The following is a continuation of “The Crooked College Chase, Pt.1” You can read it here.
Infiltrating our homes
And on top of all that, you have the vile infestation that is homework. We go to school for seven hours a day (or more), only to come home and spend even more time working on quantities of homework so large it should be child abuse.
Home and school should be separate; kids need and deserve a respite from the stressful, rigorous environment of school. To finally finish classes, clubs, and sports only to spend the rest of your day slaving over projects, assignments, and studying is like being buried alive twice.
“We divide school time as though the class itself is the appetizer and the homework is the main course,” explained Daniel Capobianco from Danvers High School. “Students get into the habit of preparing exclusively for the homework, further separating the main ideas of school from the real world. At this point, homework is given out to prepare the students for…more homework, rather than helping students apply their knowledge to the real world.”
And when you’re taking a surplus of advanced classes for a college, that dumps even more homework on your back. Over my four years, I missed innumerable social functions in order to finish schoolwork, and bucket loads of assignments and studying kept me constantly holed up in my room. I can’t even tell you how many times I felt like I was wasting away my childhood.
On an average day for me, I’d be at school for eleven hours, get home at dark, hastily shovel down something unhealthy to eat, then sit at my desk staring hatefully at my endless To-Do list, probably while crying. After mustering up an iota of motivation and mopping the tears from my workspace, I’d get started on my homework and keep going until I was neck-deep in the night. Then I’d snatch a few hours of sleep, wake up despising myself and all of my life choices, and repeat the routine.
I’m sprinkling in some humor here, but the reality is that for many students, school can become a dark, dark time indeed. Repeating the same mind-numbing cycle for months on end while in a continuous state of despair doesn’t exactly boost your serotonin levels.
And although we flail about helplessly in seas of homework, a lot of it feels like useless busywork. Homework needs to have a direct benefit. Quality over quantity, as the wise old man saying goes.
The school also doesn’t seem to care much about how these workloads affect us. Over the course of my four years, I don’t think I had a single break— be it winter break, spring break, Thanksgiving break, even three-day weekends—where I didn’t have assignments to complete. During Thanksgiving break of sophomore year, I was assigned an entire 2000 word essay to write. I remember I went home and literally cried for 30 minutes because it was as if they didn’t care about mental health at all. I desperately needed that week to take a breather and just do nothing. I’d been so stressed for months. But instead, I spent it writing an essay and working on another large assignment for one of my AP classes.
Mental health is also not seen as a “valid” excuse to miss a day of school. And even if you do skip a day to give your brain a recess, it only multiplies your stress. You miss so much and accumulate even more work to do the next day. It would get to the point where I would just accept the failing grade on certain assignments because I simply couldn’t do it. My feet couldn’t touch the ground, and I didn’t have the energy to keep swimming.
Sleep is for the weak, not for the week
The copious amounts of homework we receive also contribute to a pernicious sleep deprivation epidemic among teenagers. School starts so early and our days end so late, there’s hardly time to squeeze in an adequate amount of shut-eye.
A Stanford Medicine article by Ruthann Richter described Carolyn Walworth, 17 at the time, who “often reaches a breaking point around 11 p.m. when she collapses in tears. For 10 minutes or so, she just sits at her desk and cries, overwhelmed by unrelenting school demands. She is desperately tired and longs for sleep. But she knows she must move through it, because more assignments in physics, calculus, or French await her.”
It’s chilling how similar Walworth’s experiences are to that of myself and classmates I’ve had. So many of us have no choice but to beat the life out of our physical and emotional health because schools put too much on our shoulders.
Annie Le, a 2021 graduate of Downers Grove South High School, spelled out this treacherous cycle. “At 14 years old, kids are pushed into high school with the idea that they must excel— that that is the only option, the other being a failure that may result in lifelong misery and financial distress,” she explained. “Students must follow a systematic schedule from day to day, being in school for 8 hours 5 days a week— yet that is the bare minimum. Students must involve themselves in several extracurriculars tacking on hours to their day. They then must go home to do their homework until they go to sleep. Time doesn’t exist for building relationships, seeing family, and, many times, even eating. Yet students must manage it all. Fourteen-year-old kids learn to be robotic in this manner and must continue it for four years.”
