Battling perfectionism in school culture

A recent study reveals that perfectionism—an obsession with getting things perfect—has increased significantly in college students in the U.S., Canada, and England over the last few decades, a trend researchers believe is driven by social media.

The survey, published last month in the Psychological Bulletin, is highlighting a problem college parents and counselors believe is impacting students’ mental health, as well as the role schools can play in addressing the issue, The New York Times reports.

“Millennials feel pressure to perfect themselves partly out of social media use that leads them to compare themselves to others,” Thomas Curran, a lecturer at the University of Bath and lead author of the study, told the news site.

Curran believes the situation leads to “increasingly unrealistic education and professional expectations for themselves,” though he noted that the link to social media is a hypothesis that requires further research.

Curran and his team examined 41,000 student responses with the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale to measure their degree of perfectionism and classify it into three different aspects: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Results showed perfectionism increased by 33% overall since 1989. And while self-prescribed perfectionism can increase productivity, conscientiousness, and career success, parents are concerned it can cause depression and anxiety.

“Sometimes it’s paralyzing,” Columbia University professor Katherine Dieckmann told the Times, adding that she struggles with perfectionism with her 20-year-old daughter, a college sophomore. “I understand, because we were both born that way.”

Others, like Columbia graduate student Hannah Miller, have learned to cope with her perfectionism.

“When it’s not out of control, it’s a good thing to have,” she said. “When it overwhelms me, which is less often than it did when I was an undergraduate, I have to force myself to step back and make an accurate assessment of how important the task is and consider it thoughtfully rather than emotionally—like, how good does it have to be?”

Parents who spoke with the Times said they’ve tried to talk to their children about obsessing over perfection, but contend it’s ingrained in college culture.

“He’s not striving to meet our standards, they’re his own,” an unnamed father of an Ivy League student said. “I keep reminding him that perfect is the enemy of good, and he says, ‘Yeah, but good’s not enough to get into med school.’”

Resent research into character formation in America’s schools provides a glimpse of how schools can help students relieve the pressures of perfection through a focus on more important things.

Education researcher Kathryn Wiens studied six prestigious independent schools—coed and single-sex, day and boarding—to ask how they formed character in the context of what one student called “the neurotic level of success” that schools and parents expect.

Wiens summarized her findings in The Content of Their Character, published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and singled out one elite boarding school in particular for its balanced approach.

“The school’s focus was not on the students’ professional life to come, but rather on ensuring the students’ values, dispositions, and decision-making were consistent with the school’s Quaker worldview,” Wiens wrote.

The East Coast school rejects perfectionism in favor of a different standard: “the primacy of sound moral character.” Wiens reports that “the students seemed not to experience a conflict between academic achievement and personal honor, even though East Coast Boarding School provided a challenging top-tier education and expected students to work hard and excel in the classroom.”

The school demonstrates that it’s possible—though certainly not easy—in an age of intense performance pressures and pervasive perfectionism, to cultivate a school environment where students work hard and thrive by intentionally eschewing socially prescribed perfection.

For educators looking for ways to focus on character in the classroom, the Jubilee Centre for Character & Virtues offers numerous resources.

High achieving students make sacrifices for top grades

Ambitious students at a Connecticut high school sacrifice sleep, TV, and time with friends to keep a straight-A average, a reporter for the school’s newspaper has found.

Sydney Rubin, writing for The Round Table and published in the Stamford Advocate, interviewed three high-achieving Stamford High School juniors and found that maintaining a 4.0 average while participating in extracurricular activities comes at a cost.

“I truly love all the activities I participate in,” said Samantha Heller, “but it leaves me little time to do other things I love like bake, play the piano, and read.”

Extracurricular activities such as band, sports, student government, and volunteering keep students away from home until as late as 7:00 p.m. Top students make things work by skipping dinner with their families, isolating themselves from friends, and not watching TV.

These students also sacrifice sleep. “It’s common to see plenty of sleep-deprived students in Stamford High AP classes,” Rubin writes.

Junior Rohith Naralasetty has two coffees at home after clubs, works till midnight, then gets up at 4:00 a.m. to finish anything left undone.

