Soon after the Lance Armstrong doping scandals emerged last year, I was talking to friends about the prevalence of doping, and my shock. “How could it be true?” I asked. And my friends said, “Are you being willfully naïve? Doping isn’t optional, it is required! they informed me. Riders were kicked off teams for NOT doping. And it’s not just biking…” and a lecture on professional sports, and how they work, ensued. You can do a blood transfusion, and train while on drugs, then do another transfusion before the testing to clean up your blood. There are new, undetectable drugs.
Next they told me you could take Adderall and improve not only your basic school performance, but also your S.A.T. scores. Kids were opting out of studying, and the months-long, grueling Kaplan SAT prep courses and popping pills instead. One girl, now at an Ivy League college said:
“Do I want only four hours of sleep and be a mess, and then underperform on the test and then in field hockey? Or make the teachers happy and the coach happy and get good grades, get into a good college and make my parents happy?”
Madeleine estimated that one-third of her classmates at her small school, most of whom she knew well, used stimulants without a prescription to boost their scholastic performance. Many students across the United States made similar estimates for their schools, all of them emphasizing that the drugs were used not to get high, but mostly by conscientious students to work harder and meet ever-rising academic expectations.”
“Steroids are now in the middle schools,” one of my interloctors said grimly. And even before middle school, parents are “redshirting” — putting 6-year-old kids in kindergarten to give them an advantage — they’ll be bigger, stronger, and more advanced than their peers, an advantage that appears to follow them throughout their lives, especially in sports.
If there is a national, secular religion in the United States it is the belief that America is the Land of Opportunity, that we are a Meritocracy, that any kid, no matter who they are, or where they come from, can work hard and move up in the world. That their effort matters. “You too can be the President,” every American kid is told. But one unintended consequence of this belief, it is that, as a result of our being a meritocracy, if you have not succeeded, you are of lesser merit. It is shameful to be a failure in this country. Everything from doping to boob jobs speaks to the struggle to gain an advantage in a competitive world. But this is a rational response to a society where the winner takes all.
So how do we keep the dream alive? How do we make it a dream worth striving for? I am reminded of one of my most retweeted tweets: “Avoid a life of chasing prizes not worth winning.” You’ve been such amazing commenters, I’d love to hear your ideas.