Education as the Window to Apathy - and a Note of Hope

I wanted to share these posts that I wrote when I was in fourth year university (back when Facebook had "notes" - my very first little blog!) I wanted to share them for two reasons: one, I feel you. I get it. University is hard and it sucks the life out of you. There is nothing wrong with you, you are normal, you are not broken, and you WILL recover when it is all over and done with (so keep going, you're almost there!) Two, I wanted to share BOTH parts as an overall note of hope. I put the first part (a little darker) as well as the second part (a ray of hope) so that you can see that even when you're in the darkest part of the tunnel and you cannot detect any light, if you keep going, you will come out the other side. There are multiple ways to be successful. You will make it. Even when it seems like it's too dark in front of you to believe it, if you keep going, you will make it to the other side. So read on, and enjoy! (excuse my references to outdated technologies such as msn, lol!)

Part 1: Education as the Window to Apathy

All through your life, you are told that you can’t. 

As a child; you can’t touch that, you can’t play with that, you can’t eat that. 
As an adolescent; you can’t go out, you can’t make the team, you can’t get him to like you. 
As a student; you can’t get 80’s, you can’t get 90’s, and you can’t get perfect. 
As a young adult; you can’t get that job, you can’t get into that school, you can’t do it all. 
As a member of society; you can’t afford that, you can’t stay in a marriage in this day and age, you can’t live that kind of life. 

Maybe it’s not on the posters; maybe it’s not in the commercials. No one says it out loud, but it’s definitely the fine print. The part where it says, “A resume is required”. That says; we are going to judge you, and you just might not measure up. Get nervous. 

We always need to prove that we are necessary, useful, worth it. Even if you’ve proven you can do something already, no, you have to prove it again. You got 90’s all through high school? Not good enough; prove you’re smart all over again in University as we systematically destroy your average in first and second year just to test you, again, even though you have already proven your intelligence. You want that job? Prove it, as we drill you with questions that will make you squirm and sweat and put you at your worst, challenging everything that you say to make you think you are wrong. We will take away your confidence and make you shake in your boots and see what’s left when we’ve stripped you raw and helpless, faced with an angry panel of people whose sole job in this world is to judge you and dig out your flaws. There’s no one there to back you up; you are fighting for yourself. 

How are we supposed to create a global environment where we work together in harmony to accomplish common goals when the premise of our success depends solely on our ability to make it on our own? 

You have to go it alone, even in school. The academic world is a lonely place for a student, where the goals set out for him are to produce work and to learn independently, and further, to meet expectations that are set purposefully too high for most students to ever achieve. In the education system, the majority of students are not supposed to be living up to the highest expectations (read: level 4 on a rubric). Teachers are supposed to have the majority of the class in the 70’s, or devise harder ways to test them so that they end up there. So even if a student body as a whole, or even a generation as a whole, moves forward and accomplishes greater things, the bar will continue to rise above your head so that you can no longer reach it, no matter how high you jump. 

However, in my head, at this time I can’t seem to devise another way in which to run an academic environment, yet taking that viewpoint into account, the following phenomenon still strikes me as particularly consequential and incredibly worthy of consideration. 

When children start out in kindergarten, they are enthusiastic about everything. About being the first in line, about building a tower out of blocks, and especially about answering questions, even if they don’t answer them right. Follow those same young children through their school years and they eventually become less and less enthusiastic about learning as they grow older. Is it just because of the peer pressure that it becomes “uncool” to learn? 

I must disagree, as in my class growing up, knowing and learning was the ultimate cool (we were in the gifted stream). Yet, somewhere between elementary school and fourth year university, my enthusiasm for school has faded to nothing. Why has this occurred? 

I suggest that it is because we are constantly told we can’t. In the fine print, the message we receive as we go through school is always about what we didn’t do right. No matter how hard we work on assignments and how much time and effort we devote to them, the feedback always comes back focused on what we missed, what we didn’t get right, what should have been there, and what we could have done better. No where is there ever any praise for getting a hard question right; you were just expected to. It was no accomplishment. Further, on a personal note, I have had numerous assignments torn to pieces for formatting problems, marked down from an 90% to a 60% just for those reasons alone (thank you, APA). No where was there a saving grace for the fact that I researched, thought about, and explained clearly and coherently the topic at hand; the only comments I got back were about all the problems with APA formatting. How is this conducive to creating a positive learning experience? More broadly, how can we expect students to maintain a desire to continue learning when the focus of education is consistently concentrated on everything students do wrong? I suggest that it is this practice in and of itself that destroys a student’s passion for learning. It seems ignorant and ridiculous to ask a student to continue to care about school when, for 12, 16, or even 20 years of their life, we give them expectations they are not actually expected to be able to achieve, we ignore the positives that occur during the learning process, and we focus our feedback on the negative; the mistakes, the missing pieces, and all the things that were wrong. 

Somewhere between kindergarten and university, praise for knowledge ceases, and the environment shifts from one of fostering enthusiasm through encouragement and recognition to an environment that consists of tallying up everything students don’t know and aren’t achieving. Instead of a focus on the accomplishments achieved during the learning process, the focus seems to drift towards the negative; what was missing, what was wrong, why it wasn’t good enough. 

