Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Education, or competition?

(Inspired by this and this)

At the height of Bart Simpson mania in 1990, when I was in fifth grade, I had a green Bart cap adorned with a button that read, "Underachiever — and proud of it." It was a joke, but it turned out to be true in my academic life. Sort of. And, as it turns out, I am proud of that. Sort of.

One of America’s biggest problems, I think, is that we view education (among many other essentials) as competitive rather than as something to benefit everyone. We care more about how highly ranked someone is than about everyone doing reasonably well.

This mentality is a big part of what compels parents to send their children to private and/or elite schools — so the children can get a leg up against all the other children, so they can eventually get into an elite college ahead of all the other students and eventually land that coveted career position ahead of all the other applicants.

Whether this is the cause or effect of a broken public-education system is up for debate. Either way, it’s a self-perpetuating cycle. When a parent looks out for No. 1, they’re less concerned about the system as a whole, if not outright scornful of it. How is the system supposed to improve amid such disinterest and disdain?

That cycle is one of the many hazards of applying capitalistic principles to the common good. It’s not about ensuring every child in America has a quality education; it’s about who can claw hardest to the top of the class. Those who make said clawing a priority give themselves permission to not care about those stuck on the bottom; after all, why don’t they just claw up themselves? Fie on them if they don’t play the game!

Even as a kid, I didn’t care for overachieving. I decided at an early age that I would involve myself only in that which I really wanted to do. Perhaps to a fault; one of my teachers’ most frequent complaints was that I wasn’t trying hard enough in classes outside my areas of interest. After an impressive straight-A and honor roll run in elementary school (where I was in gifted classes from second grade on), I transferred to another school in 4th grade and made honor roll the first six weeks. After that, I never made honor roll again until the first six weeks of 9th grade, and not again until the final six weeks of 12th grade. (Math was usually the culprit.) I was no stranger to Fs on my report card during this time, though those tended to be tied either to insanely hard gifted classes and/or classes where bullying was rampant. But ultimately, I did what I had to do and never failed a class (though I did repeat Algebra I for credit purposes).

Extracurriculars were a similar story; I did what I felt like doing and nothing more. In middle and high school, I wrote for the school newspaper in years I was eligible and ran track. In high school, I was also involved in football as a manager and as a player. I dabbled in many one-shot activities as well. I knew, and was sometimes told, that it was better to join lots of clubs, which many classmates did. But it wasn’t my style.

Eventually, I graduated 188th in my class of 421 (according to my report card), making honor roll only twice, as noted above. Most of my teachers still remember me fondly and most casual observers of the time would tell you I was pretty smart. But to paraphrase Richard Masur in Risky Business, I wasn’t Princeton material. On paper, anyway.

Part of my mentality was shaped by the fact that I lived just a few blocks from the second-largest university in Louisiana, which at the time had open admissions (not that I needed that). I planned to attend there and continue helping out at home. Second, I didn’t let my academic transcript validate me; I wanted to do as well as possible, but I knew who I was and what I was capable of doing. Third, many of my classmates were absolute grade-grinds — usually the ones from well-to-do families — and they seemed miserable most of the time. Who needed that?

For me, college wasn’t much different; my grades got better, mostly because they had to. I made the dean’s list multiple times and graduated twice, albeit with no honors (as if that mattered after the walk).

I might not have enjoyed the elite status that comes with good grades, mega-involvement, an Ivy League pedigree and deep pockets, but I never aspired to that. I got a damn good education, and know that life is sometimes a grind and a climb. To this day, I devote myself to a handful of enriching activities, not stretching myself too thin. I have friends who did attend Ivy League schools and genuinely made the most of it. I’m proud of them, but not jealous. Because, like them, I pursued what I wanted. There was no legacy guarantee for them, so they had to earn it as much as I earned my way. I put them — and myself — in higher regard than those who coast through the system for a name on a piece of paper.

If we made higher education better for everyone, then pedigree would matter less, and the prestige-seekers of the world would have to find somewhere else to be superficial. Which, given a genuine, earned education, they’d be smart enough to do (or, perhaps, smart enough to realize how shallow that is).

Anyway, having a degree doesn’t make you better than someone without one. Some, if not most, of the most hardworking people I know didn’t finish college. They’re smart and bust their asses every day. They deserve a fair shake too. Just like with college kids, it’s the work and the heart, not the letters, that should matter most.

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