The Pursuit of Success

Yom Kippur, 2003 by Harold M. Schulweis

We are gods to our children. We have given birth to them. They are helpless and dependent upon us. We are their gods: omnipotent, all-powerful, omniscient, all wise, ubiquitous, all present. Our children are created in our image. We shape our children.

And who shapes us? What drives us? Who teaches us right from wrong? Who tells us for Yom Kippur what is sin and what is virtue?

Open the Machzor and recite the ashamnu or the alchet, we are warned by a litany of sins: callousness, hardness of heart, and mendacity of all kinds. That is the culture of the Machzor.

But what does our daily culture tell us? What does the mass culture in which we live and work tell us? What is the mortal sin in our reality culture? What is our dominant virtue? We are measured by one and only one standard in our society:  failure. Sin is failure; virtue is success.

My parents programmed me for success, and my children will be programmed for success. It's our oral unwritten constitution: "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of success." Not the pursuit of happiness, but the pursuit of success.

These days, the race for success begins earlier than ever before. "Headstart" is prenatal. There are educational programs in which parents are trained to read Shakespeare and play Mozart to the fetus in the womb. Should the register of the parent's voice be too low, scientific technique has provided a "pregaphone" to amplify voice and music. The race begins prenatally. Imagine the swelling joy of parents hearing the fetus recite upon exiting the womb, "To be or not to be..."

My child must succeed. Educational literature informs us that sophisticated parents prepare their children to enter the elite nursery school. We are a scientific community. We test everything. To be admitted to an elite kindergarten in New York City, a battery of tests is required.

In Georgia, the state legislature has mandated the tests for admission to kindergarten.

Professor Robert Sternberg, professor of Psychology and Education at Yale, is asked to write letters of recommendation for admission to the kindergarten. Children are given IQ tests before being admitted to kindergarten and serious parents engage teachers to ready the child before entering kindergarten. No self-respecting parent will contemplate a "kindergarten dropout.”

Tests are eternal. There are ERB exams administered by Educational Record Bureaus every year for grades three to eight. If your child scores in the 97th, 98th, or 99th percentile, they will be "eligible" – for what? To take  CTY (Center for Talented Youth) exams run by John Hopkins. If they score in the 90th percentiles and above, they are "eligible" – for what? For UCI (University of California, Irvine) tests for talent searches. UCI also offers PSAT tests for grades five to nine. If they score well, they are "eligible" –  for what? To enroll in ASCAP – Academic Summer Camp Programs. We are the most measured society in history.

"Test-o-mania.”  To what purpose these tests? Let's get serious. To "get in first." Life is an endless race. Our children are born into a race for success, and parents want them to be on the fast track. The race is to the swift and we will see to it that our children finish first. So we push and pull. We have to "hurry up" the child. Whatever measure the school ordains we will obey, and we will have to have them do even more: more homework, more extra-curricular work, and more activities to impress college referees, more to "make it" to "get in.”

We driven parents are hell-bent to have the child win. Just attend a school science fair to discover scientific experiments that would boggle the mind of Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison. What an amazing triumph and celebration for the ambition and innovation and talent of parents.

Consequences? Professor Michael Jellineck, the Chief of Child Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells how the workload is piled upon the hurried child who is frenetically overscheduled. As a psychologist, he is worried about the "hurried child syndrome,” fueled by parents who want their child to be learning and accomplishing in every spare minute, running from work or school to art classes and piano lessons. They are humanized computers or computerized humans. Do computers cry? Have nightmares? Suffer depression? Pressure invites depression. Early childhood development specialists report observing physical and emotional problems: eating, stress, irritability, listlessness, sleep problems, headaches and stomachaches. The hurried child is forced to take on the physical, psychological and social trappings of adults before they are prepared to deal with them. Hurried children live on a treadmill in perpetual motion, stressed by fears of failure for not achieving "fast enough" or "high enough.”  And more, L.A. Monthly Times reports that educators report on "the increased pressure many families are finding with regard to college admissions."

Successful intelligence? Really?! It's a ruse.  Yale's Professor Sternberg and others have shown that the tests only record "inert intelligence" –  intelligence that spits back information and that tests memory without context. The dirty little secret in educational circles is that marks and standardized tests are not predictors of success in life – not in professions, not in vocations, not in marriage, not in friendship.

