Thursday, April 19, 2007

Amazing Girls

I was thrilled to see the New York Times takes an interest in the trials and tribulations of America's smart young women. It's too bad Sara Rimer's recent article misses so much. Rimer focuses on issues conditioned more by generation than gender. In doing so, she has written one of the most slyly anti-feminist pieces I have read recently.

Initial praeteritio: I will not criticize Rimer's article for focusing on educationally and socio-economically privileged kids in a progressive Massachusetts suburb. I will not register at length my frustration at education news' tendency to address either this extreme or the other (inner-city poverty), rarely acknowledging the experience of the millions of American teens whose high school experience falls somewhere between the two. No, I will stick to gender.

Rimer's article focuses on the experience of Esther Mobley, who sounds, by all accounts, like a sweet and deserving young thing. A nice, well-rounded kid, if you will. Mobley refuses to participate in the sicker elements of the college admissions feeding-frenzy. She follows her interests, not the demands of her resumé, when she signs up for AP classes and extra-curriculars. She fogoes SAT tutoring, though her scores are slightly less than stellar. She reasons that it would be unfair to get in on the basis of what her parents can afford.

The college admissions process does not honor Mobley's integrity and intellectual honesty. Williams College, her first choice, rejects her, as do several other small liberal arts schools--schools that pride themselves on the very values and virtues Mobley so clearly embodies. (Smith had the good sense to snap Mobley up. I hope she enjoys her college years there; she deserves all the best.)

It's a compelling story, but Mobley's experience hinges not so much on her gender as the values with which she was raised. She is one of the so-called echo-boomers, children of college-educated, middle-class baby boomers desperate for their children to succeed. The challenges and pressures she faced affect all of today's college applicants regardless of their gender. I can imagine the same story written of a sweet, smart seventeen-year-old boy, and I suspect that Mobley's younger brother will approach college admissions much as she did.

(Full disclosure: Mobley reminds me quite a bit of one of my own younger brothers. Harvard passed on his application; in May he will graduate from Bowdoin where he has been a campus leader and top student. A Harvard grad myself, I am still disappointed by my alma mater's poor taste.)

In practice, the same basic pressure to achieve probably affects boys and girls differently. I suspect this was Rimer's initial object. On page one, for example, she records one interviewee's comments about an extra pressure faced by "amazing girls":

You still have to be pretty, thin and, as one of Esther’s classmates, Kat Jiang, a go-to stage manager for student theater who has a perfect 2400 score on her SATs, wrote in an e-mail message, “It’s out of style to admit it, but it is more important to be hot than smart.”

“Effortlessly hot,” Kat added.

Rimer never follows up this observation, however. When she returns to boy-girl relations, it is only to tell us how little interest Mobley and her friends have in boyfriends and how supportive and wonderful their (Platonic) male friends are.

(Full disclosure number two: Both statements run wholly counter to my own experience as a proto-amazing girl of the mid 1990s. My male peers were hostile, threatened by a smart girl, and I spent plenty of time agonizing over my poor dating transcript.)

Instead, Rimer writes about the pressure to take tons of AP classes, do every extracurricular activity available and, ultimately, follow a schedule that leaves little time for sleep. She also discusses a kind of double standard the girls encounter: The same adults who expect the world from them also encourage them to take time out, relax, and enjoy childhood. I suspect that both boys and girls at Newton North face these challenges and double standards. Rimer's article, however, all but leaves out the boys. She never defines what makes an amazing girl's experience different from an amazing boy's.

Toward the end of the article, Rimer records the college acceptances of Mobley and her classmates, including the following list:

By Dec. 15, Newton North was in a frenzy over early admissions answers. Esther’s friend Phoebe Gardener had been accepted to Dartmouth. Her friend Dan Lurie was in at Brown. Harvard wanted Dan Catomeris.

Let's be honest for a moment here. While we all certainly respect a degree from Smith, Williams, Middlebury, Dartmouth and the like, there are four or five schools that have a particular cachet: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and perhaps also Columbia. These are not necessarily better or more selective schools than Williams, Swarthmore, or Dartmouth, but by virtue of being top research universities as well as colleges, they have a certain something extra. Rimer neither acknowledges this subtle distinction among top schools, nor does she acknowledge that the two Newton North students who get into these institutions are both male.

The Harvard-bound Dan Catomeris offers a revealing counterpoint to the amazing girls Rimer describes. His schedule must be as crazy as theirs: he is a "theater star" as well as a top student. And certainly he faces high expectations from his Harvard Business School prof. mom. Because Rimer has not discussed male experience, however, we hear no one suggesting that he is overworked or overstressed. While teachers say they wish their amazing girls would slow down and chill out, no one seems to worry about little Dan's lost childhood.

Meanwhile, Rimer records the story of Catomeris's female equivalent, another smartypants theater start. This young woman breaks down and quits AP Physics because she cannot balance its demands with her starring role in the school play. Heart rending stuff, indeed. It is too bad Rimer overlooks the way in which this particular story fits all our stereotypes about women's intelligence and emotional composition: Girl finds science hard, drama fun. She quits science, and is "incandescant" on stage.

Here, ultimately, lies the deep flaw of Rimer's article. I suspect she correctly identifies a particular, pernicious pressure the amazing girls face, but she does not adequately differentiate it from the pressures boys face. The piece accordingly suggests we do something particularly unnatural in expecting high achievement from our girls, while our boys simply rise to the occasion. It is not so different, ultimately, from suggesting that possession of a uterus makes us too physically and emotionally feeble to get an education at all.

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