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Welcome to Coddle High School

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In the immortal words of baseball manager Jimmy Dugan, played by Tom Hanks in the film A League of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great."

Jimmy was lecturing his star player Dottie Hinson (played by Geena Davis) about why she should not quit the team, but his sage advice could apply to life in general -- including the difficult experience of surviving university.

The kids, or young adults, are in trouble. So says a recent Queen's University report on the mental health of Queen's students. Other Canadian universities also note appointments to their mental-health clinics have spiralled in the past few years, especially around exam periods.

Universities have already come up with all sorts of creative solutions to ease their young charges' stress; among the more popular are yoga classes and puppy rooms. More decisively, the Queen's report, a response to the deaths of six students in 2010 and 2011, recommends overhauling the exam schedule and perhaps making the terms longer to make it easier for students to manage.

My recollection of university in the '70s and early '80s is having a good time with my friends, exposure to many brilliant and inspiring professors, but also long hours and a lot of studying and hard work. First-year university was particularly gruelling in making the adjustment from high school to an institution that treated you like an adult and had adult expectations. The night before a crucial midterm or exam was not fun, and I do recall snapping more than once at my parents for daring to inquire about my mental health.

Yet, I survived the stress, as did almost everyone else I know who went through this important passage of life. Some of us were able to find work in our fields of endeavour, some not. At the tail end of the baby boom, we faced the reality that the boomers who had preceded us had taken the best jobs.

Yet we coped, something today's students are having more difficulty doing. No one should underestimate serious mental-health problems or downplay its tragic consequences; a rise in young-adult suicide is terrible and professionals must properly deal with them.

The experts point to the usual factors for what is happening on campuses: a bleaker future caused by a more competitive job market and made worse by the current lousy economic climate; more distractions from technology; and, for some students, living on their own for the first time.

But the one factor that may be most responsible for this stressful situation is not the fault of the students. It may be entirely the fault of their doting parents and an educational system that has not adequately prepared them for the reality of university.

The real world has consequences. There are disappointments, aggravations, and few second chances. When you miss filing your income tax return on time, the government will penalize you. Same if you miss the deadline for paying your credit card bill. In the real world, there are criticism, high expectations of performance and often a heavy, if unfair, price for error.

Imagine a world where such rules do not exist. Where consequences are limited; where excuses are aplenty; where failure is rarely, if ever, possible; and where purpose has been replaced by idealistic indulgences.

Welcome to Coddle High.

In the past two decades or so, Canadian high schools have gone through an unprecedented metamorphosis. In the name of fairness and self-esteem (every student is "above average"), no-fail policies, no zeros, and no, or very limited, late penalties for assignments have been instituted -- along with inflated grades, excessive tinkering with assessment practices and a general notion that coddling students is the best way to prepare them for university and the world beyond. Criticism, constructive or not, is so discouraged that current high school graduates may turn out to be the largest collection of thin-skinned individuals ever produced.

The chief promoters of this educational wrong-headedness have been idealistic baby boomer politicians, educational administrators, psychologists and "helicopter" parents who hover over their children's lives and "snowplow" parents, who remove every obstacle out of their children's paths.

Is it any surprise, then, that in the world of university when deadlines are firm and obtaining a mark of "F" is possible, students are stressed?

University age is a time David Goldbloom, chairman of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, told the Globe and Mail that "young people develop a sense of autonomy, confidence in their own abilities to cope, and also to separate from family to some degree. So, unwittingly, and for the best intentions, it's possible that those adaptive and coping skills in a young person can be compromised by the hyper-monitoring."

Pretending high school students are functioning in some kind of twilight and separate universe in which their parents address every problem does nothing to shape the attitudes and mental discipline necessary to succeed in the harsh and competitive world they are entering. That might not be fair, but it's the reality.

Allan Levine is a Winnipeg historian and writer. He taught at St. John's-Ravenscourt School from 1984 to 2012.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 5, 2012 A10

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