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.

Silicon Valley- think big and/or get practical

New York Magazine has an interesting feature about the shifts in Silicon Valley tech politics. I was born in Palo Alto and still live nearby, so the debate going on in this story is also the debate going on amongst my personal friends and acquaintances. Following the idiotic Nazi analogy that Tom Perkins used last month to describe opposition tech companies increasingly face from disaffected locals, it’s clear that the whole culture running from San Francisco south to San Jose may begin picking fights they don’t have to. Indeed, the feature notes wealthy venture capitalists and executives breaking from the mold of “tech’s most outspoken loudmouths, the headline-­grabbing libertarians and techno-aristocrats.”

Author Kevin Roose continues:

The tech industry’s isolationism has seemed increasingly off-key in part because, unlike in the past, Silicon Valley now needs the rest of the country on its side. The low-hanging fruit of private-­sector innovation—meal-delivery apps, tablet accessories, computerized fitness bands—has been fairly well picked over. Today large tech companies are going after grander problems that will require approval both in Washington and from the public. Facebook wants to get the entire world online. Amazon wants to start using drone helicopters to deliver packages. Elon Musk wants to build a colony on Mars. And Google wants self-driving cars, large-scale robotics projects, and sweeping changes to sectors like health care and education.

Overall tech culture is a mix of idealism and cynicism, anti-tax crusading and government grant-seeking. An issue in my eyes is that engineers and successful businesspeople fall into the same trap that politicians like Mitt Romney do- thinking that success on one area can be applied to another as-is. My research, reading, and experience is that society and government is quite a different animal entirely, and the idealists should not assume that success only depends on quantifiable, directly controllable elements.

Draper’s idea

Tim Draper’s ballot initiative campaign that would chop up California into six states is a great example. In some ways it makes logical state- why should a state with almost forty million people have only two senators? But all the complexity of how states should be divided is lost. Marin county is separate from San Francisco, despite the huge amount of commuter traffic between the two. Two state pairs are divided west/east, but the top two go from the coast to Nevada. In terms of demography, geography, economics, geology it’s a complete mess. Nor is Peter Thiel’s idea of an independent libertarian settlement in international waters (“seastead”) any less problematic. The idea of a utopia outside any form of existing law is interesting, and an idea shared by far more than just Thiel, but has serious issues with how a place could remain independent, safe, and economically profitable. Dreaming big is a hugely important thing, but ambitious projects are multidisciplinary and require the cooperations of various people and groups.

Beyond big-picture thinking is  how the new generation of techies enter mainstream politics. Ro Khanna is the big story in Bay Area, and he has decided to run against a seven-term well-liked liberal incumbent, Mike Honda. This despite other potential opportunities that could avoid confrontation with a sitting member.

Broadly speaking, Bay Area politics are stable and boring. Most districts with territory near the Oakland-San Jose-San Francisco triangle are solidly Democratic, and vacancies rarely come up. My representative- who I send emails to occasionally, including asking her to co-sponsor a resolution making Darwin Day a recognized holiday- has been  in Congress since I was 2 years old. For Khanna to pick a fight with a popular incumbent (as opposed to when Eric Swalwell ran and defeated long-time incumbent Pete Stark, since he had a long history of ill-tempered statements and insults) is not an auspicious start to techies in official power positions. If Democratic politics is to brush aside techno-libertarianism and dismissive smugness, it has to be done well, and integrate with what already exists.

I rarely vote Democratic and am unsure of whether entering the meat grinder of conventional politics will get the industry and its leaders what they want. My relationship with Silicon Valley customs and values is indirect, thus I am an observer not a participant. Yet it’s natural to not want well-intentioned people to screw things up

May Day march, San Jose CA; May 1st, 2013

May Day march, San Jose CA; May 1st, 2013

I took the day off yesterday to march in one of the three major May Day marches in the Bay Area. The San Jose one was by far the largest- local news station KGO cited several thousand protestors. May 1st is International Workers’ Day, and has special importance to socialist and anarchist groups. After the splintering of large leftist groups in the decades after World War I, the holiday stopped being a major event in the United States

However, starting in 2006 in reaction to the caustic immigration debate in Washington D.C, immigrant groups have used the day to march in favor of immigration reform and against business exploitation of undocumented workers.