A 2006 National Sleep Foundation poll reported that 87 percent of U.S. high school kids get far less sleep than the recommended 8-10 hours. At my academic nadir, sophomore year, I was literally averaging one-to-two hours of sleep a night. My perpetual exhaustion and discouragement lengthened the time it took me to complete work. I would often sacrifice even more sleep just for a sliver of time to myself. Even when I managed to get to bed early—like around three in the morning—, I couldn’t sleep anyway. My brain was too awake with overpowering stress and anxiety.
Sleep deprivation spins a quicksand pattern: unable to focus in class due to lack of sleep, the time you get to bed keeps getting later and later as you collect more and more work to catch up on. “It’s an insane system,” said Walworth. “The whole essence of learning is lost.”
“I think high school is the real danger spot in terms of sleep deprivation,” said William Dement, MD, Ph.D., and founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic. “It’s a huge problem. What it means is that nobody performs at the level they could perform.”
Qasim Simba, 18, explained that throughout high school, more sleep was all he wanted. “It got to the point where it became part of my personality. People would ask me ‘How are you?’ and I would respond with ‘tired.’ I know it’s easy to make the argument that I could just go to bed earlier, but it’s not that simple. With the extracurricular activities that I did—including speech, Research Club, cross country—, the workload of my classes, and just needing time to de-stress after school, it was not easy to go to sleep early for me,” he explained. “Having to wake up at 6:45 every day to get on the 7:00 AM bus was horrible.”
To say we’re stressed out is the understatement of the century. Since 2013, teens have reported higher levels of stress than adults. A 2018 American Psychological Association survey showed that teens experience worse levels of anxiety and depression than every other age category.
Because inside the school system, all the issues just compound on one another and lead to a bunch of young kids trapped in a dreary, confidence-reducing, work-intensive world of grades and tests and homework and competition, struggling with frighteningly high stress levels and mental illnesses in their undeveloped brains. They have so much insane shit to do, they’re pressured into taking on too much, and their self-worth becomes tangled up in how appealing they are to a college. They chug through the same suffocating, monotonous circuit for days that stretch on and on. We don’t have time to relax. We don’t get a chance to just be kids.
They kill us
And it doesn’t even end once you finally reach the glowing golden finish of actually getting into a university. It just gets worse. Colleges are ripe with competition, social-climbing, incredibly heavy workloads, isolation, and imposter syndrome. Stress only skyrockets. And the esteemed Ivy League schools are particularly notorious for being cutthroat competitive and highly stressful. We romanticize the demolishing of mental and physical health for academic success. I guess nothing makes the nether regions tremble like crippling depression.
Add all that to problems with family, responsibilities at home, and parental expectations, and it’s no wonder teenagers are the way they are. Eventually, they won’t be able to handle it anymore. Eventually, they will break.
The winter of sophomore year was when school finally pushed me over the edge. My mind couldn’t take it anymore.
I felt nervous all the time for no reason, my eyes and lips twitched, and I rarely ate or drank water. I hadn’t exercised in months, yet I’d lost twelve pounds. The only thing my eyelids ever wanted to do was shut, I had searing headaches, my face was breaking out, and there were shadows under my eyes. I was in a constant state of stress. The rare times I felt happy were gone so quickly, and I never saw my family anymore. I dreaded waking up every morning. I literally started having hallucinations and hearing voices from sleep deprivation. And I was so, so tired. I wanted to close my eyes and never open them again.
But hey. I had good grades, right?
School actually made me want to give up. After barely four months of sophomore year, I no longer saw a reason for me to keep going. I didn’t believe my goals were worth it anymore. All my drive had been sucked out of me, and I just felt empty.
I had spent so much time chasing society’s goal that I had lost myself in the process. Robotically, I continued down the awful course I’d set myself on and ignored my internal screaming. I stopped caring about everyone and everything. Life lost its purpose, and I had let go of most of the things that made me happy. The eighth-grader who’d dreamed of being an author and an artist now felt disgusted at the thought of writing another word, especially in 12pt Times New Roman. She hadn’t read or drawn for pleasure in so long.
