Swatties experience stress at Swarthmore firsthand, but every student’s experience is fleeting, comprising of only a handful of years. On the other hand the Swarthmore faculty, especially those who have worked at the college for ten years or more, have the benefit of a long-term, bird’s eye view of Swat culture. In particular, they have their own unique perspectives of how anxiety and stress have evolved as issues over the years.
Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology and author of the much-cited book The Paradox of Choice, has observed a gradually heightening culture of anxiety among Swatties in the past four decades.
“I think nobody worried much that the students were that fragile [when I first started teaching]. And in fact, I don’t think they were in those days,” said Schwartz of his early days at Swarthmore. “But what has happened over the forty-odd years I’ve been here is that students have come in much more fragile than they used to be and with many more things on their minds in addition to the demands their teachers place on them. So, I think it’s become much more of a pressure cooker than it was.”
When asked why he thinks Swatties have become more fragile, Schwartz attributed this to an increasingly protected upbringing of children prior to college.
“Their experience both at home and at school prior to coming is so protective of them that they haven’t built up the resilience you need when you really start encountering failure,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz believes most Swarthmore students were academically successful in high school due largely to parental support.
“They never had bad days […] and if they do ever have a bad day, their parents are quick to comfort them, or their teachers are quick to comfort them,” he said.
Schwartz noted that students tend to “just disintegrate” when they get their first taste of academic frustration at Swarthmore, because that they lack the necessary resilience against failure. This resilience, he said, is developed “by experiencing failures that are not catastrophic and picking yourself up and dusting yourself off and discovering, ‘I can survive that.’”
Schwartz continued, “But I think we’ve done such a good job protecting our kids from anything like that, […] that when it finally hits them they have no resources.”
Interestingly, Schwartz said nothing of Swatties whose problems with anxiety precede their coming to Swarthmore.
With regards to how privilege has affected the psychological makeup of college students, Schwartz cited the work of Arizona State University psychology professor Suniya Luthar, who has studied the respective levels of drug and alcohol abuses among high school students from lower-income Harlem and more affluent upper-middle class neighborhoods.
According to Schwartz, Luthar’s research reveals that alcohol and drug abuse tends to be worse among more affluent teens than among those in less privileged communities.
“They’re under so much pressure to excel, because places like Swarthmore won’t take them [if they don’t excel], that they basically have this attitude ‘Work hard, play hard.’ And the result is that when they’re not working they just lose all self-control.”
Schwartz also suggested that the influence of affirmative action in college admissions has contributed to an increase in student mental health issues.
“We’re now trying so hard to be diverse in who we admit, that we’re probably taking students who need more [academic and therapeutic] support than we did when I first started teaching – and we give more support, but it’s not enough,” he said.
However, Schwartz does concede that the world has become more competitive and complicated, which also contributes to the growing stress of Swatties and college students in general.
“When I first started teaching at Swarthmore, students didn’t worry so much about their grades […] because everyone knew that if you got a degree you would do fine,” Schwartz recalled.
But nowadays, Schwartz observes that an undergraduate degree does not guarantee the same security it once did, and a result, “there’s much more pressure on students to excel.” However, he pointed out that because it not socially acceptable at Swarthmore to be a “grade-grubber,” this anxiety remains unspoken.
Perhaps drawing on inspiration from The Paradox of Choice, Schwartz also suggested that college students can be easily overwhelmed by the array of choices in courses and career paths when they come to college.
“If you’re a working class kid and you’re going to college, you’re going there to learn a trade,” said Schwartz. “If you’re the kind of kid who goes to Swarthmore, you’re not there to learn a trade, you’re going there to discover who you are and what path in life is going to be fulfilling to you.”
Schwartz believes the array of opportunities offered at Swarthmore can be overwhelming for students, since “it’s impossible to know what path is going to be fulfilling.” To Schwartz, this freedom is both a blessing and a curse and can lead to stress and lack of post-graduation direction.
To Schwartz, the stress caused by this massive array of choice causes much of the misbehavior on college campuses.
“I think it leads to alcohol abuse, and I think that it in turn leads to all of these horrendous sexual misadventures […] that are getting so much attention,” said Schwartz.
When asked how he would deal with this problem of choice, Schwartz suggested that a “mild impact” can be made by “trying to disabuse [students] of the notion that it matters to be the best.” He also believes that students would benefit from a more structured curriculum, instead of a “limitless set of directions to go in, with inadequate guidance.”
As for how Swatties should view their self-worth in light of their academic experience, Schwartz said, “It’s a fool’s errand to worry about getting the best. […] Good enough is always good enough. […] I think a lot of what happens to us in life is determined by luck rather than by what we deserve. […] So you need to be good, and you need to be lucky. […] And if you accept that, you can relax a little bit, and hope to be lucky.”
Featured image courtesy of Barry Schwartz.