Alexandra Robbins Interview and Lecture at the Prep

More than any other author, Alexandra Robbins has illuminated the murky mazes and elaborate labyrinths of the North American education experience, from middle school through college.

A graduate of Yale University, she is now the author of six books, including three New York Times bestsellers, such as Pledged and The Overachievers.

Her most recent book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School, examines why students “on the outside” of other cliques – as she pithily phrases it, “the cafeteria fringe” - often thrive in college and beyond, precisely because of the creativity and innovative thinking and interests, that make them outsiders in high school.

You Can Vote For Her Latest Book in the 2011 GoodReads Choice Awards, Until November 20!

We highly recommend voting for The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, as the “Best Nonfiction Book” in the 2011 GoodReads Choice Awards. You can vote quickly and easily - you just need to register with a name and e-mail address, and you can click here to go directly to the GoodReads ballot to do so. You can vote until midnight on Sunday, November 20, 2011.

On Wednesday evening, November 2, 2011, she spoke as part of the Taggart Cultural Events Series, at St. Joseph's Prep in North Philadelphia. The theme of her presentation: “the pressures that teens face to succeed”.

This was an apt topic at the elite Jesuit high school, which exists not only to prepare students for college, but to be true “Renaissance men” and “men for others” in the Ignatian, Jesuit tradition of the Society of Jesus and its 16th-century founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.

The Taggart Cultural Events Series is named after the beloved and regrettably deceased Jesuit world history teacher, Father J. Vincent Taggart. With his laidback demeanor and innovative mnemonic techniques, he has permanently instilled the dates of the Battle of Hastings (1066) and the signing of the Magna Carta (1215) into the minds of generations of Prep freshman students.

(In the interests of full disclosure, “the Prep” is our cherished alma mater, so we can’t claim to be objective about it!)

Robbins first burst into the media spotlight, back in 2001, when she co-authored Quarterlife Crisis, candidly addressing the challenges faced by many Gen-Xers in their personal lives, as twenty and thirtysomethings.

Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and other publications. The recipient of the 2007 Heartsongs Award for contributions to the mental health of children and young adults, Robbins has appeared on numerous television shows, including 60 Minutes, The Today Show, Oprah, The View, various CNN programs, and The Colbert Report.

Alexandra Robbins - Her Lecture

Ordinarily, the speech would have taken place in the Prep theatre, but since it is crunch time for the Prep’s fall production of A Few Good Men, directed by the now-famous and illustrious actor Tony Braithwaite (Prep ’89), the presentation was moved into the former gymnasium, with folding chairs and refreshment tables set up in the back. (Note: go see the play! We did stage crew, lighting, props, you name it, when we were students!)

Robbins’ presentation style is refreshingly informal. She spoke for about 50 minutes, prior to questions and answers. She’s very engaging and easy to follow, and the following material is far more interesting, when she’s delivering it live, than reading this article online. And, naturally, this article is just a few highlights of her presentation. If she’s in your area, we’d recommend that you attend her lecture. Here is a brief summary.

She began by describing her own educational experiences. She attended Walt Whitman High School – a large public school - in Bethesda, MD (an affluent suburb of Washington, DC), and then Yale.

During the research for one of her books, she noted a particularly poignant question from a student she was interviewing:

“Do I want to be happy, or do I want to be successful?”

Robbins accurately answered this question by noting that “the two are not mutually exclusive.” But nonetheless, the U.S. educational system – and this problem is particularly acute at elite high schools and among elite students anywhere – often presents this question – inadvertently – to the students, when planning their futures.

She quoted one student – with remarkable insight – who had noticed some striking parallels between William Shakespeare’s masterpiece Macbeth, and the college admissions process. Just as Macbeth – egged on by Lady Macbeth - ruthlessly eliminates rivals for the Scottish crown, but never obtains the happiness he seeks – some students try to destroy their competition for coveted, finite spots at elite colleges. But they fail to find happiness, also.

