Competition versus collaboration
What is the goal of education? Is it to improve the minds of the population or does America simply raise its children to be good at making money? Personally, I find it difficult to believe the former, given the intensely competitive, incredibly stressful, you’ll-never-be-good-enough nature of schools. But whatever its original purpose, education in America has lost its way.
The current system of schooling is, frankly, a festering heap of excrement. Stemming from a hyper-fixation on college, it promotes competition instead of collaboration, which wreaks havoc on the mental health of students across the country and slowly hacks away at any positive, meaningful value you could place on getting an education. We need to dismember the entire capitalism-influenced structure and rebuild it with collaboration, learning, and mental health as priorities.
The abusive relationship with college
A major source of the American school system’s problems is the fanatic obsession with college, specifically getting into it. The entire structure revolves around college, fostering this notion that molding ourselves into the perfect candidates for post-secondary education is the most crucial part of our existence. High school becomes solely about your college applications rather than, you know, something healthy, and many teenagers feel as if they must become people they’re not just for the validation of a university.
After all, the path most endorsed by society is graduating high school, getting into college, then joining the job market. We’re fed the idea that college is key to a satisfactory future. I remember doing a project in eighth grade where we mapped out our lives and were forced to select and research both a college and a career. I had super low expectations for myself, so naturally, I decided I wanted to go to Stanford University to become a doctor.
Before that project, my life plan had essentially involved becoming an author/artist and moving to California. But everyone knows that being an artist and being financially stable are mutually exclusive, so, since I also had a budding interest in science and math, I figured the lucrative field of medicine was a good choice. Then I plugged “best college in California” into Google, found Stanford, and completely altered all my future plans accordingly. I believed that college was the optimum conduit for future success and happiness.
The origin of the great import we slap onto college is simple: it’s about advantages. Education is undeniably powerful, and universities have always been elitist: a place originally meant for the wealthy and privileged and male. So college itself is certainly a useful and worthwhile pursuit. But the concept of college is not the problem. The problem is that we give it far too much weight, and it crushes children underneath.
Education becomes a competition
The over-emphasis on college turns school into a torture prison that tries to mutate you into a flawless specimen worthy of higher education. Teenagers stop caring about whether what they’re doing is good for their emotional or physical well-being. If it will strengthen their chances of getting into college, they’ll often do it. Students begin chopping off the most unique parts of themselves to be more appealing on an application.
When I started high school, I completely cast aside my desire to write and create art. I took my interest in STEM and warped it into the career I thought would make the most money. I figured it was just for the time being. Simply an intermediate step between now and my future goals. I never realized how badly it would destroy me. It’s quite shocking, really, that abandoning everything that makes you happy for almost two years straight can hurt you.
And what this hyper-fixation on college does is turn education into a competition you never agreed to enter. Everyone and their third father twice-removed bows down to the all-powerful prestige and elitism of post-secondary education. And when you couple that with the fact that society will stone you to death if you don’t get into a good college, it’s not surprising many students feel in constant competition with not only their friends and classmates, but every other kid their age in the country.
Sure, competition can be beneficial. It’s an incentive for growth, it implores people to be better, all that fun stuff. But like a lot of things in life, if not used in moderation, it will make you sick. Competition has its place—in sports, in games, in job interviews. And it’s important to prepare kids for competitive environments and experiences where they must function optimally. But there’s a difference between useful competition and the toxic competition that the school system shoves down kids’ throats. Like— calm down, schools, you’re not the Catholic Church. Kids aren’t ready to swallow loads that large. It’s not healthy.
Competition becomes mentally abusive when it’s applied excessively and unnecessarily. When it gets so bad that children suffer in a continuous cycle of feeling worthless and inferior. When, regardless of how good they are, or how hard they try or how numerous their achievements are, they can think of nothing else but the fact that they’re not good enough.
Rainu George, a 2021 graduate of Downers Grove South High School, voiced her thoughts on this when asked about her process of applying to colleges. “It’s a test of society, you know, they want us to compete, and that always leaves people feeling like shit,” she said. “It’s just so frustrating…No matter how much you accomplish, you only focus on how there are others better than you. We’ve been conditioned to compare. That’s not something that just goes away. Personally, I felt like throwing my computer out the window every time I opened my [college] applications.”
