The fantasy of perfection: student suicide and the lies that cause it

There is a corridor of collective hysteria in this country. It is the stretch of land between the 101 and 280 freeways, starting in San Francisco and moving south, eventually ending when the latter turns into 680 and intersects with 101 due east of downtown San Jose.

For the billions of people who know nothing about northern California, I’ve marked the area for convenience.

A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.
A corridor in the San Francisco Peninsula that contains many high-pressure prep schools.

This isn’t exact, but this post deals with places that are within two miles of either side.

The feature “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection” by Julie Scelfo in the New York Times is excellent. Halfway through, I was not at all surprised to learn that Kathryn DeWitt, the centerpiece of the story, is from this area.

Ms. DeWitt is younger than me, but we both lived through a different Gunn High School suicide cluster around the time we graduated. This is an excellent piece about the two clusters– which are very rare but happened twice at the same school within five years of each other. Student suicide is so commonplace that I’ve never had a conversation about California’s high speed rail project with someone my age without a detour into “will they build it so that kids won’t be able to jump in front of it?”

Student suicide is a classic social problem. It’s complex. There are a ton of institutions that may play a part. Norms are established about academic performance and image are difficult to change. If any part of the system is poisonous, it can undermine everything else. School, peers, parents, media, society, politics, money, sanity- all play a part in the problem, and all have to be addressed to create a real solution.

The prep school culture in the Bay Area isn’t unique. But it is unusually concentrated and reinforcing. It’s a high concentration of wealthy adults, often from immigrant backgrounds and low economic standing. Their kids are expected to make similar progress in their own lives. The high population means not one but many schools that mesh together to create a social scene where failure means weakness and worthlessness. Harker, Crystal Springs, Castilleja, Bellarmine, Pinewood, Woodside Priory, Sacred Heart. Then there’s all the larger Catholic schools; St. Francis, St. Ignatius, and so on. Then there’s the public schools like Aragon (where Ms. DeWitt went), Gunn, Palo Alto High. All the public schools have a substantial honors track that’s insular and indistinguishable from the private prep schools.

Anyone who’s not in the culture would find the whole apparatus absurd. It is, and you should.

William Deresiewicz, former Yale faculty and current polemicist against the narrowness of mind that selective schools of all levels create, points out that elite schools that fail their students when you look away from the resume-building:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history. (“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League“, The New Republic, July 2014)

Suicide clusters at elite high schools and universities should not be a surprise. These institutions have taken the regular level of stigma in society and piles on. Not only is mental illness stigmatized, as it is everywhere, but a million different forms of imperfection are as well. All the contributing factors to suicidal ideation are turned into overdrive. As all three of the stories I’ve linked to concur, students think they are isolated in their unhappiness. It’s a lie that’s allowed to persist. In Scelfo’s profile, it’s the college counselor who breaks through the illusion. People are messed up. There’s a culture supposedly based on intellect and critical thinking that frequently uses neither. And people are dying because of that.

City College of San Francisco- being bullied into privatization

The City College of San Francisco (CCSF) this month has been given devastating news from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC), a private body that handles its accreditation. After a series of escalating sanctions, they now say they will revoke accreditation in July 2014. Such action would remove students from loan eligibility and lead to closure. With 85,000 students, it would be the largest American place of higher education to lose this in history.

This decision is nothing short of chilling. I am one of the millions of students in the California Community College system, of which CCSF is a part. There is nothing fundamentally different between CCSF and my school- similar levels of academic quality, a strong faculty, and programs that help minorities, low income students, and the huge portion of Californians who are learning English as a second language. At heart, there is nothing wrong with the academics or the big-picture financial stability of the colleges. A feature from In These Times states that

Instead of focusing on the caliber of instruction and educational programs, claims former California Federation of Teachers President Martin Hittelman in a briefing paper (PDF), the accrediting body has attempted “to micro-manage the fiscal and governance processes of the colleges it accredits through fear and intimidation.”

Colleges in the United States are accredited by regional bodies, who are private but recognized as valid by state governments. The ACCJC is the community college branch of a larger group called the Western Association of Schools & Colleges (WASC). In addition to public institutions such as CCSF, WASC also evaluates private schools. The high school I went to is accredited through the larger group.

The trend that is worrying is that these bodies increasingly look at education as a business, and seek school finances to have the rigorous, bare-bones accountancy that you would expect from a Fortune 500 corporation. As the article states, CCSF has had its budget slashed, but that has been balanced by local measures being passed. In the grand scheme of California Community Colleges, they are one of the healthiest colleges in the post-economic crisis landscape.

These private groups take money for groups that have an interest in making education private and expensive:

Last year the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based body established in 2001 by the private loan industry, awarded ACCJC a grant to develop a new “Degree Qualifications Profile Project” that will develop measures for assessing student learning at community colleges. (A failure to adequately document “student learning outcomes” was one of the deficiencies listed in the 2012 sanction report.)

Besides loan agencies, the aggressive moves against public, non-profit colleges in the end benefits expensive, for-profit colleges.

Just as the closures of schools deemed underperforming have paved the way for the expansion of charter schools—even though the performance of charters has been decidedly mixed—labor activists warn that a new push to impose rigid standards on public colleges and universities could increase the market share of for-profit colleges that have often been accused of scamming students and taxpayers alike.

The past few years have been tough for the community colleges in my area. One college axed their creative writing program the year I arrived. While administration is growing, counseling has had severe cuts. There is one person who can create disability accommodations, but hundreds of people that need to see her each term. But these places aren’t a joke. They aren’t scamming students, and the quality of their courses is strong. If non-profit schools are threatened because they don’t act enough like a business, or a for-profit college, that is a serious danger to American education.