Growing up, I spent most of my education in the public school system of a fairly homogeneous, affluent, white town. My high school was the academic destination for the majority on my New Jersey suburb; few students went to private schools because the public school system was so well respected. Many of the students matriculated to Ivy’s and thought “ending up at Rutgers” was the lowest form of settling. Not only was going to college a given, but going to a good college was expected; I suspect many students at Amherst can identify.
There was immense competition for the top echelon of colleges. Rumors were always floating around about who got in where, who got rejected from where, and who is lying about where they are going. My peers were so invested in school as the vehicle toward “their future” that they were unable to see beyond it or truly take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them. College was the ultimate goal.
To cope with this pressure, I for one spent high school sleep deprived and cripplingly afraid. Constantly afraid of being measured. Constantly afraid of falling short. Consequently, I adopted a formulaic approach to high school. I quickly learned what a teacher wanted and exploited it. Without fail, I figured out the bare minimum amount of reading that had to be done, which classes actually had to be studied for, and which teachers were apt to give out extensions early on in the year. Not only did this aid in my procrastination, but it allowed me exploit, exploit, exploit, all without engaging. I mention my own experiences because I think they are normal. In retrospect, it’s incredibly cynical and depressing. But ask yourself, doesn’t it sound at least a little bit familiar? How often did you actually find yourself passionately swept up in your high school curriculum? Or more often, were you worried about how it would impact your future rather than the now?
For many of us, it wasn’t that we hated knowledge. I for one loved to learn and had an insatiable curiosity. The problem was that we were afraid of failing and of being judged. We were afraid of not reaching their goals because that was all that mattered. And so the easiest solution was to procrastinate so it could always be justified in our minds. And if we didn’t get into Harvard, it wasn’t our fault. High school was like a holding pen for college: all we had to do was survive, never trying our best, and then matriculate. College, after all, was where real learning began.
When I returned to my high school this Thanksgiving for the first time since graduating, I arrived during the day and caught the tail end of an AP Literature course taught by my favorite teacher from high school. As I sat in the back and waited for the teacher to finish his lecture, I looked around at all his students, eyes glassy, staring up at him. He would ask a question, only to be greeted with silence. After some light prodding, he would call on an unsuspecting student who would merely parrot word for word the exact sentence he had lectured to them five minutes ago. Yes, it was the answer. The teacher, placated, laughed and continued on. But to me, it displayed no true understanding, no interpretation, no evidence of the student making the information his own. Like Spartan warriors, they were trained and drilled to perfection; the ultimate efficiency machines. These students, much like my high school self, had mastered the easiest way for getting by— regurgitation.
These students, myself included, had a twisted conception of what it means to learn. Part of that is the school system and the artificial stricture of teacher and student that hinders learning, questioning, and the free flow of ideas, but part of it is what the students at my high school wanted from their high school education. They wanted A’s. They wanted to get by doing as little as possible. They wanted to get into to Harvard and actually start learning, taking risks, and understanding. But not until then.
Learning is a mindset as much as it is a skill. It’s difficult to refuse to learn all through high school and then go to college and truly engage with the material. Instead, many students find themselves reacting as I did— by continuing to procrastinate and focus on grades. Not really learning the material from class, but getting by. The students from these affluent high schools have diminished learning from something that is fun and interesting to something that benefits them. Their particular resistance to learning often locks their passion away.
If you made it this far in the article, perhaps you’re asking what I purpose be done about it. And to be honest, I don’t know. Reflective of the rest of society, education is like a business— the focus on the finished product. The grades, the hours, everything. It’s all about greatest efficiency for maximum product… but that shouldn’t be what it’s about. Frankly, I think grades are largely to blame. But it goes much deeper than that. It extends to socioeconomic class. It extends to culture. It extends to the very tenets “America” is based on and without changing our relationship to knowledge as a means to an end, I’m not sure there is an answer.