And with increasingly competitive college admissions, teenagers have to toil themselves to near-death to get into the schools they want. Even more so if they’re unfortunate enough to be anything other than upper-class and are trying to earn financial aid. There’s immense pressure to not just succeed, but to be the best. We’re convinced that college is the end-all-be-all. And if you can’t meet the standards, you’re just a cosmic mistake.
The resume race
Thus ensues the race to jack yourself up with as many qualifications as possible. For the best universities, a 7.8 GPA, a 1600 SAT, straight A’s, all advanced classes, a couple dozen clubs, a handful of sports, a foreign language, a musical instrument, and 25 volunteer hours a day are just the minimum. Everyone knows that if you really want to stand out, you’ll also have to write a best-selling novel, solve cancer, and survive a tragic past.
I certainly fell victim to this pressure. During freshman year and the first half of sophomore year, I was infatuated—almost disturbingly so—with Stanford. So I meticulously mapped out an elaborately anal four-year plan for getting in.
I removed lunch from my schedule, considering it a waste of time, and guzzled down as many honors and AP classes as I could. My extracurriculars were outrageous—including speech and debate team, math team, research club, soccer team, orchestra, ACE club, tutoring, volunteer work with four different organizations, weekly computer science lessons, and writing articles for this very online magazine. I tried to teach myself calculus like an idiot, and also refereed soccer games for money in my “spare” time.
I even stopped reading the books I enjoyed for two whole years, trading my fun fantasy novels for horrendously boring historical fiction “classics”. Reasoning that they would make me a better reader and writer, I forced myself to ingest them. (After suffering through The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye on my own, you can imagine my utter despair when I entered sophomore year to find that we were going to be reading them again in my English class. Talk about regret.)
I was, simply put, insane.
I’ll admit, my own issues propelled some of this— I didn’t handle failure well, I set ridiculously high expectations for myself, the pursuit of perfection plagued me, and so on and so forth. We all have our own fun, unique reasons for self-hatred. But the education system had helped bring about those problems within me. And I know for a fact that I wasn’t the only one.
Jordan Brodsky, a student from Danvers, MA, stated in a New York Times article that “one of the biggest flaws in the American education system is the amount of pressure that students have on them to do well in school, so they can get into a good college”.
This pressure is real, and it manifests itself in almost every single aspect of the already broken education system.
School bullies students into taking the classes that will shine brightest on their resumes. Consequently, students kick their own interests to the curb when selecting classes so they can look prettier for a university. Forcing kids to drag themselves through painful classes they’re not in the least bit excited about, especially difficult classes, doesn’t do their academic motivation any favors.
“From freshman year on, we’re just taught to take AP courses and even classes we don’t like just so we can create the perfect resume,” explained George. She continued, joking, “‘Cause I sure as hell didn’t want to take AP Biology.”
Schools shouldn’t coerce us into getting all dolled up for the pleasure of some college. (Unless you’re into that.) It just turns teenagers into self-flagellants, whipping and bloodying themselves for the supposed favor of the Almighty universities.
It’s good for art students to know everyday math, but once they’re old enough to have a grip on their interests, is it really a good idea to force them into pre-calculus if they don’t want to do it? And beyond a basic understanding of the past, science students shouldn’t feel pressured into taking advanced history courses. As a science major who currently dislikes history and the social sciences in general, I shake my head at myself thinking about how I voluntarily tackled AP U.S. History, AP European History, and AP U.S. Government, just for my college applications. (I dropped AP Psychology in time, thankfully.)
At a certain point, students tend to know what they enjoy. And after they’ve locked down the basics, the classes they take should be the ones beneficial to their specific future. It shouldn’t be about their university, it should be about them. We aren’t born to gratify the collegiate gaze.
And what makes it worse is the way that we’re evaluated in these classes. Due to the need to achieve sterling marks (pardon my British) for a college application, there’s an insane overemphasis on grades. Grades are really just abstract symbols that may or may not accurately communicate one’s understanding of a subject. Yet because children have to stamp those damned symbols onto their college applications, they put more effort into getting the ‘A’ than into actually mastering the content.
When I asked Teyani Sharkey, junior at Downers Grove South High School, for her thoughts on the school system, she immediately responded, “It’s fucked up. I hate everything about it. Everything is based off of grades and you’re said to be unsuccessful if you don’t have straight A’s.”
In short, grades are sucker punches in the face for your self-esteem.
