The Problem With Education Is That It's No Longer Enriching, But A Stressful Nightmare
From an extremely young age, the value of receiving a quality education was constantly reiterated to me. My father is a professor, my mother was once a teacher, and like his other four siblings, my father attended an elite university.
Needless to say, when your father and most of his siblings have all attended Ivy League schools and gone on to become university professors, you're bound to feel a bit of pressure.
As a young child, however, I hated school. I didn't want to sit still for six hours a day, it sounded absolutely miserable (and as it turns out, it was). I wanted to be outside, in the dirt and mud, or playing soccer with my friends.
In kindergarten, while the rest of my classmates were learning the alphabet and starting to read, I was daydreaming about other things. Primarily, superheroes, ninja turtles and adventures in far-off lands.
Consequently, when I entered the first grade, I didn't know how to read at all. After about a week of class, however, when I realized that nearly all of my peers were at least at a basic reading level, I became extremely embarrassed. I didn't want to be the stupid kid in class.
Eventually, after I came home crying, my mother and father decided to get me a tutor. By second grade, I was up to speed and reading at the same level as everyone else.
Soon I wasn't just daydreaming anymore, and my imagination was fueled by words literally jumping off the page. I had unlocked endless entertainment, and my life would never be the same. As Stephen King once stated, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
Ultimately, learning to read later than my peers wasn't a matter of intelligence or ability, it was a matter of drive.
I hadn't realized how much an education would enrich my life, because how could I? I was only 6 years old. It took a basic life experience to grant me that perspective.
That was my first lesson in the value of receiving an education, but it would not be the last.
I went to public school for the first eight years of my education. I attended school in a county just outside of Washington DC, which also happens to have a school system with a notoriously awful reputation.
To put this into context, my middle school had a sign hanging on the front window that tallied the number of fight-free days each month; it was almost always at zero.
Needless to say, my parents were not satisfied, and I was sent to an elite private school for high school. At first, I hated it. I thought most of the kids there were spoiled and entitled, until I started to realize how privileged I was as well.
By the time I graduated, I was extremely grateful for my time there. An elite education is a privilege, not a right, and it is a product of an exclusive system only available to a small group of people.
In this elite system, an education is about much more than learning subject matter. An individual is literally bred to become a certain kind of person.
Basically, you are taught how to make yourself look good on paper, so that you can eventually get into a good university, get a good job and live the “American dream.” You are told to volunteer, do as many extracurriculars as possible, and to challenge yourself as often as you can.
In this context, I saw a lot of students buckle under the pressure. I have a vivid memory of a young girl sobbing in the hallway because she believed that she had just failed one of her IB exams.
As I recall, I believe she had already been accepted into an Ivy League university, but the stress had still become too much for her.
When she didn't succeed, she felt no sense of self-worth. What she didn't realize is that success if a very subjective term, and ultimately it is a product of the way in which one perceives the world.
Relatedly, as William Deresiewicz, an ex-Yale professor, states in a recent article:
I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League — bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from.
But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment's notice.
…So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them…
Thus, receiving an “elite education” does not necessarily mean that one has learned the true value of an education.
In essence, don't live a prescribed lifestyle. Yes, an education is extremely important. It will enrich your life in ways that you cannot possibly imagine. In my case, it has literally led me all over the world, as I was able to attend graduate school in another country and travel whilst there.
Not everyone is so privileged and fortunate. That does not mean that an education in less glamorous circumstances is not still of great value.
Likewise, I recall a fantastic quote from Malcolm X, a self-made individual, “My alma mater was books, a good library… I could spend the rest of my life reading, just satisfying my curiosity.”
An education does not just occur in the classroom either. To quote another great mind, the author John Steinbeck once wrote, “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.”
Thus, do things that not only enrich your mind, but also your soul. For what use is an education if you are completely miserable?
Finally, as Deresiewicz states, “The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it.” The famous song “Little Boxes,” (you might have heard it in the opening credits to the popular TV show “Weeds”) comes to mind when reading this quote.
Basically, when an elite education becomes an exclusive privilege, it does nothing to benefit society as a whole. If we continue to buy into this elite system, then we will only produce leaders and success stories from a certain portion of society, and do nothing to fight socioeconomic inequality.
With that said, it's time to redefine what we value in an education, and how we perceive intelligence.
I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I've come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don't have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education…
We also need to recognize — as we once did and as many countries still do — that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it's time to try democracy.
Intelligence is not simply about what you know and are capable of, it is also defined by how curious you are. Hence, the desire to learn is perhaps the highest mark of intelligence.
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