This semester I am teaching a freshman seminar on the college novel. We started with This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald’s bizarre, Princeton-set contribution to the genre. The main character, Amory Blaine, starts life in Minneapolis with many material advantages. But his doting mother is an alcoholic, and his father washes out as a salesman. Amory is a failure: in college he goes on alcoholic benders and then flunks his end-of-the-year exams. This forces him off the editorial board of the Princetonian, and soon after he drops out of college completely.
The novel, which hews closely to Fitzgerald’s own life, also chronicles Amory’s failed relationships, including his relationship with the Southern belle Rosalind, the most Zelda-like character in the novel. Rosalind rejects Amory because she doesn’t want to live like “squaw” on his measly advertising salary of $275 a month (about $60,000 a year in today’s dollars). At the end of the novel Amory takes the rap for a friend who brought a single woman to a hotel (thus violating the Mann act), quits his job, loses his mother and his father figure Monsignor Darcy to death, and, in the last line, he names his only true accomplishment: “I know myself and that is all!”
I asked students in the seminar—11 women and one transgender student, three-quarters of them born abroad and representing perhaps a new global elite—what they thought of Amory’s trajectory. They agreed that he had mostly failed by end of the novel, but they also believed that he had gained wisdom, and that he had become a better person.
I also asked my students to define success for themselves. Their answers surprised me. One wrote that success was “not only academic success.” One defined success as “accomplishing my goals,” but with the caveat that “my goals can vary and not be traditionally defined.” One wants to “have a family and a job I love.” Another wants to learn Chinese, to play the guitar, and to have time for travel, music, and photography. One wants to “do something important.” One wants to “learn to cook.” One wants to find her voice. They wrote words like “satisfied,” “happy,” “friends,” and “family.”
As advocates for working people, how do we define success? Is there a contrast between our definition of success and how my students at Carnegie Mellon University define it? I also wonder about this as a parent when I find myself fighting with my 10-year-old and my 7-year-old—yet again—about tests, homework, and music lessons.
I worry about both my students and my children when I think about how the great recession has made our culture more competitive than ever. Is success for our children defined by striving, sacrificing, foregoing sleep, battling eating disorders, getting yelled at when they can’t focus during their violin lessons, getting the best grades and test scores, needing Ritalin, winning the most competitions, contemplating suicide, participating in the most activities, getting into the best schools, needing anti-anxiety medication, getting a high paying job, and then starting the cycle all over again for their children?
If you think I’m exaggerating, here are some stats about college life from the blog Challenge Success: Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 10 and 24. In a recent survey of Stanford students, 12% had suicidal thoughts. According to a 2006 study of students attending two northeastern universities, “17% reported that they purposely injured themselves at some point in their lives,” and 70% of those said that had done so multiple times. In other cases college debt has led to suicide. Even younger teens in the US are buckling under the pressure, such as the three stressed out teens from Newton, MA who killed themselves in the span of just a few months.
What if, instead, we define success like this post, which went viral this summer, on how to give our kids a 1970s style summer? The writer, Melissa Fenton, advocated for the joys of imaginative play, wandering the neighborhood, drinking straight from the hose, doing just OK in school, being curious, watching cartoons, getting lost in a book, riding a bike fast on a dirt path, catching tadpoles, hanging out with friends after school.
What if we defined success in those terms? That kind of success could mean finding an affordable college that’s a good fit, or maybe not going to college at all, wandering the country, traveling the world, growing up, finding one’s path, working with dignity for some reasonable amount of money, and maybe (or maybe not) starting the cycle all over again for their children.
On the other hand, if families like mine—comfortable and certainly middle class— adopt the tenets of “slow parenting,” will my children become lazy, listless, and unfocused? Will they fail to get into a good college—or into any college? Will they end up without resilience, or with a bad work ethic? Will they drop precipitously into the working class?
Then again, would that be the worst thing in the world?
Indeed it might not be. Barbara Jensen argues powerfully for the existence of different cultures associated with working and middle class parenting in Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America. Jensen argues that working-class families privilege kinship and community over striving and the pressure cooker of high expectations. When I’m being honest with myself I, too, want kinship and community for my children more than I want them to have glorious and exalted careers.
It could be argued that my lament is that of the privileged. Challenge Success, the national organization that raises many of these same questions, is centered at Stanford University, and some of the parenting sessions held there, in the heart of Silicon Valley, attract some of the wealthiest and most successful parents in the country.
But the paradigms associated with middle class success since the great recession, especially in the realm of education, while stressful for families like mine, have been crippling for the poor and the working class. Education reformers, using the rhetoric of “grit” and the tools of testing, standardization, and austerity, have been gutting public schools, creating charter schools that harshly discipline poor black and brown children, and re-segregating public education. Today in the South and the Southwest of the United States more than 70% of public school children are poor.
The rhetoric of “grit” in particular has been used to argue that children who are poor have more experience with failure, and thus more potential to succeed. The truth is something different. Poverty creates a negative climate for learning—from factors such as lack of pre-natal nutrition, to lack of exposure to reading and vocabulary for toddlers, to the way in which the violence and insecurity of poor neighborhoods causes PTSD and rewires a child’s brain. These become staggering disadvantages to overcome within already underfunded and overburdened schools. Poverty, currently affecting 45 millions Americans, doesn’t foster grit. Instead poverty makes it harder to achieve success—no matter how we define it.
So how do we fight for more people to have access to the American Dream and, at the same time, challenge the accepted pathways to that dream? Can we challenge the culture of striving, overwork, and competition that is making our students and our children miserable, even suicidal? We want more people to be more successful, but don’t we also want to challenge the culture of success?
Kathy M. Newman