I was the picture-perfect example of an overworked, overstressed, overwhelmed, over-everything overachiever obsessed with perfection. And it was all because I felt pressured to get into a top college. But what about what I wanted? What about my passions? My happiness? I started wondering, is there anything in my life right now that’s for me? Was there anything I did just for myself, not for augmenting my college and career prospects? (Well, I guess there was playing downstairs DJ, but that doesn’t count.)
I struggled to separate myself from the person school had molded me to be. I didn’t even like medicine or biology. Or children for that matter. Why the hell was I trying to become a doctor? I wondered, was I truly ambitious? Or was I just afraid of straying from the path they’d chained me to? Was I truly intelligent, or was I merely good at playing the game?
School had stripped the layers of my pride, stolen my passion, and reduced me to a hollow shell devoid of purpose. It felt like a cruel game we were all being forced to play, pointless and painful. No one cared about us. Couldn’t they see they were killing us? Didn’t they realize we needed help?
“The burnout that results from American education kills young ambition consistently and on a scale that is unparalleled,” explained Annie Le, 18. “It’s no wonder that at some point on the timeline [students] wonder what the point of anything is, what the point of living is at all.”
Internalizing that college is the only route to success makes it difficult to disassociate academic performance from self-worth. And when your value depends on how college-appealing you are, failing to meet those expectations can make you believe your life is worth nothing.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death for 15-24-year-olds. According to the New York Times, in a 2015 survey, “15% of Lexington High School said they had considered killing themselves in the last year.” Cornell, an elite Ivy League school, installed nets under its bridges after a series of suicides. A recent study published in Depression and Anxiety of over 67,000 college students across over 100 institutions reported that one in five students had had thoughts of suicide. 9% had made an attempt and nearly one in five students reported self-harming. Four suicides occurred at Northwestern University, another selective institution, in 2018 alone.
Sepp Panzer, a student at Columbia University, described his experiences with this on ABC News in 2019. He has struggled with depression and attempted suicide in high school. When discussing entering college, he said, “my primary support was gone, and the pressure to succeed was such a strain and drove me back to depression.” He recalled not wanting to even get out of bed and said that during his sophomore year at Columbia, his suicidal thoughts returned.
Ultimately, we have an education system that doesn’t optimize learning, collaboration, or knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Instead, it pits kids against one another, tearing them down in the process. The entire system implies that the more a child is willing to sacrifice for their work—whether it be health, sleep, social life, family time, sanity, happiness—the more successful they will be.
They take the gardens of our minds and plant weeds, telling us the weeds are fertilizer. So we welcome those weeds. We help grow them. And we don’t realize we’re being strangled until it’s too late. Everything we are—our originality, our creativity, our potential— seeps out and collects in their crooked palms.
They cut off our hands and tell us to write, hacking at our bodies until we all look the same. They soak up our tears and blood with a sponge and squeeze it over our foreheads, telling us we’re being cleansed. Then they hand us the razors we use to slit our wrists, and they wonder why we’re all dying.
Our brutal, individualistic system of schooling literally undermines its own purpose. It kills its children. And the U.S. is (surprise, surprise) declining in education. So not only do American teenagers get to be depressed and suicidal, but they also get to be globally outperformed in math, science, and reading.
The cursed American education system is a failing factory for money-makers, with little care for what it does to the people on the inside. And that’s not even mentioning the bullying problems, the multi-faceted exploitation of teachers, or the heinous inequality in school funding that disintegrates the idea of school balancing social inequality.
Capitalism ruins everything
Plenty of people will try to stop me right here, arguing that America houses the world’s top universities, that America is one of the most educated nations in the world, that our college graduates boast an impressive employment rate, blah blah blah. I could, of course, reply that the product of the American education system can seem appealing from the surface, but no one wants to peel back the shiny seal to expose the mountains of student debt, the depressed citizen clones, the uninformed public, or the ocean of corpses barely floating paycheck to paycheck. And we could go on and on exchanging verbal blows.
But my focus here is not necessarily on the end result of our education system. It’s on what’s happening inside: what it’s doing to and teaching our kids, regardless of how numerically successful they may appear. Statistics don’t always tell the whole story. They can’t fully communicate the terrible suffering that the school system is putting kids through.