But in schools where achievement and performance are upheld as supreme, students often sacrifice more than sleep for grades.

Dr. Kathryn Wiens conducted field research in elite schools for the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture and found that “a majority of the students interviewed at each school suggested that their school did not ultimately care what kind of person they became. Instead, they felt the school was most concerned about their academic achievement and where they went to college.” At half of the schools she researched, Wiens reported, “it was clear that students often calculated the cost of sacrificing their honor as lower than the high cost of earning a bad grade.”

Parents and schools play an important role in communicating what is truly important. Indeed, Dr. Wiens found that one elite school so crafted their curriculum, discipline, and college applications process as to release the pressure—and allow students to pursue learning for its own sake. Her findings appear in The Content of Their Character, which is now available for pre-order through CultureFeed.

How can these students—and their parents—cultivate the virtue of temperance in an age of extraordinary pressure? The Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues offers a poetry anthology that provides a glimpse into this virtue. It is an adventure that one can take alone or with a class of students.

Boarding school announces new assistant head

The Gunnery, a boarding school in Connecticut, has hired Emily Gum as Assistant Head of School for teaching and Learning. Peter Becker, the Head of School, said her experience and expertise are “deeply aligned with Frederick Gunn’s focus on moral character and the formative power of schools and boarding schools in particular.” covered the hiring to learn more about Becker’s motivations for bringing Gum on board and his vision for her role.

Gum’s acceptance of the Gunnery’s offer represents the culmination of a three-month search process. Becker thinks the time was well spent, noting that “[Gum] is skilled at turning ideas into action and is, in her words, ‘driven to make the theoretical practical . . . [s]he has a gift for listening and learning across disciplines and for implementation and managing change.”

Gum arrives as Assistant Head of School for Teaching and Learning with a variety of experience. She currently serves as interim Executive Director of New City Commons, a nonprofit in Charlottesville, VA. Prior to that position, she held multiple roles at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

An added bonus to her professional experience—Gum attended a boarding school herself growing up, The Hill School in Pottstown, PA. Her time at The Hill School left an impression. She said, “It is with this experience in mind that I am excited by the opportunity to serve the faculty and students of The Gunnery in the same way.”

Becker is betting that Gum will be able to help the school translate character-formation theory into practice. Boarding schools have a unique dynamic as “total institutions” where students eat, sleep, learn, and play, and Gum will be tasked with ensuring that this opportunity is leveraged to the fullest extent possible.

Headmaster Peter Becker describes the ethos that permeates his institution, “Following [founder Frederick Gunn’s] example from the earliest days of the school, we strive to support our students in the development of character and citizenship, the active life, as much as the life of the mind at The Gunnery today.”

Gum will have this in mind while overseeing “the school’s Academic Office, including curriculum development and management of the day-to-day details of student scheduling and parental inquiries.” She will also “lead the Curriculum Committee, serve as a member of the Campus Life Committee and Core Administrative Council, be a student advisor and teach one class per term.”

The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture studies character formation in a variety of school types—including boarding schools. Dr. Kathryn Wiens, the lead researcher for prestigious independent schools, noted that “These educators believed that their schools, rather than being elitist, reflected the best in character education.” The Gunnery stands very much in this tradition of boarding schools that take seriously the responsibility for forming future leaders, as is evidenced by their selection of Mrs. Gum, who is deeply committed to the formative work of schools.

Dr. Wiens’ research in the prestigious independent schools found that commitment to forming character is a common feature of these schools. “Each of the schools we studied had a mission, a new strategic plan, or an academic or co-curricular program that directly related to moral formation. Moreover, we found tight couplings between the curriculum, the pedagogy, and the schools’ guiding moral framework.” Mrs. Gum will now have the privilege and responsibility in her new role as Assistant Head of School to turn these ideas into action.

Dr. Wiens has contributed a chapter to The Content of Their Character which captures the breadth of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture’s research in ten sectors of American secondary education. You can pre-order the book for a deep discount on the cover price, plus free shipping.