(I found this comparison to be particularly intriguing, given that Macbeth was written in 1603, by someone with little formal education, but it shows Shakespeare’s stunning understanding of the human mind at work, in any century.)

Robbins emphasized the importance of selecting colleges, based on what the students want and need, not on artificial ratings such as those peddled by U.S. News and World Report. For one thing, they’re arbitrary; and even if they aren’t arbitrary, they also aren’t even accurate (there’s constant manipulation of the numbers, including some which are outright fraudulent).

Another point from Robbins was that athletic scholarships can often be an elusive quarry. As an avid college sports enthusiast, we were surprised to learn that “fewer than 1% of high school athletes will receive an athletic scholarship”, and that “parents who invest thousands of dollars in coaching, clinics, camps, etc., may find those dollars wasted. Instead, they could just put that money in a college fund.”

Moreover, the student should be playing the sport “for the love of the game”, to use the classic phrase. If a scholarship comes his/her way, that’s great, but to sacrifice other pastimes for the sake of sports if he/she doesn’t like it, is an unwise choice.

“Is It Worth It to Lose Childhood? Is It Worth It to Sacrifice Happiness?”

Robbins offered her “5 Tips For Overcoming Overachieving”:

1) For students, pare down your activities.

2) Do things for their own sake, not for recognition. (Not everyone is good at everything; to illustrate - half of MLB players have never hit a single home run. But they are talented at other aspects of the game.)

3) For parents – never discuss college admissions, scores, tests, etc., unless the student brings it up first.

4) Reclaim summer and leisure.

5) Realize that college admissions decisions are not personal. They say nothing about you as a person; they’re just decisions based on papers.

She quoted a student as saying that “I wish that I’d known back then, that everything was going to be all right.”

Robbins concluded her presentation by returning to the initial question, answering it this way –

“To be happy, is to be successful.”

She then took questions and answers from the audience.

Interview with Alexandra Robbins

Here are some excerpts, from our interview:

Prior to her lecture – formally titled as "The Pressure to Succeed": a lecture for high school and middle school students, parents, teachers, and communities about calming down during the schooling years”:

Robbins agreed to an interview, in which we discussed her books, her very favorable impressions of the Prep, and how she became a best-selling author. As fellow Generation-Xers, we had a most interesting conversation.

It ran the gamut of topics: everything from higher education, the publishing industry, her penchant for Philadelphia hoagies, to the original Star Wars trilogy. (If you want a good laugh, take a look at the profile photo on her Facebook page, linked in the interview below). She is very down-to-earth, has an excellent sense of humor, and was a fun person to chat with.

As we sat down… Robbins began by referring to the Prep…

AR: It’s such a nice school. It must be heaven, to go to school here… It’s soooo nice.

EP: We love it!…

EP: If we want to start at the beginning, and talk about Quarterlife Crisis… - Had you always planned to be an author? When you first went to Yale?

AR: No, never. That was an accident. I always planned to be a starving newspaper reporter! But I found, when writing newspaper and magazine articles, there wasn’t enough space, for all of the words I wanted to say, back then….

EP: With us being in roughly the same generation - back when you actually had to read newspapers, in paper form.

AR: Right, there were no blogs then.

EP: No Facebook, none of this…

AR: Correct. Thank God, there was no Facebook, back when we were in high school! (laughing)

EP: Did you anticipate that Quarterlife Crisis would turn out to be as successful as it was?

AR: Nobody did.

The initial print run was something like 3,000 copies. And it ended up selling, I think, it’s about 125,000, 150,000 copies- and it’s still selling. Nobody expected that.

In fact- many, many publishers rejected the proposal, because they said “oh, twentysomethings don’t buy books”.

But, they were wrong. Twentysomethings didn’t buy books, because nobody had written books for twentysomethings.

EP: How long was it, roughly, from the time you first conceived the idea, to the time you actually saw the book, in physical form?

AR: Quarterlife? About a year and a half.

