Why is it that every fall American education seems to get more competitive? From kindergarten to graduate school one hears starting guns rather than classroom bells. For more and more children there is this funny sensation of spur and crop and highly motivating -- if slightly overweight -- parents in the saddle, whipping their charges toward the front of the pack.
As regularly as teachers' strikes, the beginning of a school year produces a couple of manuals telling Mom and Pop jockey the inside secrets for getting their colts to outrun the rest of the field. Two of this year's matching titles read: "How to Raise Your Child to Be a Winner," by Gene R. Hawes, Helen G. Weiss , and Martin S. Weiss and "How to make Your Child a Winner," by Victor B. Cline.
Well, you can't accuse any of these folks of being subtle.
Dr. Cline boasts the awesome credentials of having raised nine children -- all winners, if the dust jacket is to be believed. He first noticed the difference between winners and losers while analyzing the battle performance of soldiers in Korea. The winners or "supercomps" (as in competent) were those who pulled the trigger and killed the enemy. The "non-comps" were those who did not. The non-comps excelled only in "rather passive or aesthetic" activities, like "painting, cooking, and writing." The super-comps, Dr. Cline concluded, manifested the "Doer Syndrome."
Should an efficient soldier and a good child be seen as quite so identical? Must aesthetes end up as losers?
One is not entirely convinced one would want to meet a Dr. Cline winner -- quick on the trigger, "stress-proofed," with "a special kind of confidence," inevitably rising "like cream" to the top.
The Hawes-Weiss winner has the same "dauntless self-confidence." But one can feel sorry for him or her, and that makes all the difference. Poor tot! From the "earliest years" he or she will have to be "ready to perform the many tasks expected at home or at school" -- and the authors are talking about getting a move on at "the ripe age of three months." Among the disciplines that struck chills in this reader's heart: a daily game of "Simon Says." Then when the toddler wobbles out for a walk, "leaves can be picked up and categorized into a scrapbook" -- if, presumably, Simon says.
Not too many laughs on the way to kindergarten. But Hawes-Weiss beg parent and child to visualize the payoff -- a decal of a prestigious college decorating the rear window of the family car. "Going to one of America's most sought-after colleges represents a very conspicuous way for a teenager to be a winner today," they explain, just in case a loser chugging behind one of those decals misses the point.
The authors of both manuals are kindly and humane people who are aware, at least intermittently, that being a winner is not the equivalent of being happy or good. But in the best tradition of American success formulas they tend to assume it will come to the same thing in the end.
The metaphor for life is indeed a race (if not the Korean battlefield), and the simple criterion is: Come out ahead. There is little talk of pleasures savored -- like painting, cooking, and writing. One sees no childhood for the child -- scant time or space for the terrors and joys of self-definition, not to mention just plain play. Here is childhood as parents would live it, programmed to the minute, with a firm sense of "You'll-be-grateful-when-you're-my-age-dear."
The human ego is shameless at extending itself beyond its boundaries, into the lives of others. Nowhere is it more devious than in the case of the encroaching parent, taking a second go at the world while disguised as "supportive."
If books like these were written with complete candor, their titles might read: "How to Raise Your Child to Make You a Winner." Combined with a decade of decline in the achievement scores of high school students, they suggest that, while we have forgotten how to teach our children our skills, we have remembered all too well how to teach them our ambitions. It would be better the other way around.