It seems clear why an attitude of “why should I care” develops in so many young people. Why should they spend their time on something when it just isn’t going to be good enough anyway, and it is inevitably going to be criticized regardless of how much time and effort they devoted to it? 

In kindergarten, even the most hideous pieces of artwork were displayed up on the wall, and we always felt proud. In university, even the best papers are marked up with red ink, defaced and discarded with the rest of the trash.

Part 2: Success

As I stare out my window at the crowds of people milling past, each of them on their way their respective high-end university courses, I can’t help but be amazed at the drive that is housed within each one of these individuals, at their passion, their diversity, their love of life. And as I sit, watching them, it hits me. That one universal concept that binds us together, yet separates us eternally through the competition that is an intrinsic component of all of mankind.

Virtually every single human in the world is striving for the same things in life: love, success, money, health, friends and family. To be liked. To be loved. To be accepted. And especially at Queen’s; to be successful. Everyone who has received their acceptance to even attend Queen’s has already been successful in their lives at one point just to get the grades to get here. But then the question arises, where does it go from here? Now that that initial obstacle has been conquered, how is it dictated from this point onward who is successful and who is not? As we get older and life gets more complicated, there are far more factors to consider than the simple successes of “who has the best recess snacks” that we looked at as being successful in elementary school, or the “who has the best clothes” in high school. What makes up success, after all? Who, really, is successful? 

Are they the people who are always studying, doing every question and reading assigned to them, working amazingly hard and getting the top grades…are they the successful ones? It would appear so; they have the grades, they have the doors open to them for so many other things later in life: the high end jobs, the graduate schools. They are the big money makers. They obviously have the drive and the dedication and the willpower to work through the distractions and the temptations of procrastination, which is something each one of us strives for. We strive for this willpower as we sit in our rooms, talking on msn and eating too much junk food when we clearly have work to be doing, which sometimes just never gets done. It’s moments like these that we wish we just had it in ourselves to just do what we had to, to be like the people who are always working so hard, who are clearly achieving what we’re all here to achieve. They must be the successful ones.

But then there are the people who are friends with everyone. They can make conversation when there’s absolutely nothing to talk about, they can make everyone feel at ease, they can make jokes that are actually funny. They have charisma, personality, laughter, happiness, and can fit into any situation. They never go to a meal alone, they are never without plans at night, and their lives are always exciting. Yes, it must be these people who are the truly successful ones; they have love, laughter, happiness, and friends. That’s what life should truly be about, anyway, so they must have everything figured out.

But then there are the people who have found that one person in the world that makes them happier than any other human being on earth. They have found true love. These are the couples that have it all figured out. They have everything that every one of us dreams of; a reliable, loving, caring partner, someone whom they can rely on through anything, someone who they know will always be there for them whenever they need them. They never fight, they’ve been together forever, they laugh together, and it’s clear that they have one of “those” relationships that we have all read about in magazines or seen in the movies. Life is nothing without love, so this must be the true definition of success; to love and to be loved.

But then there are the people who have found their true passion in life. They have this inner drive to throw their entire hearts and souls into what they are doing, and they love every minute of it. Their jobs aren’t really work, their studies aren’t taxing. Their passion is exuded in the way they talk, in the way they act, in the way they always seem to have enough energy for this one activity that drives them like nothing else in the world does. They have purpose, they have a sense of responsibility, and they’re happy at their work. That must be success; to love what you do more than anything else, for then you are always happy at every minute of the day.

So maybe there are many types of successful. But which is the one we should be looking for? Because I know that I don’t have time for each one of those successes; there just aren’t enough hours in the day. You can’t have a million friends, a job you’re 100% dedicated to, a loving relationship and the best grades in the school all at the same time. So how does one choose? And is there a right choice? It’s just a fact of life, you have to let a few things slide in order to have other things in life. Most people with the highest grades miss out on a lot of social events, and most people who are the social butterflies don’t have the highest grades. And the ones with serious relationships don’t have as much time for other friends, and the ones with jobs they’re that passionate about often don’t have time for serious relationships. So how do you choose?

We are constantly drilled with the concept that life needs to have balance, but then you can look out at these people who do have the highest grades and question yourself as to why you can’t achieve that too. Or you can look longingly at the couple on the park bench so obviously in love and yearn for something like that. Or on another Friday night when you’re still searching for that elusive popular party to attend, you question yourself as to why everyone else seems to get the invites to these parties before you do. How do you become comfortable with letting some things slide when you know you’re capable of getting it just so right, but to keep a balance, you end up becoming mediocre at everything? You may have balance, but you’re not the best of the best. Not the way that the aforementioned “they” are, anyway. They’re the best of the best, and everything just seems to be in place for them, in the area they've chosen.

Maybe success is then, just believing in yourself. Maybe it doesn't actually matter if you're the best of the best. Maybe if all that extra time and effort that you spend yearning after all the things in the world that you just can't quite reach, and instead, spend that time enjoying what you DO have, maybe that's what is truly successful.

Maybe success is to finally, finally, stop worrying about being successful, and just, be.