Our Dean of Admission at Princeton University highlights this increased competitiveness with recent statistics. She explained that in 1977, the acceptance rate was twenty-four percent of those who applied. In 1993, the acceptance rate was fifteen percent of those who applied, and then last year the acceptance rate was down to 9.7 percent of those who applied, even with that class being the largest in size ever admitted to the school. Thinking of these statistics, the Dean of Admission commented,
What’s hard for families who remember this process from 20 or 30 years ago to grasp is that these candidates today are competing against thousands of other great kids, not hundreds of other great kids. . . . Around 10 years ago, we stopped being able to say, “If the student is at this level of qualifications, it’s likely that they’ll be admitted.” It’s not likely that anyone in particular will be admitted now. Indeed, last year, 74 percent of the students who applied with SAT scores of over 2300 were not admitted.9
And trends like the one described are true of most universities today. Public and private universities all over the country have become more competitive to get into.10
The admissions director at Amherst College concludes, “We have now made getting into college the single most important event of a young person’s life.”11 The negative result is that some teens in high school are experiencing as much stress as the students I work with in college.
The new level of competition means that more and more high school students are going to great lengths to stand out. The number of high school students who took Advanced Placement exams in 2004 was 1.1 million, twice as many as in 1994 and six times as many as in 1985. Time magazine interviewed Marielle Woods, 17, who participates in twelve extracurricular activities and keeps up a 4.0 average. This can lead to a lot of stress, “always, always before those grades come out, I struggle under a cloud of fear and depression,” she says. “Every year I’m silently convinced that this will be the one time I’ll actually screw it all up. It’s a scary way to live.”12
My heart goes out to these students because college will be similar in experience without knowing a meaningful alternative.13
Just recently, I attended a special celebration of the Fine Arts at the school where my young school-age children attend. Their school, which serves pre-K through eighth grade, describes itself as a classical Christian school with a strong Charlotte Mason influence emphasizing learning as the joyful discovery of God’s creation. This latter characteristic came through strongly during the whole of the Fine Arts Day, for the students were genuinely excited to be displaying their art work, reciting their favorite poems, and performing all types of music. I was struck by the joy on their faces, their pride in their accomplishments, and their genuine interest in all they had learned.
As I watched the children, I could not help but think of the contrast between what I was seeing there compared to the environment on my campus. I realized that I rarely meet a college student who is so excited about her work that she just can’t wait to tell me about her latest discovery in lab or her breakthrough thesis for her literature paper. Once in a while this happens, but when it does, I notice it as unusual. Instead, the students I work with usually talk about their work as something to get done, something to be checked off their long to-do list, something to be worried about. I rarely see students alive with excitement over the joyful discoveries they are encountering in class.
I am troubled by this change in students as they progress through their education, and I have wondered what causes it. I think a major reason behind the change is that college students are constantly thinking about how their education is tied to the job they will get or the graduate school they will apply to. Since they know they are competing for a finite number of jobs or graduate school positions, their focus becomes the competition to outperform everyone else or at least stay toward the top of the pool. Their education and extracurricular pursuits become more about résumé-building and standing out from classmates rather than on what they are learning and how they are enjoying their God-given gifts. The same is true for high school students competing for a finite number of college acceptance letters. This causes pressure, fear, and stress, which in turn causes students to overwork and overcommit.
With this as the environment, my colleagues and I have thought much about how to counsel our students to live out their faith in their unique role as students. What should they believe about the purpose of a college education? How should their faith as Christians affect how they should study? How they should manage their time? How they should rest? How might they flourish in the fast-paced, pressure-filled culture they inhabit?
In thinking through the answers to these questions, I have realized that the students’ drive to achieve and outperform others is directly tied to their understanding of the nature of work and their definition of success. Most are working with a worldly viewpoint as their foundation. But as sinners in a fallen world, the worldly viewpoint is flawed and has caused our society to lose a God-centered perspective about work and success. The Bible graciously provides an alternative way to live that is God-centered rather than self-centered. When lived out, the result is freedom from the competitive rat-race and freedom from fear.
Our self-centered rather than God-centered approach has at least three mistakes at its core: (1) We wrongly value certain types of work over others. (2) We place our identity in our work and seek justification through our work. (3) We work as if we were independent operators, solely responsible for our daily provision, forgetting that God is our ultimate provider. These three mistaken perspectives about work affect what people believe about college education, which in turn affects the culture on college campuses today. So the remainder of this essay explains these perspectives and contrasts them with a Christian view of work and success. And finally, I discuss the implications of these views for how students should live their daily lives.
1.1. Value in All Types of Work
During World War Two, Dorothy Sayers spoke out against the way her society viewed work. She noticed that during the war, people in England were living extremely frugally and sacrificially as everyone came together, working as a team for the war effort. She noticed how different this was from the way people were living right before the war when her society was marked by consumerism, greed, and selfish ambition. As she looked ahead to the time when the war would be over, she challenged her society:
I ask that [work] should be looked upon not as a necessary drudgery to be undergone for the purpose of making money, but as a way of life in which the nature of man should find its proper exercise and delight and so fulfill itself to the glory of God. That it should, in fact, be thought of as a creative activity undertaken for the love of the work itself; and that man, made in God’s image, should make things, as God makes them, for the sake of doing well a thing that is worth doing.14
Sayers noticed that during peace time, her society pushed individuals to make the focus of their work making money. So the money-centered individuals became obsessed with spending and investing the monies they earned. But the war forced her society to change by taking the focus in work off of money and placing it on doing things for the society’s collective good. Though she wanted the war to end, Sayers did not want to go back to the materialistic way of living that existed before the war.
We can benefit from her critique as well. Our society also reduces work to be a means through which we make money, achieve status, and guarantee personal security. Worldly success is bound up in achievement, but achievements that really matter are ones that produce a lot of money. This is why we wrongly value certain types of work over others. We do not primarily think of our work as a means to serve others or improve society because our focus is so much on compensation with an eye to secure our futures and have plenty of resources to consume in the present.