The NPR podcast “Raising a Human” just released an episode called “The Perils of Pushing Too Hard, And How Parents Can Learn to Back Off.” So basically, if you’re a parent, you dropped everything and read/listened when it crossed your path even though you may have your own already-developed thoughts on the issue. (Yup, I do.) Why? Because a trend piece like this complements more than a few hot topics circulating the contemporary parenting world: a recent New York Times front-page piece about suicides at colleges and universities, the brouhaha over standardized testing (or more specifically, “teaching to the test”), and the lengths students (parents?) go to obtain perfectly perfect test scores in order to (maybe) gain admission to a tiny group of “select” third-level institutions. Notice a pattern? In America, privileged parents are almost universally focused on college and how our children will fare once they’re there.
I recently finished The Female Persuasion, the latest by Meg Wolitzer, the novelist who bears the burden of being seen as a chronicler of (only) women’s lives. Her publication timeline – right in the wake of the #MeToo movement – suggests either pure serendipity or the fact that Wolitzer simply is attuned to, you know, real life. The book follows the life and careers of college student Greer Kadetsky, the feminist icon Faith Frank (think Gloria Steinem), and other women (and a handful of men) as they grapple with what I’ll just bundle together as “women’s issues.”
Why the oversimplified catch-all for a variety of nuanced and important issues? Because despite its title and the fact that yes, the book is about feminism and how that concept has differed between generations, I actually thought The Female Persuasion could easily be about the American notion of college and our society’s ideas of subsequent “success.”
The Female Persuasion opens with recent high school graduate Greer Kadetsky coming to grips with her attendance at the fictitious Ryland College after regretfully turning down her place at Yale because of her flaky parents’ financial aid mishap.
At her first night at the much-lower-tiered liberal arts college, Greer sulks to herself: “Apparently…these are going to be my people, tonight and perhaps every weekend. It made no sense; she didn’t belong with them, and yet she was among them, she was one of them.” Her high school boyfriend, Cory Pinto, also leaves their seemingly unambitious hometown to attend Princeton (according to their plan to both attend Ivy League schools) and Greer spends a good portion of her first days wallowing in self-pity as well as explaining to her classmates why “she really shouldn’t be at Ryland.” Despite her humble origins – or maybe because of them – Greer has already perfected the art of subtle superiority.
Things start to look up, however, after a chance meeting with Faith Frank. Electrified by the message she hears, Greer sets off on a trajectory of self-discovery and activism – and eventually ends up working for Faith. I’m going to simplify and gloss over a lot of Greer’s angst here, but the takeaway is this: Maybe Ryland wasn’t so bad. Or maybe it was, but if Faith hadn’t given a lecture there, would she and Greer have crossed paths? (Do we think it’s time for Gwyneth Paltrow to abandon GOOP and star in Sliding Doors 2?)
Meanwhile, Princeton graduate Cory faces a tragedy that not only breaks apart his family as well as his relationship with Greer, but calls him back from his consulting job in Manila to live at home, in a town that he, like Greer, so desperately wanted to escape. For many years, he simply survives as he trades in his life as an on-the-rise consultant to take over cleaning the houses that his immigrant mother no longer can.
Here are some of Wolitzer’s gems about life in college and one’s early 20s:
“How could you not have worries, particularly if you were a recent college graduate entering the world at this fragile moment?”
“Your twenties were a time when you still felt young, but the groundwork was being laid in a serious way, criss-crossing beneath the surface. It was being laid even while you slept. What you did, where you lived, who you loved, all of it was like pieces of track being put down in the middle of the night by stealth workers.”
“This time of life was meant to be about adding on to yourself, not taking away.”
So in a nutshell: Greer, graduate of the much-maligned Ryland, finds success in Faith Frank’s orbit. She has her own apartment – and therefore in her mind, her own life. Cory the Ivy grad flounders, big time. Naysayers and party-line-toers would probably like it to be as easy as “See, an expensive Yale degree won’t necessarily get you anything!” But, see, it is extenuating circumstances (an act of betrayal on Greer’s part and a family tragedy in Cory’s life) that determine where they eventually end up after college. Wolitzer takes us through 450+ pages of ups and downs, gently showing us that the long view matters. No major plot points divulged here, but I put down the completed book happy because the main characters found happiness in their own roundabout ways.
I’ve been a parent for almost 15 years in four (very) different locations: We’re almost there when it comes to college and we’ve seen it all from extreme competitive parenting to overly lax and stereotypically laissez faire parenting. And we’ve dabbled a bit in it all, too, finding our own comfortable place. I’m certainly not an expert, but it would be nice if we could treat our children’s ultimate fulfillment, knowledge, and yes, ability to support themselves as the carrot instead of a name-brand university or, even worse, focusing on the stick to get them there. (And no, I don’t mean that I want my kids to abandon any sense of competition or the drive to win.)
In 2011, when Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother first made waves, The Wall Street Journal (where an excerpt was originally printed) published a rebuttal of sorts by Ayelet Waldman, perhaps most famous for her controversial essay about how she loves her husband more than her children. I don’t always love everything Waldman writes, but I definitely loved her subtle assertion that instead of parents pressuring their children, they should do all they can to develop intrinsic motivation within them. She writes, “Roaring like a tiger turns some children into pianists who debut at Carnegie Hall but only crushes others. Coddling gives some the excuse to fail and others the chance to succeed. Amy Chua and I both understand that our job as mothers is to be the type of tigress that each of our different cubs needs.”
In The Female Persuasion, Wolitzer creates two protagonists – Greer and Cory – raised by polar opposites of the parenting world. Greer’s clueless parents and Cory’s hovering immigrant parents have different ideas of “success,” but I’d like to think that the fact that Wolitzer ultimately sets both of them up for their own versions of success demonstrates something important about feminism: By all means, girls (and boys), go for Harvard (or whatever)! But do it because you want to, not because someone told you to.
What Colleges Want in an Applicant (Everything), by Eric Hoover. The New York Times (11/1/2017)
Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, by William Deresiwicz. The New Republic (7/21/2014)
Why You Should Apply to Ivy League Colleges, by Ruchika Tulshyan. Forbes (7/30/2014); an addendum of sorts to the piece above, particularly relevant given the themes in The Female Persuasion
Kid Gorgeous, comedian John Mulaney’s new(ish) Netflix special. He’s got a great bit about tuition and being the recipient of that annual appeal to “be a good alumnus” and donate.