Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it.
This is a book about the high cost of idolatry. Not that author Alexandra Robbins ever uses the word. Indeed, she uses no religious language at all and never once brings up the subject. She may not even know she’s written a book about idolatry.
Nevertheless, it is. It tells us of parents who’ve made idols of their children and of their children’s achievements, and students who’ve made idols of themselves, their high school careers, and their college prospects. It’s a tale of obsession, desperation, and spiritual desolation, fast-paced and very well written.
The real God, Jesus Christ, says, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:30). The false gods will run you ragged. The idols take their worshippers’ life force, their joy, their time and effort, their bodies and their souls, and even their sleep — and give nothing in return.
A Year in the Life
Robbins’ method is to track a year in the lives of several overachieving juniors and seniors at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland. Whitman is a highly touted school in Montgomery County, a well-known stronghold of secular liberalism. But her research has taken her to schools everywhere in the country, and what goes on at Whitman goes on elsewhere.
Her protagonists are top students striving for admission to prestigious colleges — Stanford, Harvard, Yale, etc. She has become intimate with these teens, their families, and their teachers, as well as college admissions officers, counselors, and assorted educators nationwide.
The teens are identified by their first names and a “Perceived As” label: e.g., “Julie/Perceived As: The Superstar.” There are nine of them. Some achieve their college goal; some fail. Some cope, more or less successfully; some don’t. All are subjected to tremendous pressure from themselves, their families, and their school. All suffer for it.
They carry incredible course loads, play multiple sports, and burden themselves with extracurricular activities and community services that would crush an adult. A few of these teens get crushed, too.
Because we come to know these young people, and care about them, the book makes for painful reading. They’re all sleep-deprived; they all battle with depression — and for what? Robbins explodes the myth that attendance at an Ivy League college equates with success in life. “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36).
What price Harvard?
A Plethora of Paradoxes
On the surface, it seems these teens have everything. Many of us simply don’t have the money to get into the kind of trouble these families get into — $2,000 for debate team (p. 381), trips to China or India, $30,000 for a private guidance counselor (p. 72), $16,000 a year for tuition to an “elite” kindergarten (p. 108), $1,000 for pre-SAT coaching (p. 110), and so on.
All these expenditures cannot guarantee acceptance by an Ivy League school, and they certainly aren’t buying any happiness. These people are rolling in money, and for most of the time, they’re miserable.
The kids also labor under a mind-numbing paradox: way too much freedom on one hand, and nowhere near enough on the other.
They have piles of spending money, their own cars and computers, casual sex on demand, drugs, alcohol, and parties. At the same time, they are shackled to the oars of their Advanced Placement courses, SATs, college applications, and their parents’ expectations. They can never relax, never unwind, never enjoy an activity for its own sake. The competition for top college placement doesn’t allow them to drop the ball for a moment.
And for what? Colleges today, even in the Ivy League, wallow in runaway grade inflation (90 percent of Harvard’s student body now graduates with honors, p. 242), political correctness, Queer Studies, The Vagina Monologues, and whatnot. You may not be able to count on getting a good education at a college anymore, but you can certainly get a bad one if you want it.
Paradoxes abound. Teens who don’t think twice about “hooking up” with a relative stranger are stymied when it comes to deepening a relationship with someone whom they really like. Their parents know their grade point averages to a hundredth of a point, but are totally blind to their children’s friendships, drug use, or nightly whereabouts. And the more the kids achieve, the less they feel they’ve accomplished.
Where’s the Faith?
What’s most shocking about all this is the total absence of God in these families’ lives. Robbins describes their lives in great detail. Not once do we see anyone praying, reading the Bible, going to church, or talking to a pastor. We can imagine no reason for her to omit such things, and are left to conclude that the reason she doesn’t mention them is that they never happen.
But if she has simply left them out, and they do happen, we must infer a religion that has utterly no impact on its believers’ lives. These kids either have no religion at all, or a completely ineffectual religion. One is as bad as another.
Godless endeavors fail: “[W]ithout me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). It doesn’t have to be the United Nations, an unjust war, or a welfare state. The Overachievers does a fine job of describing a personal state of godlessness.
And no one is happy, or at peace. The students cheat whenever they think it’s necessary, successfully pressure their teachers to change their grades, take drugs to get up for tests, do without sleep — and it’s never enough. They never get to the top of the mountain. If they do make it to an elite college, they either remain on the treadmill or else discover that they don’t need to work so hard, after all. And they’re left asking themselves, “Now what?”
There is no evidence in this book that any of these teens has any knowledge or experience of God. They don’t seem to know that God created them, put them here, provides for every breath they take, and sent His Son to earth to die for them that they might live.
Surely such knowledge would make a difference in their lives, if only they had it. We might also wonder why American churches send missionaries to Africa and India when there is so much spiritual darkness here at home.
How did American Christianity become so anemic? “To say we believe in the Lord, and to continue living as though the world is governed by statism, money, or evil” — or grade point average or college admissions — “is to profess a dead faith,” R. J. Rushdoony writes (Roots of Reconstruction, [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991], p. 106). Rushdoony, and other scholars, spent decades grappling with this question and found the decline to be a tree with many roots reaching down through 200 years of history. We don’t have the space here to trace them — the growth of pietism, dispensationalism, Unitarianism, a creeping accommodation to this world, etc.
But we can say that the “short answers” proposed by Ms. Robbins (pp. 390–400), albeit based on common sense, will not suffice to solve the problem. By all means, reduce the kids’ homework load, de-emphasize the Ivy League, cut back on the extracurricular activities, encourage Congress to repeal the No Child Left Behind Act (which has caused a plague of testing and inspired schools to cheat) — these can and should be done.
The problem is not college, but a spiritual vacuum. People need something to believe in, and only God can fill that void. As long as it goes unfilled, people will chase after false gods, to their own destruction. If it isn’t college, it’ll be some other worldly idol. Whatever it is, the results will be the same.
It need hardly be said that homeschooled students are unlikely to be subjected to peer pressure, school pressure, or community pressure to immolate themselves for a berth at Princeton. Besides, the heart of homeschooling is to impart a knowledge of and a love for God, and its chief fringe benefit is to forge the kind of family bonding so lacking among the subjects of this book.
If you’re already homeschooling, The Overachievers should strongly reinforce your commitment. If you’re not, it’ll show you a deep pitfall of public schooling that you may not have considered. It will also move you to pity for those who walk in darkness, without the Light of the World, Jesus Christ, and present you with another powerful argument as to why American Christianity so badly needs to be reconstructed.