As Timo Heikkinen, a Finnish principal with 24 years of teaching experience, put it, “If you only measure the statistics, you miss the human aspect.” For this issue, we must not only heed the numbers, but also the voices of the ones currently experiencing it. Teachers, parents, politicians—they can all have their opinions and those opinions will vary widely as only opinions can. But the people we need to be listening to are the ones who the issue affects the most: the kids. The teenagers trapped inside, the ones who know firsthand what it’s like.
Because I ask you, how many of the students in these leading, prestigious colleges are okay? How many of them are healthy? How many of them are enjoying their journey? Few truly see or understand the arduous, competition-ridden, stress-saturated, self-worth murdering cesspool that is the public education system.
And you cannot tell me that the end result of the system makes what happens inside worth it. It’s true that often in life you must do things that are difficult so you can reap the benefits, but in this case, the “benefits” are not enough. We can certainly forge a system that produces better results, and without making everyone inside it want to off themselves.
School orders kids to suffer for a while so they can finally start living their lives (a.k.a. making money) after two decades. But our lives don’t start once we graduate college. The first twenty or so years aren’t some kind of twisted free trial. We should have a chance to be young, to discover what we’re passionate about. Instead, once we hit high school, they force us to live in the future, waiting for our lives to begin.
And pumping the malleable minds of children through these soul-sucking factories for their entire childhoods can breed generations of college graduates ingrained with a mindset and approach to life that advances harmful competition with one’s peers and a greater care for monetary, shallow success than one’s happiness and well-being.
Which really just stinks of capitalism, doesn’t it? After all, American school is a great example of a socialist institution based on capitalism. It’s socialism to promote capitalism, a reluctant combination of the two— just like our lovely economy.
Think about it. School has all the key elements of capitalism: cutthroat competition, a terrible work-life balance, the insatiable pursuit of success, the screwing over of marginalized groups…
But seriously, it can be argued that a large part of the school system’s problems is caused by the influence of toxic capitalism. One of the purposes of school literally is to help us make money. You theoretically learn skills that help set you up for the professional world. You’re urged to compete with fellow students in everything, and competition is a staple of capitalism (free market, et cetera). You attend college in hopes of obtaining the most profitable job possible, but you lose so much money paying for your own academic suffering that debt grows like mold.
America just cares too fucking much about money. We don’t have a healthy work-life balance. Our definition of freedom is too intertwined with the economy. Profit takes precedence over people’s lives. We have the best economy in the world, sure, but Americans are incredibly depressed. We’re one of the planet’s most stressed people.
School basically tries to manufacture us into the whores of capitalism.
Take me now, Finland
But what if school put the student first for a change? What if we eliminated the focus on college entirely and promoted collaboration instead of competition?
What if children were taught the relative futility of superiority? The system presents superiority as the goal, but superiority is ultimately pointless. And the extreme competitiveness we experience in school is largely unfounded. It’s rare that any two kids will want the same things out of life; all students have unique goals for what they want to do with their time here on Earth. But because the system promotes competition, kids feel like they’re in a race with their peers, not realizing that none of them even have the same finish line.
Schools should teach children that satisfaction shouldn’t come from trampling others beneath them. (Seriously, what is it with schools getting students to be so sadomasochistic?) Superiority is such a flimsy, fruitless goal. Everything is relative; without other people, concepts of superiority and inferiority wouldn’t even exist. We should prompt teenagers to shrink their frames of reference enough to work on being superior only to their former selves.
It’s what I had to do for myself a couple years ago when I used to have those issues. Once I pried myself away from the goals school had forced onto me and became more secure in my individualism, I was able to internalize the true emptiness of comparisons. “Comparison is the thief of joy” and all that. I’m my own person, with my own definition of success and my own purpose for existence in this cold and meaningless universe. To evaluate myself against anyone else would fall under the “apples to oranges” category. It’s a false equivalency.
I was in high school when I first read up on Finland’s school system. I remember it literally bringing tears to my eyes because I so desperately wished we could have something like that in the U.S. Finland is the humble educational underdog that outranks the U.S. and is gaining on Eastern Asian nations.
- Little standardized testing
- “We prepare children to learn how to learn, not how to take a test,” said former math and physics teacher Pasi Sahlberg. “We are not much interested in PISA. It’s not what we are about.”
- High-quality teachers
- Every teacher has a master’s degree in education
- Cooperation over competition
- No rankings. No comparisons. Zero competition between students, regions, or schools. (Can you imagine?)
