I wrote this for the March-April issue of VaHomeschoolers Voice.
Here in my pleasant homeschooling bubble, I know I'm receiving a distorted message about the magnitude of the backlash against the current high-stress, hypercompetitive culture among college-bound high school students. Many of my friends and peers are recommending movies like “Road to Nowhere” and reading books like College Without High School: A Teenager's Guide to Skipping High School and Going to College – books and movies that urge us to reject the modern American practice of subjecting highschoolers to a brutal trial-by-exhaustion in which no number of AP classes is ever too many.
But I recently got a reality check from the larger world. Because of a mutual friend with whom we often spend New Year's Eve, my family has become slightly acquainted with an out-of-town family with two bright, ambitious teenage girls who are in public school. It's always a pleasure to see them. But this year, we hardly saw the older daughter at all. While the rest of us were having a good time chatting and listening to music, she disappeared into a bedroom and collapsed into exhausted sleep. Her mom explained the grueling schedule her daughter had been keeping.
Like a typical mother, I started to worry whether I've been kidding myself about my ability to guide my children through high school. So I was ripe for this book. How to Be a High School Superstar: A Revolutionary Plan to Get into College by Standing Out (Without Burning Out), by Cal Newport (2010, ISBN 978-0-7679-3258-5), is a welcome corrective to the idea that a hard work and ambition can't go hand in hand with adequate sleep and free time. Newport's book doesn't reject competitiveness or the desire to get into top-ranked schools, but it does show an alternative path that doesn't ask students to suffer heroic sacrifices now in exchange for a shot at a better future down the road.
What Newport proposes is that students adopt what he calls a “relaxed superstar lifestyle,” which balances academic achievements and decent SAT scores with generous amounts of free time to live an interesting life. (Newport has written two prior books aimed at college students and also writes a student advice blog, Study Hacks, http://www.calnewport.com/blog. These are mostly about how to develop the good work habits and study skills necessary to make finishing schoolwork by suppertime an attainable goal. An overview of some of these skills is at the center of this book.)
Newport's first example of a “relaxed superstar” is, not too surprisingly, himself, and, as with all advice books, you have to put up with a certain amount of authorial ego. But he has also collected a number of convincing examples of other people whose relaxed-yet-impressive high school careers led to acceptances at elite colleges. (Newport has a Ph.D. from MIT.) There aren't any homeschoolers among them, but there easily could be.
To be a “relaxed superstar,” Newport proposes three ideas, the first of which is underscheduling. This doesn't mean adopting a slacker academic schedule, but it does mean pruning away all of those classes and activities that are there just to look good on the resume. Nor does this mean that the resulting free time in the schedule is spent killing time on Facebook. It's time to explore the world, by reading lots of books, visiting interesting places, and meeting interesting people – to lead an interesting life! Hey, that sounds a lot like the unschooling lifestyle, doesn't it?
With enough exploring, deep interests are sure to emerge. These are things that Newport says pass the Saturday Morning Test, because you'd voluntarily choose to spend your free Saturday morning on them. After that, Newport counsels students to pick a deep interest and focus on it. This is not earth-shattering advice, but it's contrary to the well-rounded, well-padded resume approach seen elsewhere. And, finally, Newport calls on the student to be innovative -- “pursue accomplishments that are hard to explain, not hard to do.” This means stepping out of the deep grooves worn by other high school students as they trudge through their mandatory community service requirements. Instead, the students Newport uses as examples all connected to the larger community and found meaningful work to do there.
I particularly enjoyed this book because Newport seemed to have happened upon some of the lessons of unschooling -– exploring the world, pursuing personal interests, and not waiting until later to live a meaningful life. That Newport has come upon these lessons while looking for the secret to getting admitted to top colleges is cheering. I hope he succeeds in spreading the word that you can become an interesting, accomplished adult by having a happy, fun adolescence.