Lestin Kandakudy, another 2021 graduate of Downers Grove South High School, emphasized this. “I truly believe that America’s educational system is fundamentally flawed…The pressure to obtain stellar grades is crippling. Personally, I had no social life in high school. I would focus solely on my grades to please my parents and this toxic educational system. But in the end, my grades suffered as a result. Students are hardwired to attach their self-esteem to their grades, making the letter ‘A’ the sole deciding factor in whether students are happy or not.”
Qasim Simba, also a recent graduate of Downers Grove South High School, elaborated on his experiences with grades. “When I started high school, I wanted to have the best grades. As a freshman, I knew this was important in that it could set me up for success when applying to colleges. But for me, getting good grades also meant being able to feel smart. Being able to tell my parents that I am a smart kid, getting to hang out with all the other students that had the same goals as me,” he said. “Now that I look back, I regret going into high school with this mindset…I remember one time crying because I got a B on a math test. I know that sounds superficial, but I always wondered where this need to get A’s came from. How a simple letter could give me so much anxiety and stress.”
Poor grades should not be able to deflate students so easily and so quickly. We don’t think about how much we’ve learned after receiving a bad grade, we just feel stupid and incompetent.
And grades aren’t even necessarily accurate evaluations of learning. They vary widely across schools and instructing styles. The whims of one down bad teacher can severely alter them. And grades only reward a singular type of intelligence. The universe forbids you’re born with a different type.
When asking Nirmal Nathan, yet another 2021 Downers Grove South High School graduate, for his thoughts on the school system, he expanded on the shortcomings of grades. “The school system is flawed in that it cannot truly measure knowledge or learning,” he said. “As a 4.0 student myself, I can easily tell you that there are ‘smarter’ students than me without the title of having 4.0. Because the reality is, grades only measure how well you are able to do an assignment, not necessarily how well you learned the subject or whether you can take your learning to higher critical thinking. When we ask ourselves the question, ‘Why do we need an education?’ our immediate response goes somewhat along the lines of ‘to learn’. But often, the school system has lost its true purpose and [only] tests how well you can ace an assignment, whether you learned anything or not.”
A student’s classes ideally should help guide them along the trail to mental elevation by thickening knowledge, improving practical skills, and stimulating intellectual curiosity. But the overemphasis on grades backhands you right off that course. It sends you flailing off the deep end onto a more dangerous path where getting a good grade is all that matters, mental elevation be damned.
“When I started taking harder classes as the years went on, my curiosity for learning faded. I started only focusing on what I needed to know and memorizing only for a test,” Simba recalled. “The foundation of the school curriculum is corrupt. How am I supposed to want to learn anything for my own curiosity if my real intention for understanding course material is to get an A?”
In Honors Biology freshman year, I did great in the class. I ended with over 100%, and I remember being inordinately proud of myself. But that very summer, I came to the stunning realization that I could hardly recall anything I’d learned. I was furious. Clearly, I’d spent all those hours taking ostentatious notes with my obnoxious highlighter collection for nothing.
But then it hit me that I hadn’t been working to actually comprehend the material…I’d been working to memorize it. I had a great memory; I could get all the definitions and biological processes down word-for-word, which meant that I excelled on our tests. But in reality, I hadn’t learned much. I’d been so preoccupied with securing 100% on all of my assignments that I’d largely ignored the actual retention and understanding.
The grading system promotes memorization and cramming just enough information into your head to pass the test. It supports hitting it and quitting it. And when the sun rises, the no-longer-needed knowledge slinks out of your bedroom—I mean, brain—and vanishes without even leaving you a phone number (or Snapchat username) to contact. But you don’t care, because you successfully got over the hurdle of the test.
Tests should not be hurdles: rapidly approaching, slightly scary, unavoidable obstacles that you’re forced to go the hard way around. Tests should be like…anti-hurdles. We should slam headfirst into them, trying our best to knock them down and falling on our asses. Tests should be about whether we’re genuinely gaining knowledge and skills. And when those skills and knowledge are put to the test, we should be encouraged to crash. Because you learn best from failure.
But instead, they teach us to concentrate all our effort into the split-second before the hurdle, so we can soar over it without ever making contact. It’s shallow, superficial learning that only benefits you in the short term.
