Review: At What Cost?

Dan Kearney
July 21, 2020
David Gleason paints a dire picture of the pressure we put on adolescents and convincingly insists that it is us - and not the students - who need to change.

I was recently sitting in a webinar, a fact that is neither novel nor newsworthy. In our Covid environment it’s so common that I’ve mastered my “webinar smile”, perfected my “webinar bookshelf” and non medically diagnosed myself with “webinar neck”. Though the webinars have started to blur together like last night’s dream, there have been some high points, including a recommendation to check out David L. Gleason’s At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools.

A slim, elegantly organized text rich in both psychological and cognitive research as well as the sort of pop-edu takes found in the New York Times, At What Cost? builds on the thinking of such work as the film Race to Nowhere and the book Under Pressure and draws several convincing lines of argument, none more powerful than this: Adolescents’ “untiring search for identity” has been “hijacked” by an “increasingly competitive culture.”

Independent, International, All of Us

I should say here that Gleason’s area of focus is international and independent (i.e. private) schools. Having taught many years in both of these environments, I can attest to a certain air of unreality — what Gleason calls an “illusion of invulnerability” — at these institutions. In short, if you’re going to live in the stratosphere of that kind of tuition, be prepared for the space to be crowded with expectations and demands that, at times, cross over into absurdity and even farce.

This being said, I find Gleason’s arguments not only compelling but largely universal for American education. One does not need to work at or attend an elite private school to feel the influence in middle and high schools of higher ed’s “arms race”, itself rooted in a shift over the past five decades. Rising costs, shrinking acceptance rates, and, above all, a narrow definition of success have created an environment that is wholly unhealthy for young learners.

The Unseen

The recommendations that Gleason ultimately arrives at in the book’s conclusion are not particularly revelatory or revolutionary. They’ve been in the bloodstream of reform-minded educators for some time and include overhauling the school schedule, reducing student workload, and encouraging mindfulness meditation. The author also notes correctly, if not originally, that it will take a genuine partnership between all stakeholders for real change to occur.

It’s how Gleason arrives at this conclusion that I find so compelling and why I’m recommending At What Cost? By concisely synthesizing existing scholarship with his own experiences of counseling students in his practice, Gleason explores how young people, at the exact time when they need to be authentically seen and heard, are subsumed by adult expectations. These expectations to be “the person-one-might-become” (as opposed to, say, an actual individual) are tied to perfectionism in all things academic and extracurricular. “Students’ efforts to conform to strict expectations and to adhere to such a linear academic pathway […] seem to reflect a monoculture”, Gleason writes, and this is something that I think many teachers can relate to because we see it daily in our work environments. Further, Gleason later reflects that he’s “come to the conclusion that we define success too narrowly.” It is precisely that narrowing that has squeezed students into tight boxes of consensus and denied them their authentic voices.

One area that Gleason explores only briefly, and one that would make for fascinating exploration in a second edition, is race. Tying this to the idea of the monoculture, Gleason cites some powerful anecdotes before asking: Do students of color feel “like they are attending someone else’s school without real permission?” The monoculture here, of course, is white culture, and students of color deal with an additional layer of pressure to conform, yet another force displacing their true selves.

Though curriculum is beyond the scope of Gleason’s work in At What Cost?, as a teacher I couldn’t help but extend his thinking into this realm. Unless we are willing to truly challenge, and even upend, the curriculum, it will be terribly difficult to break the bonds of the monoculture. We educators have a responsibility to challenge assumptions and old ways of doing things. We have a central role to play in defending adolescent development.

The Bind We Put Ourselves In

The problem, Gleason tells us, is that education often finds itself in a “seemingly unavoidable bind.” To demonstrate this “bind” Gleason makes powerful use of the Immunity to Change paradigm created by Kegan and Lahey. In interviews with educators Gleason presents an array of negative effects our expectations have had on students, including lack of motivation, sleep deprivation, anxiety, low self-esteem, and self-harm. Gleason found overwhelmingly that while teachers agree that the current model of school is harming adolescents’ development — that we are part of the problem — teachers also fear the ramifications of changing the way we do things. Will we be seen as soft, or not rigorous? Will our students still be able to gain admission into “elite” colleges and universities? Will we still please our parent community?

Again we’ve arrived at this narrow definition of success, as well as the heart of the matter for progressive educators. As I mentioned above, Gleason’s recommendations are fairly modest and more aligned with the reform/neoliberal-minded crowd, but his central premise of a human-centered education system where students are “seen” is progressive through and through. He writes, “If we are, in fact, committed to meeting students where they are […] and to educating our students in healthy, safe, and balanced ways, then that is what we’re obligated to do” [emphasis his].

Indeed, and we are obligated to change the conversation in our schools. At What Cost? would be a fine place to start, particularly with your administration and families. His use of the Immunity to Change paradigm is also an accessible way to get teachers talking about our role in depriving children of being seen and, just maybe, how we can start to change that.

Gleason, David L. At What Cost? Defending Adolescent Development in Fiercely Competitive Schools. (2017)

Dan Kearney
Dan is a social studies teacher in California. Formerly of the Peace Corps and international schools, Dan has a keen interest in creating school systems and culture that emphasize meaning and purpose.
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