Although I’m approaching the seventh anniversary of my “graduation,” a few people still ask if I miss being the headmaster of a school. My answer is the same as it has been since the day I left. I miss the kids and I miss the battles on their behalf—the battles with hyper-competitive parents who imagined that their own greatest achievement would be a son’s or daughter’s admission to one or another university; and with the educational entrepreneurs whose latest fads sometimes seemed to take lucrative advantage of children’s struggles and parents’ anxieties.
Like most school heads and teachers, I had no illusions about winning the war; I counted my victories one student and one family at a time. If you stayed in the game long enough, the victories would accumulate—anxious adolescents would grow into thriving adults; distraught parents would say, “Hey, you were right; maybe I didn’t need to worry quite so much about her.” Occasionally, anyway. But, fair enough, what parent doesn’t worry about her kids; we all lose perspective every once in a while.
What’s not so forgivable is the psychotherapeutic industry that penetrated a significant segment, in particular the affluent segment, of the school world a couple of decades ago. For a variety of reasons, not least among them that anxiety, normal childhood behaviors were increasingly deemed pathological. An eleven year-old boy can’t sit still in a desk for two hours? A thirteen-year-old keeps looking out the window or drawing when he’s supposed to be doing his math homework? Imagine: a boy not being able to sit still. Parents did a simple calculation: If my kid is ever going to get into college, we need to make him sit still, and there are some people who say they can help.
And so, to abridge and oversimplify a very long and complicated story, Learning Specialist programs proliferated in schools; educational psychologists or therapists provided quick diagnoses, and doctors prescribed medicines like Ritalin and Adderall. And, damn if these boys didn’t sit still. Not only that, but they seemed a lot easier to live with.
But now, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control, eleven percent of school age children and one in five high school age boys have received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and about two thirds of those with a current diagnosis receive prescriptions for stimulants like Ritalin or Adderall. In addition, the wide availability of pills means they are being used, bought, and sold in colleges and competitive independent schools as study aids. Makes one long for the good old days when too much coffee was a problem.
It is true, of course, that while there were a lot of boys who couldn’t sit still, there were some boys, and a smaller number of girls, who had been seriously and properly diagnosed with a disorder and who did indeed have learning disabilities and who benefited enormously from the therapy and the medicine. And, there were some superb educators in the field, who not only were advocates for treatment, but for children.
The best and most celebrated example of such a person is Dr. Ned Hallowell, someone I consider to be one of the most ethical and accomplished people I met during more than forty years in education, and the foremost authority on ADD and ADHD. And yet, even Dr. Hallowell is having second thoughts. He was recently quoted in the New York Times as saying, “I think now’s the time to call attention to the dangers that can be associated with making the diagnosis in a slipshod fashion.”
Slipshod is kind. In fact, according to the same article in the Times, advertising from pharmaceutical companies also contributed to the problem and helped to create the idea of using the drugs as a way to get better grades. It is not difficult to see why a conscientious parent might see diagnosis and the drugs as “giving my child every opportunity to succeed.” On the other hand, I was aware of several parents who sought and bought a diagnosis based upon specious criteria precisely to give their child an edge, even if only to take untimed tests.
But the ADHD follies is just one part of what must be a match made in heaven. The Test Prep industry, which is (again, according to the Times) expected to ring up $840.4 million in revenues in 2013, has gone from tutoring by teachers or older, more studious schoolmates to large-scale businesses. Wedged in between are adults who want to make a bit of extra money and whose sole qualification is (perhaps) a college degree. Their techniques include Scrabble around the dining room table and, if things go well, maybe a bit of college counseling on the side. And as the world turns, some predictable parts of the country are now being blessed with “Cram Schools,” based upon the “Asian Model,” and that enroll children as young as nine. And that makes one long for the good old days when we could be indignant about Tiger Moms.
I know it’s a competitive world; I know jobs are hard to find; I know where the USA ranks according to all the tests. I know our kids can and should be better educated—and not just in math and science. But I also know that curtailing childhood has its price, one that is paid in many countries higher in the rankings. And I also know that therapies of all kinds, pharmaceutical, intellectual, and emotional, however immediately palliative can, when abused, also rob children of the chance to fall down, to get up, and to thrive.
So, sure, I miss it.