But what really predicts success in life is not the measuring of IQ or the SAT, which revolve around the narrow band of language and mathematic skills. How many sad, foolish successes do you know? Why so many failed successes? For what is ignored, cruelly dismissed, but what is most relevant to predict success in life is "social intelligence" –  the ability to understand others and self and to act wisely in human relations. Awareness of self-intelligence, the ability to monitor one's own feelings are talents that are proven indispensable for health and real success. Success in life is traced to the intra-personal ability to soothe oneself, to the resilience that enables people to shake off anxiety, gloom, irritability or rage. What is not registered, not recorded, not measured, is "empathic intelligence,” the ability to "read" another's emotional reactions - so essential for interpersonal relationships in business, at work and at home.

I speak to them: these educators and psychologists, principals and teachers I have personally heard and spoken with decry the mismeasuring, misdiagnosing and misunderstanding the child. You don't know my child. Overlooked are the multiple talents and intelligences unregistered in our tests limited to quantifiable and narrow circles. What of the "frames of intelligence" of the total child: our children's kinesthetic and bodily motion, musical intelligence, spiritual intelligence, their capacity to hope, to heal others –  far better predictors of success than the numbers we tout.

"Test-itis" in our society has inflamed the character of children! Uncontrolled, it kills character. Professor David Elkind points out that what school teaches children, more than anything else, is that the extrinsic marks and grades are everything. What is important is not the mastery of the subject, but the grade.

Denise Clark Pope, one of VBS's own alumni, now lecturing at Stanford University's School of Education, reveals in her book, Doing School, that the high school's best and brightest students are filled with anxiety, physical exhaustion and a disregard for learning. They have learned how to "do school" by scheming, lying and cheating. Doing School is a good title. As John Dewey put it, "We learn what we do."

In another book by a distinguished educator, David Elkind, reveals that one of the school principals was so pressured to keep up the high grades that she illicitly got copies of tests to be administered and had the teachers in her high school coach the children on the answers. Teach to the test, not to the child. The truth came out and the principal retired. But the truth was that the principal ran an excellent school and the students were already testing at high levels. But success is insatiable and it is tied to government grants.

Adam Ingersoll, Executive Director of the Ivy West Educational Services, a company serving the State of California, regards our system as unethical. ­ "In ninth and tenth grade, you don't need to be teaching strategies for the S.A.T. You need to be teaching challenging classes, reading books and being involved in the activities that are important to you." (L.A. Times, August 27, 2003)

It's a small thing!  It's just school! But what do you think happens to students who go out into the world? They carry with them the ethos and ethics of that mechanical meritocratic system which teaches that grades trump everything. Grades are more important than integrity and character, self respect. Are we really so surprised at the weekly revelations of the scheming, cheating and plagiarism of journalists and historians, or the massive deceptions of inside traders and stockbrokers, Enron and Anderson. Success is our idolatry: Success builds impregnable security.

The Great Wall of China built by Chinese working to protect the vulnerable Northern border from raids of fierce Mongol horsemen. It still stands today. A million men were building the zigzag structure, 9 stories high with four strong towers spaced apart for 1600 miles. It was impenetrable. No one could climb over it or tunnel under it, yet it was entered three times. How? Simply by bribing one of the guards at the gates. What failed was not the mechanical architecture. Character collapsed the wall.

I teach a class in our Midrashah with wonderful young people who are preparing to enter a college. Their nightmare is getting into the so-called "prestige" schools. I shared their melancholy, their depression, their disillusionment. I pity this child caught in our Procrustean bed that amputates their whole human being. Their cries echo that of Biblical Esau, when Isaac was given the blessing by Jacob and Esau cries out with bitter tears, "Have you no blessing for me, Papa? Bless me also, my father!"

"Was I the wrong music? the wrong guest for you?"

Papa, Mama - do not break Suzie's idealism. Do not dismiss unmeasured sanctity in her soul.  Who is Suzie? A true story, seared in my memory - only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.  This mother came to my study with such a grave demeanor, "Do you know what's become of Suzie - what Suzie is planning to do?" Suzie had just graduated from high school. From her mother's anguish, I thought that Suzie was planning to become - who knows - a streetwalker?

"Suzie's planning to be a nurse."

"How wonderful!" I said.

