writings and Reflections

Balancing Ethical Engagement and Meaningful Achievement: A Conversation with Dr. Richard Weissbourd 
Tara Christie Kinsey

Good evening and welcome. Tonight, I have the distinct honor of introducing a thought partner and friend, Dr. Richard Weissbourd, who is a renowned educational scholar and a leading voice in how to raise children to balance ethical engagement with meaningful achievement. Dr. Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer at the Kennedy School of Government and at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he co-directs the Human Development and Psychology Program. Dr. Weissbourd directs the Making Caring Common Project, a national effort to make moral and social development priorities in child-raising and in schools. One of Dr. Weissbourd’s initiatives, Turning the Tide, has engaged over 200 colleges to change the admissions process to elevate ethical character, reduce excessive achievement pressure, and increase equity and access. Dr. Weissbourd is the author of acclaimed books and scholarly articles on child development and education and has contributed to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and National Public Radio.
 
Dr. Weissbourd’s work is as important as it is timely. This summer, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine formally added students at “high achieving schools” to their list of “at-risk” groups, along with children living in poverty, children living in foster care, children who are recent immigrants, and children with incarcerated parents. Similarly, last year, a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation named “excessive pressure to excel” among the top environmental factors harmful to adolescent health — along with poverty, trauma, and discrimination. 
 
When contemplating how students at high-achieving schools became an “at risk” youth category, we might consider three factors. First, many students at high-achieving schools face record-low acceptance rates at our nation’s most selective colleges and receive the message that success in the college admissions process determines their career trajectory and financial future. This tremendous pressure leads many students to develop harmful patterns of behavior and habits of mind that follow them well into adulthood. Second, many students at high-achieving schools feel compelled to out-compete each other for coveted spots in a college admissions process that sorts and ranks students against one another. And third, adolescents in high-achieving schools have significantly higher rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, risky sexual behavior, and other health-compromising behaviors — with an order of magnitude that is two to three times the national average. 
 
Too often, educators have responded defensively to these findings, leading to a “blame game” in which the high schools blame the colleges, the colleges blame the high schools, and everyone blames the parents. Out of this cacophony of blame, Dr. Weissbourd’s voice strikes a clear and true note. Less interested in assigning blame and more interested in fixing the problem, Dr. Weissbourd informed my own process of reflection that ultimately inspired me to leave my position at an Ivy League campus to lead an independent school here in New York City — arguably, one of the world’s epicenters of high-achievement pressure. I am honored to lead The Hewitt School precisely because we believe, as Dr. Weissbourd does, that a truly transformative education inspires students to develop an expansive sense of possibility about college, career, and a life of meaning and purpose.
 
Dr. Weissbourd is concerned that we are telling young people that personal success is more important than concern for others and the common good and that our “arms race” is “costly both to young people and to our society.” “Fighting these problems,” he writes, “will require many individual acts of courage and discipline…. But it will also require collective action.” We hope that being here tonight inspires you to take part in “collective action.” How can we tune out all of the noise in order to hear what our hearts are trying to tell us? How can we ground our decisions in a sincere ethic of care for our children as opposed to buckling under the weight of high-stakes performance pressure? Tonight, we will address these and other questions as we contemplate what it will take to live according to our values — for ourselves, for our children, and for our society. 
 
Dr. Kinsey delivered these remarks at an event hosted by Hewitt in the fall of 2019. For a full recap, please read this article.

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