An article in the NY Times today tells a worrying tale about how some high school students in high-achieving schools are using so-called “study pills” to increase their performance on exams. The drugs are legally prescribed to many teenagers who complain about an inability to concentrate or a tendency “to stare out the window” during classes. Well, most of us who have finished school can remember long periods of staring out of windows (if we were lucky enough to have classrooms with windows) during classes that seemed long and boring. I remember staring longingly out of an open window from which I could hear the thump of the school baseball team practicing every afternoon during my history class. History was one of my favorite subjects, but when spring came and the sun was shining on bright new grass outside, even stories of Henry VIII and his many wives couldn’t compete. When did staring out of a window become a symptom needing treatment instead of a natural response for young people? Being distracted by new sensations isn’t necessarily a bad thing and surely it would be better for parents and teachers to help kids learn how to cope instead of sending them to a doctor for medication. But trying to produce outstanding children motivates lots of parents.
The urge to push children into ever-higher achievement isn’t new; the Victorians did the same. John Stuart Mill is an example of a child whose parents wanted him to excel. His father, a famous philosopher, decided his son would follow in his footsteps, and he started early. According to a Wikipedia article, John Stuart was taught Greek when he was three years old. “By the age of eight he had read Aesop’s Fables, Xenophon’s Anabasis and the whole of Herodotus, and was acquainted with Lucian, Diogenes Laërtius, Isocrates and six dialogues of Plato. He had also read a great deal of history in English and had been taught arithmetic.” The lessons came thick and fast all through his teenage years and he studied dutifully until at the age of twenty he suffered a nervous breakdown, which he later thought was caused by the heavy emphasis on early intellectual achievement. Fortunately for Mill, he pulled out of his depression and went on to have a distinguished career.
Margaret Fuller is another example of an individual whose early life was dominated by a father’s insistence on intellectual distinction. Her position was unusual for a woman, because most fathers in the early 19th century would not have bothered educating a daughter. While I was writing my biography of Margaret Fuller, I found ample evidence that Margaret had very mixed feelings about her precocious education and how it affected her life. Before Margaret was four years old, her father started teaching her to read. She learned easily and within a few months she was reading stories and enjoying them. Almost as soon as she had mastered reading in English, she started on Latin. By the time she was six years old, Margaret was spending her days bent over a book instead of playing with other children. Although she too grew up to have a distinguished career, she sometimes wondered whether her father’s early pushing made her life less happy than it might have been.
It seems as though we haven’t learned much over the years about letting children find their own paths in life. I guess it’s just something every generation has to learn all over again. Meanwhile we can only hope that pharmaceuticals won’t become a regular part of high school life.