easy to recognize that this transformation has changed who we are, and not just what we do.
The thought of not packing our schedules with things to market ourselves, or achieving measurable ends we are pursuing, seems absolutely unacceptable to most of our generation, especially to those going to schools like ours. Building something, leading a student group, advocating for a cause- everything has a target end, and is very different from only listening to music, or even reading for pleasure. This is how we have become.
What is important to note here is that we do not do these things against our will, or better judgment. We do these because often we love them, and almost always, we recognize merit in these activities.
And this is where I will pass my first idea- we are different kids, and our process of self discovery is tremendously different. We live in a world where connectivity has almost surpassed what could be imagined in an episode of the Jetsons.
To be free, and explore the world, I do not even have to leave my room. A tour around Wikipedia, Facebook, Youtube etc. will suffice. In light of the fact that we can now absorb so much information, by ourselves and from others, diminishes the effect of parental pulls.
If my mother had asked me not to take a class on statistical modeling in the 70’s, I would perhaps never have learned about it without monstrous amounts of effort on my own. In this age, even if this were the case and I was being a deferential child, Khan Academy would come to my rescue after class.
This is an extreme. My point is that children already live in a world of greater independence- of thought and action. Dorms are more lenient, technology is everywhere, and society is more accepting of intermingling of sexes, races, and ideas. In this world, it would be incredibly difficult for any parent to hold back their kids. Maybe now it is possible for us to speak with our parents, and let them in, without allowing them to take over the wheel.
This brings me to another, more evolved idea- perhaps as we’ve changed so have our parents. Parents can recognize what a rat-race this world has become, and as any responsible guardian would, try their best to prevent a life of misery for their children.
Misery is subjective, but in the narrow context of high-achieving parents with similarly high-achieving kids, it makes sense that not getting the best education attainable and not exposing oneself to some of the highest experiences would result in misery.
This form of parental guidance is not necessarily terrible for self-discovery. An education, and subsequent experiences which help someone take complete charge of his life, can open many doors, and make available more resources, that will allow him to indulge in new and varied interests.
Finally, I would like to set up a fuzzy thought experiment myself: is self-discovery overrated? What does it mean for one to cut ties, or limit them at least, with one’s parents, or other influential people, in order to embark on a journey to find oneself? Assuming that the majority of Stanford students do not have abusive or controlling parents, if parents are simply involved, but not dictatorial, must we discount their guidance and wisdom, for the sake of going skinny-dipping in a pool of mysteries?
There are never really answers to these questions that evoke the same emotions in every reader. And I for one am a fan of Professor Castle’s essay, although I don’t agree with her thesis. That is simply because, much like a lot of the enlightenment literature she put to use, her essay will not resonate with you the same way as it did with me. And that’s what makes it masterful.
*Nadiv Rahman ’13 is Editor-in-Chief of the *Stanford Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org