EP: Was there any point along the way, when you got fed up with the project, and said ‘I just don’t want to do this any more,’ etc., or did you always have complete faith in it?

AR: No, no, I was always interested in it. I never got fed up with the process.

EP: Back at the beginning, you had remarked about how ‘it must have been heaven to go to school here’. And for me, it was. I loved the place!

We’re an exceptionally tight-knit group. And the vast majority of us loved high school.

Now, from reading your books, I get the impression that that is not something that’s universally shared, throughout North America, with the high school experience...

AR: No, it’s definitely not.

And you can tell, just by looking at the trophy cases in the front hall, where not only are there football trophies, but there was a marching band uniform, and the next trophy case over, there was something about community service, volunteering.

That’s not something that a lot of schools highlight, on equal par.

And I think that makes a big difference to kids. I think that many high schools, across the country, play a larger role in ordering the social hierarchy, among students - than they’re willing to admit. And one of those things, is many schools prioritize athletes- far, far above the other kids.

And so, it’s no wonder that the jocks are popular. I think that if more schools were to celebrate student scientists, the same way they celebrate student athletes, then more students would go into science.

But, here: I told you about the trophy cases; you’ve got [rehearsals for the stage play] A Few Good Men, going on down the hall, basically taking over the hallway. It seems to me, just from being here – I guess, this is my second time here, it was …

EP: Oh, you’ve been here before?

AR: Yes, I spoke here; Judy said it was about five years ago…

EP: I hadn’t realized that…

AR: [Prep English faculty member Judy {Christian} told me, ‘Okay, everybody who heard you has left [due to graduation], so now, you have to come back!’ (laughing)

It just seems like “the Prep” is better than many other schools, from what I’ve seen, at celebrating various niches of student life. Am I right?

EP: Yes. It’s funny… You hit it right on target. And it’s interesting to me, that obviously, you - not being part of it - that you could see that dynamic so clearly, as you had said, by just walking through the doors and seeing the trophy cases.

AR: Right.

EP: We often were very, very tight-knit. We were, even before Facebook, and now we’re even more so. We had a huge turnout for our reunion, and the like. And it was a surprise for me, to discover that most people hate high school. You know, it was just so different, from what I was fortunate enough to experience.

AR: It is also worse now, than it was, 10 years ago, because of Facebook…

EP: I can totally see it. Independently of your observation, I was reading in your book The Geeks, about how Facebook is sort of like the school cafeteria, online. It does seem, now that we’re all so many years out, that we’re all in the cafeteria again, arguing about sports, and who knows who, and back and forth – and in a nice way. But it’s the same sort of dynamic…

AR: I think it’s different for alums like us- because now, you choose, whether you interact with these people.

And also in high school, it’s so much more important, psychologically, for a student to feel like part of a group, to find where he or she belongs, and to identify himself or herself, by the group. That’s so much less important for adults. For adults, interacting on Facebook, and finding that cafeteria again, it’s more of a bonus. It’s there, only if you want it, or need it.

EP: Did you, by any chance, go to a single-sex school?

AR: When I grew up?

EP: In high school?

AR: No, I went to a large public school.

EP: What do you think of single-sex education? Do you think, on balance, that it’s a good idea? It’s very central to the identity here. And I don’t know if it would be the same dynamic, if it had been coed- or if it were coed, now.

AR: My experience with single-sex schools, has simply been lecturing at a bunch of them. So, I don’t feel like I have the expertise to compare one to another.

I hate when people who speak about education, think that just because they focus on one area, that they are suddenly an incredible pundit in all areas – you know what I mean?

EP: I understand that you’ve written six books: Quarterlife Crisis, Conquering Your Quarterlife Crisis; Secrets of the Tomb; The Geeks; Pledged; and The Overachievers. Although they do have a common thread, about communities, education, and the like – they are all different subjects.

AR: Yes. Otherwise, I would get bored. (laughing)

EP: How much of a challenge is it, writing on six different topics, over the years?

