America is all too content with its carnage. Especially the subtler kinds. Especially the carnage inside. A deep, hard-to-pinpoint angst saps and drains the morale of our children: It is the quiet carnage of the cult of success.

Students struggle through a school system where one failed test conjures the prospect of a miserable life. Where the fear of getting behind stalks them day and night. Where one sick day could destroy their chances of a scholarship. Where human worth is measured by a five-scale lettering system. Where teachers are mandated to give homework loads they themselves could not bear. Where five hours of sleep is a luxury. Where whole families scramble to manage one student’s schedule.

We underestimate this psychic strain at our peril.

Many of our children spend seven hours at school and another seven hours doing homework, extracurricular activities, or part-time jobs. Their lives amount to a fourteen-hour work day with scant compensation. Volume does not equal excellence. Pace matters. We’re pushing our kids beyond their strength, beyond their ability to digest what they learn, let alone love it.

Perfection is killing us.

There's a reason we seek perfection: It looks so good and seems so simple. But perfection consumes itself. It eats away at its own heart. Always straining for the perfect ten, we plummet toward zero. Perfection diminishes the very ideal it purports to exalt and scrapes away our finer purposes.

The human good does not thrive on frantic busyness or maximal workload. Character requires space, flexibility, grace, attention to scale, a personal touch, and—most of all—time. We must figure out a pace at which our children can enjoy learning for learning’s sake, not merely for some practical outcome in the future.

And we need to make a reasonable accounting of human differences.

Our educational system has created standards of success that require a certain social profile. It caters to students who have both parents at home, who enjoy a stable family life with considerable disposable time, who can consult siblings on which classes to choose or avoid, who can afford the best technological tools, who possess organizational skills, who have adult mentors in the neighborhood, and who display intellectual talents more than practical abilities. If you fit this privileged profile, you’re sitting pretty. If you don’t, then you’re at a disadvantage.

This system is fit for an ideal society, more than for real, fallible human beings. Unforeseen exigencies were left out of the planning process. What if a parent dies, a student breaks her leg, a father loses his job, or a child has a learning disability? When a system is built only for the perfect situation, it will leave many people behind.

Who can fix these problems? Parents across the nation work hard to hold up the edifice. But the system, like the culture built around it, has become so enormous that no one can manage it. Teachers, administrators, board members—they feel helpless too, as if they were doing some invisible man’s bidding. Nameless and faceless administrators scarcely understand the burdens they’re asking our children to bear.

America is a place where many of us, even the most successful students and professionals, live out our days confused about why we feel like failures all the time.

This slow evisceration is taking its toll in seen and unseen ways. Our schools may produce enough successful students to maintain business as usual, but the costs are borne by kids and families who feel they are perpetually on the verge of collapse.

Here are a few simple suggestions to ameliorate the situation:

  • Allow kids more rest. Studies show that teen brains need more sleep than they are getting. Starting school even one hour later makes a difference.
  • Focus more on in-class instruction, rather than homework.
  • Prioritize quality over volume.
  • Decrease the weight of test scores.
  • Individualize students’ educational experiences based on their abilities.
  • Re-evaluate as a culture our criteria for human success.

Modern progress notwithstanding, we are a backward society in our way. We have lost the human touch in our pursuit of material success. A culture that requires speed without contemplation is on course to a slow ruin.

 Nathan Nielson is founder and director of Books & Bridges, a community institute of ideas and conversation.

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