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July 9, 2014

Acute Anita Proteus Syndrome


Kurt Vonnegut's debut novel PLAYER PIANO takes place in a dystopian society, and according to Teen Board member Alison S., our standardized test-obsessed culture isn't too far off. In her below blog post, she tells teens how they can avoid being like Anita Proteus --- one of the main characters in the book --- and live according to their own desires, and not those of college admissions officers.

In his debut novel PLAYER PIANO, Kurt Vonnegut envisions a dystopic future in which, upon graduating high school, every 18-year-old must complete a federally-administered aptitude test. A high score assures the test-taker a future replete with higher education, prosperity and prestige, while a low score relegates him to the town slums and a lifetime of manual labor.

I'm sure glad we don't live in---  hold on a sec. It's time for my SAT prep class.

But Vonnegut's somewhat eerie prescience aside, I'm not here to bash the SAT. At least not by name. Instead, I'm writing this post to alert you to a growing epidemic among teens: AAPS, or Acute Anita Proteus Syndrome.

First discovered in 1952, AAPS was named for its infamous first sufferer, Anita Proteus, wife of the eminent Dr. Paul Proteus, manager of Upper State New York's Ilium Works and protagonist of Vonnegut's PLAYER PIANO. Although Paul advocates that he and Anita "buck the standard", flee mainstream society (which relies, at this unspecified point in the future, almost entirely on machines for its every need or desire), and live out the remainder of their lives on an abandoned farm.

Anita promptly shoots him down. 

Now, you may be asking yourselves, "what exactly are the symptoms of AAPS? Not enjoying the smell of manure? But that doesn't sound particularly fatal."

Bear with me. Because, you see, I'm about to let you in on a little secret,

Anita Proteus bombed her federally-administered aptitude test. She belongs in Ilium's slummiest neighborhood, not in the arms of its preeminent exec. And not a day goes by without someone reminding her --- perhaps subtly, perhaps unintentionally, or perhaps, as in the case of Paul's college buddy Ed Finnerty, frankly, with unabashed cruelty --- of this fundamental truth.

So of course, Anita doesn't act on her own desires, but instead contorts herself into Illium's feminine ideal. She's stupid and she knows it, never daring to act according to her own wishes unless they happen to coincide with those of her adopted socialite "peers". Similarly, while discussing matters of politics or philosophy, Anita never dares to voice her own opinion, instead parroting whatever view's currently in vogue among Illium's well to-do.

But if Anita follows Paul "off the grid", she'll no longer be able to hide her ignorance behind the opinions of the intellectual elite. Rather, if Paul were to initiate a discussion on philosophy or politics or quantum physics, Anita would have no choice but to tell him what she really thinks. And he'd no doubt write off her opinion as stupid, causing her carefully crafted facade of intelligence to disintegrate.

If Anita remains among Illium's intellectuals, however, she can continue living according to society's ideals. Even if she does find that lifestyle a tad unfulfilling, she can rest assured that, although she personally doesn't find her life all that meaningful, someone else does. But, should she run off with Paul and abandon the safety of the fixed social code, Anita would have to pursue her own dreams, rather than the goals that society's prescribed for her. Which means that she risks waking up one morning to the sudden realization that, "hey, my dreams really aren't any more worthwhile than blind conformity. But, unlike blind conformity, my goals haven't won me the esteem of Illium's elite. Or anyone, for that matter. Now, not only is my self-respect still in the gutter, no else has much respect for me either."

But what, you may be wondering, does this have to do with me? In short, a whole lot. How many teenagers shape their lives around what Harvard considers to be a meaningful use of their high-school careers? How many Ivy League aspirants devote their time to what Yale upholds as productive, worthwhile, and admirable?

Well, guess what, I'm about to let you in on another secret: behind every admissions committee, no matter how prestigious, is a group of human beings. And you're a human being, too. So, when you really think about it, you have every bit as much right to define "productive", "meaningful," or "ambitious" as does Harvard. 

And when you're lying on your deathbed, Harvard won't be the one looking back over your life and regretting all the time you spent slaving over SAT-prep books. Or serving as alternate-vice-junior-treasurer of your school's Lithuanian club. Furthermore, it's not as though Harvard admissions officers get any pleasure from your stellar resume. What I'm getting at, I suppose, is this:


Why do so many high school students, myself included, waste away the ninth through twelfth grades chasing after that ever allusive Ivy League acceptance letter? SAT prep classes, for example, don't exactly enrich participants' lives, and they certainly don't benefit anyone besides the participant, so what's the point? While a great piece of literature challenges the reader's conception of the world and introduces them to a wealth of new knowledge and ideas, the standardized test-prep industry prides itself on its ability to condition students to think in specific, predictable ways.

Surely, Aldous Huxley's BRAVE NEW WORLD offers its readers far more in the way of enlightenment than BARRON’S SAT MATH WORKBOOK? Once you're dead, no one will care about--- or benefit from --- your killer SAT score. Why not aim to do something a little more lasting with your time, like writing, art or science? Why not pursue an activity that will not only enrich your present life, but will also continue to benefit future generations long after you're gone?

Why not, unlike Anita Proteus, trust yourself to determine what opinions are worth promoting, what goals are worth achieving, and what dreams are worth fulfilling?

Alison S. is a member of the Teen Board.