AR: Let me think about that… I was never working on all six, at one time. So, I like jumping from subject to subject, because I never get bored.

Which is also why I’m probably moving out of student life, now. Because I feel like, for now, that I’ve said everything that I’ve had to say - at this point in my life - on student life, in books.

EP: How does it feel, to become a recognized authority on this sort of thing, where people are interviewing you on national media outlets, as an expert?

AR: It depends on the medium. On Stephen Colbert, it’s fun as hell! (laughing)

EP: Often, here at the single-sex school, most of the girls we dealt with, naturally, were also the products of single-sex schools.

AR: Yes.

EP: In general, we mixed with those schools much more often, than we did with girls who went to coed schools. So, maybe with females, it’s a little bit different; maybe their experiences aren’t as positive, as the ones we had here.

AR: Yes, it could be, that because girls are naturally more cliquish than guys, that the female single-sex school experience could be tougher than the single-sex school guys’ school experience. But that’s just a conjecture.

EP: I see. So when you’re not writing books, what do you like to read about? What are your favorite subjects?

AR: I like to read fiction, that’s so fantastical, that it doesn’t relate to nonfiction at all, because if I’m reading a book, that’s anywhere close to the kind of book I write, my work brain is on, because I’m trying to figure out how they structured it, and all that…

But I like to read almost everything.

EP: It was funny. I noticed, obviously, your interest in Star Wars. The “Regret” photo, I thought, was really funny. [Here’s the photo of a melancholy Storm Trooper: REGRET]

AR: You didn’t see my Facebook picture. You should see my picture. I was asked to go to Comic-Con in Philly.

EP: Oh, really? (laughing)

AR: Philly Comic-con… Not the Comic-Con [in California], though… that would have been awesome! (laughing)

AR: There were guys walking around in costumes…and so I have a picture of Darth Vader reading The Geeks. You’ll see, if you look it up on Facebook, he’s reading it, and a guy in a Storm Trooper costume came over, and peered over his shoulder… so I have a picture of Darth Vader holding it with a Storm Trooper. It’s really funny… That’s going to be my Facebook photo, forever! (laughing)

[Here’s the photo: Darth Vader Reading The Geeks ]

EP: It would have been great, if he could have just picked it up, and levitate it with his hand, and read it!

AR: That would have been awesome! I bet we could have worked that out. It’s Comic-Con. You can do anything!

EP: Since I’m a journalist, who is editing this Philadelphia site…. I don’t know how many times you visit Philly…

AR: I love Philly. I come here pretty often. I’ve come to Philly, driven the 2 ½ hours to Philly, just to get a PrimoHoagie “Sicilian”.

EP: Really?

AR: My husband and I woke up one Saturday. I said “I need a Primo”, got in the car, came to Primo, got two foot-long Sicilians, ate them right there, got two to go, went back home.

[Note: PrimoHoagies is a long-standing chain of sandwich shops in Philadelphia. It originated in South Philadelphia, but has locations all over the city - two in Center City - and region, in all three states.

As their official web site puts it, “The popularity and excellence of PrimoHoagies has been affirmed by numerous recognitions…” Among their many specialties, the “Sicilian” is “Dry Cured Capacola, Sharp Provolone & Natural Casing Genoa Salami”. ]

AR: And you know, I’ve come to Philly for concerts – lots of concerts, actually. And I come from a family of Penn graduates. I love Philly.

EP: Oh, it’s great. What are your thoughts of Philadelphia? Of course, I’m from here, and I still live here now. What’s your overall impression of the place?

AR: I love Philly. It’s one of my favorite cities to walk around. I love Rittenhouse Square, I love Center City.

(Time for the event to start…)

EP: Thank you, Alex…

AR: No problem…

To learn more about Alexandra Robbins, her books, her lecture tour, or to schedule a lecture (she offers nine different ones), you can take a look at her official website - ]

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