This one-night stand issue shows up in standardized testing as well. Schooling in America depends excessively on quantitative analysis, despite the tests being completely pathetic at diagnosing intellectual capabilities. They don’t assess critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, logic, or anything useful. Yet we care about test performance so much that rich people will pay six-figure amounts to inflate their children’s scores. Like, come on, rich people. Give that money to the African children or something.
As Ellen Place, a 2021 graduate of Downers Grove South High School, put it, “One’s intelligence shouldn’t be measured by a mere number and interpreted by a random set of math and English questions. Each student shouldn’t be reduced to a score they got on one test.”
And the ridiculously high value we’ve given these tests only increases their inaccuracy. The pressure of it all can end up severely hurting student scores. Who could’ve predicted that taking a bunch of already-stressed and sleep-deprived kids, making them anxious, and then forcing them to sit for hours taking an egregiously dull multiple-choice bubble exam that will significantly affect their chances of being admitted to a college would be a bad idea?
I rarely felt nervous for regular tests during high school, but when it came time to take the PSAT or the SAT, I would experience unsolicited anxiety. No matter what logic I pumped through my brain, my body would betray me, making my palms sweat and my vision swim so bad that it would take me three times as long just to process the question I was reading. I would feel mildly homicidal urges to find whoever invented standardized testing and stab a fork into their trachea. Metaphorically, of course.
Simba elaborated on the problems he has with the SAT. “I feel like this test is truly flawed—the idea of one test depicting the intellectual ability of someone just seems wrong…When I took it, I remember feeling a sense of disbelief about how bad I thought I did. Rather than asking questions that build on a certain idea, the test just hits you with rapid questions using a variety of different thinking tools, and after doing this for a couple of hours I felt mentally exhausted.”
Just like our regular classes and grades, standardized testing pulls attention away from true learning and knowledge. We work to score better instead of working to understand. We sacrifice our education to improve our chances of getting accepted into a university. Sounds logical, huh?
It leaves you wondering, what happened to creative thinking? To curiosity? To the enjoyment of learning? What happened to one’s natural wonder for the world around them? School annihilates all of that, putting its ugly foot on your neck and hissing cold words in your ear if you don’t fit in the box. It’s no wonder many students hate learning, dread school, and see education as a waste of time.
Don’t screw up
And the grading system cultivates a gross level of shame around mistakes and failure. Students are often afraid to admit ignorance or confusion. They’re afraid to simply say, “I don’t know”. They hide poor scores and lie about their grades when prompted by their peers for fear of judgment.
It doesn’t help that students feel in eternal competition with each other. Add class ranks, GPAs, elitism, and competitive college admissions, and education becomes about superiority. One cannot frequently score and rank students at a high-stakes level without giving rise to a poisonous environment of toxic, underlying competition, incessant comparisons, and suffering self-esteem. As if teenagers didn’t already hate themselves enough.
During high school, I’d always get the feeling that students were trying to subtly outdo each other, or that your peers would judge you for not being smart or accomplished enough. It was an unspoken thing, but harmful nonetheless. Students were constantly talking about their grades on this homework assignment or that test. Kids seemed to like explaining information to others not for a genuine eagerness to share knowledge but to show off.
And I was no different. I used to have an unhealthy drive to be unmatched. To be perfect. I did my best to hide it, but I craved superiority. For the first half of high school, I would compulsively evaluate myself against my classmates in my head, trying to gauge whether I was “better” than them or not. It was mentally degrading. Making those constant comparisons simply wiped out all the pride I felt in any of my accomplishments.
And it extended beyond my school, too. I would read excessively about the Ivy Leagues, seeing kids my age doing all these crazy, amazing things. Like, leave a little world hunger for the rest of us to solve, will you?! It would make all the onerous work I did seem like absolutely nothing. It would reduce me to feeling worthless, as comparisons often do. I wasn’t living for myself, and that meant I would never be good enough.
On top of that, failure used to terrify me. I used to be afraid of looking foolish. Afraid of revealing confusion. I would often refuse to ask for help because I viewed it as a sign of weakness. I disliked group projects because I thought the others in my group would “weigh me down.”
And the school system was nurturing those fears of mine, fattening them up and slapping their bottoms before sending them on their way to torment my brain. Schools shun mistakes and spit on imperfection. If you fail a test, it’s on you. You’re inadequate; schools expect you to get it right on the first try. After all, you only have four years to impress the colleges. You can’t afford to fuck up.
