Full disclosure: I was one of the analysts who was not reading this week, but rather watching the Mad Men finale. In fact, I’ve been doing a lot more watching than reading lately, and Matthew Weiner is to blame. There have been so many high points this season: Weiner brought back Creepy Glen, Don Draper gave my hometown a shout-out (you’re right, Don, Richmond is nice!) and Pete Campbell got punched in the face nearly every week. But those are just details. If there is one, not-so-subtle takeaway from Season 5, it’s that getting everything you want doesn’t make you happy. In fact, it just might make you miserable. And it’s made for gripping television.
It also, apparently, is a winning formula for education reporting – at least at The New York Times. First, there are the stories about what we should want. At the Times, this means subscribing to uptight parenting 101: getting your kid into the “right” ____ (preschool, summer camp, private school, elite college, fill-in-the-blank-with-something-ridiculous) is essential to their future success and happiness.
Mad Men equivalent: you haven’t made it on Madison Avenue until you have a car in your portfolio.
Mad Men equivalent: coercing your co-worker into prostitution to land said-car company.
Then, comes the kicker. Once those now, not-so-well-adjusted kids get accepted to and graduate from that elite college, they will be jobless, saddled with debt, living in their parents’ basements, and no smarter than they were four years earlier. They are miserable and full of regret.
Mad Men equivalent: suicide attempt in aforementioned-car.
While this formula may make for good entertainment, it doesn’t make for good reporting. Yet The New York Times continues to follow it. On Sunday, “The Risky Rise of the Good-Grade Pill” quickly ascended to the top of the most-viewed and most-emailed list. Students at (mostly) elite, private schools are apparently all turning to drugs – highly-addictive stimulants used to treat ADHD – to cope with the pressure of getting into (mostly) elite, private colleges.
This is what I (and my former colleague, Rachel Fishman) like to call a first world problem. And by focusing so much of its attention and influence on these non-problems, the Times may get more page views, but it does absolutely nothing to help the majority of students and parents who face real challenges. The parents who can’t afford to send their child to any preschool, let alone one that costs tens of thousands of dollars. The parents who are desperate – desperate to win a slot in the lottery so that their child can attend a high-performing charter school rather than a dropout factory. The students who dream to be the first in their family to attend college, but struggle academically, financially, or personally to do so. Instead, the paper chooses to report about students who will likely be fine no matter what their anxious, uber-intense parents do.
Please, New York Times, leave the entertainment to Mad Men and just stick to “the news that’s fit to print.”