- More options than just college
- Other post-secondary options that are equally as advantageous as college and less stigma around not going to college
- Later starts
- School starts around 9am and ends around 2pm, with longer classes and longer breaks
- More personalized
- Fewer teachers and students to a school
- Students may have the same teacher for up to six years
- They can tailor education to the individual
- Relaxed atmosphere
- Less stress, less unnecessary rigor
- Multiple times to simply eat, relax, get fresh air, and do recreational activities for both the students and the teachers
- The people running the schools are educators, not politicians (what a concept)
- Every school shares national goals and selects teachers from the same pool, making it likely that each Finnish student will have a high-quality education regardless of the region they live in
- Unlike in the US, where schools are funded by local property taxes (meaning if you live in a low-income region, your school is gonna suck balls— I mean, lack critical resources).
- Way less homework
- Only thirty minutes a night, according to the OECD. Thirty. Minutes. That…that physically hurts.
- Compulsory schooling doesn’t start until age 7 and every year after age 16 is optional
- “We have no hurry,” said Finnish principal Kari Louhivuori. “Children learn better when they are ready. Why stress them out?”
- Gives school less of a joint death-row-prison and child-labor-factory vibe, you know?
- Finland goes all out on the subsidizing to fulfill the “school is a social equalizer” goal
Wow. Talk about paradise. If I lived there, I’d never want to Finnish my education. (Haha…) Did I mention that Finland’s actually happy? The World Happiness Report has named Finland the happiest country in the world for four years in a row. America could never.
When the day does finally come for the U.S. to stitch up the twitching, disfigured, bleeding creature that is our education system, Finland’s system would be a fantastic model to emulate.
Now, I’m not quixotic. Everyone can’t simply follow their passions off into the sunset with rainbows shooting from their asses. But getting people to hate their existences less is certainly a more reasonable goal.
The simple solution is to obliterate the entire American education system and start anew, reconstructing it from the ashes up. Unfortunately, that takes time, money, and politicians who care. Three things the world is constantly short on.
Die, school system, die
The summer after the grueling hell-fest that was sophomore year, I was able to finally return to art and writing and officially gave up on becoming a doctor (although cutting up bodies for a living does seem fun). I figured out that the STEM subjects I actually loved were not medicine or biology but astronomy and math. I experienced floundering without any life goals for a while. It took a year for me to re-find purpose and build back up the motivation to do literally anything, but I was thankful for the lessons I’d learned. Call it survivor’s gratitude.
And ultimately, I didn’t even end up applying to Stanford. I dropped that dream like it was of a high temperature, took two study halls during my junior year, and quit the extracurriculars I’d only been doing for college. I decided that if I had to play the school game, I would play it in my own way. And I strangely enjoyed that year of high school, for the most part. I had 3 AP’s and two honors classes, so it still very rudely put me in a headlock with gargantuan workloads and draining stress, but it was unimaginably freeing to not feel like a total slave to college admissions anymore.
And the crazy thing is, at several points during my junior year I felt guilt for having a more manageable schedule. I was sometimes ashamed that I had dropped AP Spanish and was “wasting” two full periods on study halls. I had irritating, masochistic desires to go back to being fucked up in the head. It’s kind of like when you give birth and your body makes you forget how excruciating it was, so you want to do it again. There was a remnant psycho in my brain, ordering me to self-sabotage, and I had to muster the strength to shatter her kneecaps with a crowbar. I had to slap myself across the face, like, No! Stop that! It’s okay to be okay! It all just goes to show how normalized and praised stress culture is.
So we really need to burn the school system alive. We need to place collaboration above competition and annihilate the capitalism-fueled hyper-fixation on college. If we do nothing, this ruinous problem will only continue ravaging the mental health of students across the nation and eating away at the very core purpose of education.
But you don’t really have to listen to me. After all, I’m just a student. Who am I to criticize the school system?
I would like to thank the following sublime students: Rainu George. Qasim Simba. Teyani Sharkey. Teyous Sharkey. Ellen Place. Lestin Kandakudy. Nirmal Nathan. Annie Le. To bolster this long-ass “article” (cough, essay, cough, novella?), I asked for and recorded their thoughts and opinions on the American school system. You guys are all better than limes.