Across the United States, few high schools attract as much national controversy as Lowell High School. This elite magnet school in San Francisco is famous for its academic rigor, competitive culture, and demographically skewed student body (57% Asian as of this writing).
Throughout California, it’s widely known as a place where you can get a private-school education at a public-school cost (i.e., free) – as long as you can meet the requirements for admission. This historically venerated institution has drawn even more attention recently due to Debbie Lum’s critically acclaimed documentary (Try Harder!), which follows five exceptional (but typical for Lowell) students as they navigate the harrowing college applications process.
For many Lowell alumni like myself, watching this film triggered something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and came with a myriad of emotions. For me, these included a profound mix of sadness, pride, pity, nostalgia, bitterness, joy, and anger. Ultimately, I concluded that the film’s takeaways were more tragic than anything else. However, my heart broke not just for the students in the film, but for the broader community of educators/parents/alumni involved with the school and frankly everyone else in modern society who will be affected by the debate over merit-based admissions that Lowell now represents.
The film illustrates three ways the ethos of Lowell High School causes grief: it pushes parents and their kids apart, it sets students up for failure (sooner or later), and it reinforces beliefs about meritocracy that both harm physical/mental health and lead to heightened cynicism/narcissism. Despite all this, the very same ethos has also contributed to social mobility, brought out the full potential of promising students, and remains a source of inspiration for many. After reviewing a few examples of these, we can attempt to determine whether the triumphs outweigh the tragedies in the grand scheme of this school’s narrative.
Warning: many spoilers for the film are ahead.
Straining relationships between children and their parents
In the film, Alvan Cai is the most upbeat and lighthearted of the five students while he is at school. But in practically every scene with his parents (especially his “tiger mom”), he becomes visibly despondent.
It seems that his mom’s unrelenting pressure (e.g., making him stay up late to complete applications for colleges he doesn’t even care for) and constraints on his decision-making cause resentment to build up throughout the film. You can see his demeanor change over time as he references the metaphor his mom utilizes to justify her actions – the concept that he must be kept in a rigid “box” until he outgrows it. Early in the film, he happily accepts this and practices filial piety with few complaints. By the end, he finally questions the idea when he is more or less forced to attend a university that wasn’t his preference – culminating in what appears to be full-on bitterness in the final scenes.
The issues around “tiger moms” and helicopter parenting aren’t new, but the culture around Lowell exacerbates them to an extreme. One could argue that pure merit-based admissions tend to attract exactly this type of parent to apply (only wanting the best for their children of course), explaining why this phenomenon may be so prevalent at Lowell. But given that teenage years are already tense enough between parents and their naturally rebellious children, do we (as a society) really want to encourage more of this behavior and sow more intergenerational conflict?
As a side note, it was refreshing to see the film showcase at least one rare type of parent who described herself as the “opposite of a tiger mom” and her very appreciative son (Ian Wang) who did perfectly fine without the added pressure. Ironically, Ian’s mom was so lenient only because she herself was a recovering Lowell alum who didn’t want her son to suffer the same way she did!
Setting up students for failure
In a cruel way, Lowell’s environment of high expectations and blistering competitiveness prime students for moments of extreme disappointment. In the film, this is best highlighted through the herd mentality of nearly all the students aiming for Stanford as their top-choice university, despite the school only having a 4.4% acceptance rate. Even worse, it is revealed that Stanford has a suspected bias against students from Lowell given their reputation for being nothing more than test-taking machines. (Not necessarily an inaccurate stereotype from my own experience…)
Despite the odds, students like Rachel Schmidt are swayed into applying to Stanford from peers and parents alike – led to believe they’ll have a decent chance if they just… Try Harder! Certainly having high aspirations is a good motivator for academic achievement, but Lowell’s culture pushing everyone to have such unrealistic expectations that inevitably lead to letdowns seems like an unnecessary waste of energy and heartache.
Fortunately, Rachel is able to handle Stanford’s rejection relatively well. (Her mother is another story entirely…) Sadly, other students whose dreams were crushed fared much worse. Later in the film, Ian makes the poignant comment that many students feel their self-worth is measured in which university they attend. Another student notes that the process results in students feeling very cynical about the colleges they end up attending, feeling like they missed out on something better.
