Caution: The Ivy League May Be Dangerous To Your Mental Health

by Lesly Price
File under: Fake Culture12 Feb 2014 9:06 EST

We warned you it wouldn't stop with the ruin of Eldo Kim. With the utterly jarring story of Madison Holleran's suicide, we wonder if it's time to declare a mental health crisis in the Northeast region home to our nation's Ivy League colleges. 

The details of this story hit you like a cold shower. Madison Holleran, you see, was no Raskolnikov living a dissolute existence on the margins of university life — no, entirely to the contrary. She was the living embodiment of goals of millions of teenage girls today, a Marilyn Monroe for the 21st century. And we know that in both cases, it was not that which we despised, but that which we aspire to, which could not endure its own existence. 

Can you believe she wanted Hollywood to make The Brothers Karamozov?

We know of Monroe and her struggles, so well commented upon by Ayn Rand. She suffered profoundly, but she had done so in living fully.

The case of Madison Holleran is far bleaker. For if Marilyn Monroe died seeking to soar to places her time and culture could not afford, Madison Holleran ended her life dependent on the low considerations of small minds for her sense of approval. 

More to the point: She ended her life because some Ivy League professors gave her less than perfect grades.

Now we don't believe this is the whole story, not by a long shot, yet that seemed to be a major trigger, according to a family friend:

'She got a 3.5 her first semester, and I think just the high expectations that she put on herself was that that’s just not acceptable.

'She was not happy at Penn, but the parents had told her then, ‘Don’t go back. We’ll transfer. We’ll look at other schools. There’s no reason to go back, it’s OK,’' he said.

Credit is owed to the parents here for encouraging such a transfer option, yet even their support could not overcome the perfectionist stresses of an approval-dependent culture. Whatever you may think of somebody with a 3.5 GPA in the first semester at college, it's a number which really means next to nothing. Such a person could, twenty years down the line, equally become a bourgeois middle manager, an unemployed drunken lout, or a Nobel-prize winning researcher. Personality and intrinsic motivation, yes, that forgotten phenomenon of personal human character, will play a much greater role in determining their future. 

But just as how finance today has become a series numbers detached from economic reality, so do the disconnected programs of college life allegedly determine one's entire future. Even sporting activities, supposedly ones one does for recreation and relaxation, also demand an odd kind of selfless devotion. The need to be involved in some kind of regimented program overwhelms, lest one be left alone to dark thoughts. Madison was also a track star. This in and of itself is quite insignificant, yet look at how prominently the organizing plan of 'track life' loomed in her awareness. 

This kind of reification of one's own existence, also present on social media, where the intention is to create a visible record of one's entire life, is very striking for the lack of self-directedness it implies. Track is not something one does in stride, as a matter of course in relation to a wider life — it directs you and provides some sense of identity, hangs on your wall like Hammurabi's code even after the season has finished. 

And beneath all that superficial organization, the neat columns of papers typed and schedules planned, there lie such profound anarchy, a direct questioning of life itself.  Take away the grades and medals, tools of social approval which were slipping for her, and what is left? An overwhelmingly disturbing question for those who are told by the entire society that they are incredibly privileged and will have nothing but doors open for them for having attended these institutions. This is the pinnacle — yet one is not empowered or inspired, one is like an approval addict who does not know where to turn when they do not feel the happiness they are told they have to feel. 

The elitism of these institutions, who increasingly compete not on the basis of what they accomplish, but on how many people that can get to apply and then turn away, is the most destructive lie that can be propagated to talented high schoolers. Put yourself in her shoes for a second. All your life has been spent in school, working toward this goal of college admission, which floats in every young person's head without meaning or specificity, and when you matriculate, you feel the unfulfilling achievement of an empty goal, and not the beginning of a future. To whom do you turn? People who envy you for your 'success'? There is literally no credible alternative, no criticism of the Ivy League in America, where cartoonish visions of admission as the ultimate accomplishment dominate. When it tells you that you are even somewhat mediocre, you might as well be dead in the court of blind careerist opinion, the only one most young people have encountered. 

Maybe it would have been better if she went to Harvard.

The logo, the brand, the reputation, all have unquestioned hegemony in the minds of young people who want to have a future. And yet the situation is more akin to that of a medieval scam artist selling promises of salvation in those Gothic campi to uncomprehending peasants than that of the recruitment of mature adults embarking on a purposeful course of growth. 

And what was she studying in college?

Holleran, who was majoring in philosophy, politics and economics, had been a standout track and soccer athlete in her high school.

A triple major, including most interestingly one in philosophy. We cannot imagine anyone less prepared to do genuine philosophizing, yet maybe she was, on some level, trying to obtain what was really necessary.  Perhaps Madison was seeking the kind of executive self-awareness that is absolutely essential to that field, and so lacking on the modern campus. Lost on an island of marketing hype, isolated from any real meaning or direction, she certainly did need to read the words of a Seneca

For what prevents us from saying that the happy life is to have a mind that is free, lofty, fearless and steadfast - a mind that is placed beyond the reach of fear, beyond the reach of desire, that counts virtue the only good, baseness the only evil, and all else but a worthless mass of things, which come and go without increasing or diminishing the highest good, and neither subtract any part from the happy life nor add any part to it?

A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.

Or the sympathetic perspective of a Dostoyevsky, writing in his Writer's Diary.

Perhaps at some strata of the nation our family is already in a state of decomposition. At least it is obviously clear that our young generation is destined to seek out ideals for itself, and the loftiest meaning of life. But its segregation, this abandonment of youth to their own resources- this is what is dreadful. This problem is all too important at this moment of our existence. Our youth is so placed that absolutely nowhere does it find advice as to the loftiest meaning of life. From our brainy people and, generally, from its leaders, youth- I repeat- can borrow merely a rather satirical view, but nothing positive, .i.e., in what to believe, what should be respected and adored, what should be sought; and yet all this is so needed, so indispensable to youth; there is, always has been, craving for this in all ages and everywhere!

The spiritual deprivation is suffocating. After eighteen years of undoubtedly sheltered, microcosmic existence, off you are to the rest of your life, where you have no sense of relevance or perspective beyond it being a stepping stone to 'something else'. You could take a year off and try and find yourself, maybe work or travel, but please, we all know that there are no jobs worth doing, and there is nothing to be found anyway. It looks bad on your resume to have a year unaccounted for — whoever you are, whatever talents you may possess — this is not your life. You better go to school, you better do well. If you find no meaning therein, there's always running, and if you get injured, well, there's always the anti-depressants. 

This was the logic of her age, and she was its perfect product. 

Even hours before she died, she was still posting on Instagram, obligingly communicating to the world a pleasing image, a world that had always been a bit eager to believe them and a bit too successful to really listen. 

On second thought, perhaps this one was a bit more ambiguous. 

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