But have we forgotten what the point of school is? It’s an entire institution literally meant for learning. This is a place where you’re supposed to be making mistakes and learning how to get back up when the universe WWE body slams you. An educational setting should endorse confusion, frustration, and errors. Children need to learn how to fail, and then learn that their response to the failure defines them, not the failure itself. The feeling of defeat and rejection should make kids want to work harder, not quit.
Follow the rules, or else
The issue with the grading system bleeds right over into another problem: the way classes are taught. We place such a high value on testing well that it promotes a counterproductive teach-to-the-test approach in classrooms. It’s the same deadly prioritizing of passing over learning that can erode the purpose of us being in school.
Carter Osborn, a student from Hoggard High School, voiced his feelings on this in a 2019 New York Times article. “Teachers will revolve their whole days on teaching a student how to do well on a standardized test,” he said. “That is not learning. That is learning how to memorize and become a robot that regurgitates answers instead of explaining ‘Why?’ or ‘How?’ that answer was found. If we spent more time in school learning the answers to those types of questions, we would become a nation where students are humans instead of a number.”
It’s important to note that not all teachers employ this method, of course, and oftentimes funding problems, curriculum requirements, and other official limitations force teachers to do their jobs with their hands tied behind their backs. The blame for this problem falls not on the teachers necessarily, but on the structure of the school system itself. After all, our scores on exams literally determine how well teachers are doing their jobs and whether or not certain school programs are effective. Just because standardized testing is a horrible way to evaluate educational quality doesn’t change the fact that teachers have to ensure that we’re scoring satisfactorily.
But when classes focus on producing numerical success rather than genuine comprehension, it kills the passion for learning early on. When teaching-to-the-test, non-tested subjects are neglected. Students start to believe that their score on some defective exam is more important than the knowledge and skills they’re gaining. It takes away the joy in learning, for both the student and the teacher.
When asked what he thought about the school system, thirteen-year-old Teyous Sharkey, seventh-grader at [REDACTED] Middle School, just said, “Absolutely garbage.” I asked him how he would improve it. “Less work we have to do, more fun activities, more group projects—but don’t make them dumb, like about something you’ll never use again. Do something that’s interesting.”
There is no fun in learning for Sharkey, and he hasn’t even reached high school yet. For him, “7th grade advanced math was easy because all you had to do is type the formula they give you into your calculator.”
There’s no creativity or passion or critical thinking in this. When I was in middle school, my math classes taught me to simply memorize how to do certain operations rather than truly understanding what I was doing. For example, when learning how to add and subtract with negative numbers, my teachers told me to memorize the “rules” and follow them. Take a look at this:
As a thirteen-year-old, I memorized the stupid “SCC” thing, and that laid the foundation for my knowledge of working with positive and negative numbers together. It’s a step-by-step, methodical, mindless process, telling you what to do but lacking a “because”. No one ever stopped to explain to me why exactly this was the way we did it. No one ever provided visuals of the operations or tried to get me to internalize it at a conceptual level.
What would a student with a poor memory do? Fail? Being educated shouldn’t be about memorization and the ability to blindly recall facts that you don’t comprehend. It wasn’t until later that I started taking more of an interest in math and began to look deeper into numbers to see their beauty. I was lucky enough to naturally be interested in math, but so many students absolutely despise subjects like math because they’ve been taught it wrong.
Kids miss out on the deep, fascinating intricacies of subjects because school strips away their desire to learn and teaches them rule-following over problem-solving. There have been countless times in my math classes where teachers will give us a rule without explaining it or showing us a proof. We’re just expected to seal it in our minds like a pretty box with nothing inside.
Ellen Place emphasized this issue. “There’s no flexibility anymore in the learning process,” she said. “It’s not made for the individual, the individual has to conform. There’s no emphasis on classes that allow for students to demonstrate their creativity.”
In the classroom, you must sit still, stay quiet, and do things the correct way. You learn to be subservient to authority. There’s little individualism and a lot of cutting corners. Kids literally start coming up with secret languages to tap out on their desks during test time so they can cheat better. You learn to sabotage your own education. You’re told to do whatever it takes to get into a good college, which encourages appearing smart rather than being smart. We aren’t taught to be independent thinkers; we’re taught that life is about half-assing the work and copying the answer key. But in real life, there is no answer key. There is no grand cosmic rubric.