As someone basically watching younger versions of myself go through this painful process, I sorely wish I could have conveyed the senselessness of all this agonizing and self-loathing. Your college does not need to define you, and you can have a fulfilling life no matter what you do after high school. Even more critically, traditional measures of “success” in life are actually dictated more by luck than by hard work – which means more future grief is in store for students trained to believe in the “Try Harder!” mantra.
In the film, it was refreshing to see at least one student (Shea Fairchild) evolve their thinking from “I have to go to a top-20 school” to realizing they could accomplish their life goals no matter what happens. This level of maturity is remarkable for a high school student, especially considering Lowell’s unyielding dark influence.
Reinforcing unhealthy devotion to meritocracy
This leads to perhaps the greatest tragedy that stems from Lowell High School: graduating class after class of society’s leaders who have an unshakable belief in and affinity for meritocracy in its purest form. As is well-documented here, these graduates will go on to suffer burnout from overwork, grow more narcissistic and less empathetic, and actually believe the world operates as a true meritocracy where they stand near the top.
Sophia Wu is perhaps the textbook example of this kind of future Lowell graduate. Of the five students, she is portrayed as the one who works the hardest and has the highest aspirations. She also already exhibits much of the narcissism to be expected from someone who believes her achievements are earned solely through all that effort.
For better or worse, she gets a harsh dose of reality when she doesn’t gain acceptance into any of the Ivy Leagues and ends up attending UCLA instead. Fortunately for her, it seems this experience has granted her some humility – her recent reflections about her time at Lowell show she has significantly matured in her thinking. If only more alumni had the opportunity to watch a time capsule of themselves to undo a bit of Lowell’s harmful indoctrination…
Many Lowell alums’ slavish devotion to meritocracy have intensely colored the ongoing debate regarding whether Lowell should maintain merit-based admissions. Unlike some of these alumni, I believe a more nuanced approach (i.e., “holistic review”) is appropriate – students shouldn’t be judged purely on how they perform on tests, nor should we completely eliminate any semblance of academic standards. Unfortunately, when the righteousness of pure meritocracy is drilled into you as a Lowell student, it can be hard to see things any other way.
This issue further pervades the fight over affirmative action in U.S. federal courts. Groups like Students for Fair Admissions are attacking fundamental pillars of holistic review – despite glaringly unfair factors like legacy admissions that play a much larger role in undermining meritocratic ideals. Their choice of this hill to die on reflects the deeply unhealthy obsession with meritocracy promoted by schools like Lowell.
So in the end, is Lowell more of a tragedy or a triumph? Is it worth attending? Should students and parents even apply?
The answer to this question is complex, as are most things in life. On one hand, schools like Lowell offer upward mobility for historically disadvantaged students – fulfilling one of the core promises of public education and lifting well-deserving future generations out of poverty. Shea’s story was the perfect example of this. Some may take offense to the outcome that the only person in the film to gain acceptance into Stanford was a white kid, but this achievement was completely justified if one considered Shea’s extenuating circumstances (i.e., holistic review!).
At the same time, one cannot deny the magnitude of harm to both physical and mental health (multiplied across generations) that Lowell’s environment has caused. Is it all worth it? For those like Shea who are not prone to burnout and are doing the work because they truly love learning (as opposed to doing it for college applications or their parents), Lowell may certainly be worth it. Everyone else, however, should probably take pause and consider what they really value in their childhoods and how they would ultimately want to be shaped by their educational experience.
Try Harder! is currently available to stream online for free through PBS Independent Lens. It’s a must-watch for anyone interested in public education, parent-child relationships, the American college application process, the effects of meritocracy on mental health, the Asian-American experience, racial profiling, and so much more.
Caveats: Not all Lowell students have the same experience, and there are admittedly many generalizations made in this piece. The film actually does a fantastic job of showcasing how varied the effects of Lowell can be on different kinds of students. Furthermore, just being aware of the issues discussed here will likely inoculate students against the more negative aspects of Lowell to some degree – so please share with any prospective student or parent who may be feeling conflicted!