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When School Turns Into a Competition

Columns | April 10, 2017

8/12/07: I can’t wait to go back to school!  Middle school already?  I can’t wait to see all my friends!

 

I recently stumbled across this exclamation towards the back of my pink and gold tiger print journal.  This section lay buried between sentence after sentence of non-sequiturs before the entry ended mid-word as I began to describe a recent trip to a farm muse- (Museum? What is a “farm museum?” What did we do there? Why didn’t my journal deserve to know?). As I sat reading through old journals in my childhood bedroom over spring break, I was brought back to my highly excitable, relentlessly distractible 11-year-old self. I could remember feeling the August heat seeping into my pores, exciting my skin cells and sending a delightful pulse of restlessness through my body that would last until the joyous reunion with my friends in early September. Days before I was scheduled to return to Tufts, I felt a similar sense of giddiness, one that I hadn’t experienced in a very long time.

 

School has always been for me, and I’m sure for many other people, one of the most central and dominating aspects of life. As a source of both learning and the majority of my social life, it has remained a focal point ever since I was three and started attending Beginnings—the preschool three blocks away from my family’s apartment, featuring a mural of vines and flowers painted on a bright turquoise door. Reading my messy, 11-year-old self’s expression of excitement penned in neon blue gel ink, I began to think about the way my relationship with school has changed over time and the factors that have contributed to those changes.

 

I attended a very “progressive” elementary school, where we called our teachers by their first names and began every morning sitting in a circle reflecting in silence. Though my experience was certainly unique in many respects, I think many would agree that when we’re young, school primarily serves as a social space. Obviously, the goal is education and most of our time is spent practicing vocabulary and memorizing times tables, but our academics throughout elementary school require such a small portion of our mental energy that we are able to devote far more to navigating the choppy waters of practicing early social skills. I loved attending my socially progressive downtown Manhattan private school—classes were easy, competition was frowned upon, and I’d had the same friends since kindergarten. These were all factors that comprised an extremely enjoyable introduction to a lifelong relationship.

 

My relationship with school changed rapidly in seventh grade when I transferred to one of the most competitive New York City public schools, where my education no longer consisted of peace assemblies and being asked to “center ourselves” if we spoke out of turn or misbehaved at recess. Once we have been deemed appropriately socialized human beings in society, the goal shifts away from building our social skills and more towards inundating our malleable minds with information. At 13, I was trained to work towards the ever-looming prospect of evaluations and to equate self-worth with grades. I no longer felt that school was a place of learning, but that it was simply a battleground of middle and high schoolers asking each other for notes and betraying each other over exams. I found myself dreading the competition that would begin every September, no longer experiencing the restlessness of late August, feeling instead as though I had been doused in ice water at the end of every summer.

 

My middle and high school years were devoted to intense competition and close friendships that enabled me to overlook the fact that school itself was a fairly negative experience. I developed a love for knowledge from a young age through my insatiable interest in books, but the competition that was encouraged by my teachers and administration always overrode the genuine curiosity and joy I once derived from learning. Reflecting on my high school experience and discussing it with my peers has made me acutely aware of how flawed and counterproductive the education system is as it exists today. Though our school may have been an extreme example, it is a broader trend to train high schoolers in the arts of rote memorization and ongoing contest, valuing these meaningless skills so highly above all else that most positive aspects of academia fall far to the wayside.
Since coming to Tufts, I have learned (somewhat) to reconcile my love of learning with my desire for good grades. I think this change stems equally from being able to select my courses and the direction of my studies and from the fact that my peers and friends can do the same. No one is forced to strive for grades in classes they will never enjoy or understand, allowing us to focus more internally on subject matter and what we hope to achieve rather than relentlessly comparing ourselves to our friends. To ignore the importance of grades entirely would be foolish, but allowing them to be the sole factor driving academic pursuits is equally misguided. While competition is certainly still a factor in what motivates me, I think that delinking academic competition and social life has impacted my relationship with both. I’m still not entirely sure I can justifiably blame the toxic sense of competition I sometimes find within myself on my high school experience, or if it’s simply a result of who I am as a person, but I’ll continue to evaluate this relationship as I approach the halfway mark of my college education.