She muttered under her breath, "Only a rabbi would say that!"

"Look, it's a profession of great service - what's wrong with Suzie's choice?"

"What's wrong? Bedpans! That's wrong!" Suzie's mother was inconsolable and she added before leaving, "I guess I just can't put my head on her shoulders!"

"That would be decapitation," I offered. She didn't see the humor in that remark. But I continued, "Why should you rob her of her choice? Would you want to put your heart in her so that she will choose a proper mate?

Suzie's mother sobbed, "I only want her happiness!"

"But she's happy to be a nurse!"

"No! What does she know about what happiness means!"

Not the "pursuit of happiness,” but the "pursuit of success." Parental narcissism that twists a child into a "Naches producing machine."

It's not only our children that I'm talking about. It's not them –  It's us. It's me. It's not only their stress and pressure that concerns me, it's the pressure we transfer into our own lives and our families.

The child is our mirror. We place them in front of our own image and that image looks back at us. I, who shape the child, shape myself by the same madness to succeed? Have I become a commodity? Am I self-appraised by my cash value? Do I judge my worth by what the market place means by my success? Is that the meaning of my life? Is that the purpose of my life? What has become of my dreams, of my capacity to serve, of my idealism? Is that my faith?

I am no ascetic, I have taken no vow of poverty, but when I sell my soul for success in the sense that our culture determines it, it is too high a price. As a serious Jew I am to measure myself against the image of God, not in the image of a rising and falling Dow Jones or NASDAQ. I am a parent and I want not only for my child but also for myself growth and purpose ­ to cultivate the spiritual intelligence to love, to heal, to help, to serve, to create, to think, to express his soul.

We are trapped in a restless, mindless, meritocratic, soul-less machine. We must be wiser and kinder to our children, which is the code that means we must be kinder and wiser to ourselves. That science fiction movie, "The Matrix," reflects us. We adults and children have become digitized, computerized and robotized. As the Psalmist put it (Psalm 115): "They have ears but they do not hear. Eyes have they, but do not see." And then the line: "We have become like them."

We need a new "Alchet," ­ a new confession. We need to balance mass culture with collective wisdom of Judaism.

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Do I advocate laziness? Indifference to the choice of vocation or profession? To the contrary: I mean to restore that true meaning of vocation – "vocatio,"­ the calling to master wisdom, to dedicate learning to classes that heal the sick, that defeats the weak, that raises the fallen ­ professions, vocations that honor our idealism.

The books I have read, the educators I have interviewed, agree with me­ we are not educating the wise, good noble citizen, only producing the shrewd, quick, greedy, avaricious calculators. We may not succeed in making society sane or driving out the perverse driven-ness in our schools. Perhaps we need more modest goals:   Make your home an oasis.    Sanctify your table.   Take the genius of our Sabbath and Festivals into our lives.

Praise your child for his or her goodness, kindness, idealism. Educators and rabbis agree ­ it takes "mishpacha,” a family to raise a moral child. The best predictor for moral success is closeness to adults, to parents, to serious Jews, who will not sell their birthright for a "mess of pottage." Conscience and integrity are cultivated at home. Judaism is a sacred tradition that says "No" to obsessive achieving of grades as the extrinsic markers of "success" at the sacrifice of character, meaning and purpose. We were not gifted with mind, soul, heart and spine to "make it."

Sanctify your table  more than challah and wine, candles, and table, and real face to face, heart to heart conversation. Where are our children today? "Cramming" for a test? Can we stop to hear each other?

What will you talk about around the table? Marks, grades? It's your table, it's your family! It's your Jewish home. It's your life ­ it's your New Year! That message is no amulet. It reminds us: "Hold on!  We are not tools, we are God's creation.”

So the Prophet Isaiah concludes his counsel in the Haftorah of Yom Kippur: "If you refrain from pursuing your business on My Holy Day and call the Sabbath a delight and honor the Holy Day of the Lord, then you shall delight yourself in godliness." 

At home, in conversation, educate your child's heart for success in living with love and purpose. There is another S.A.T. – ­ Spiritual Achievement Test.

I wish you "Simcha Shel Mitzvah" ­ a New Year of purpose and meaning. Together, we will not fail.


* This document, or any portion thereof, may not be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

Date: 
Thursday, February 10, 2011 - 8:45am