High School has become, in the course of freshman to senior year, a marathon where the finish line is university, and in this race every step forward is an assessment completed, a box checked. We neither have the time nor the will to step back and embrace a path that hasn’t been, and isn’t being, trodden by generations of students.
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail,” American essayist and 19th century poet Ralph Waldo Emerson said. So why is it that at a dinner I attended some time ago a family friend, who is a Harvard alumnus, told me, “Sell yourself not for yourself, but for who you think the college admissions will like most?”
And this is not an isolated instance – it is indicative of a whole culture at work.
We read textbooks, write essays, conduct experiments, support communities, play sports, produce plays, sing, strum and dance; yes, some of it is passion, yes, all of it is educational, but no, seldom has it led on to construct individuals. Most of us pass the class, hope to get an A, and complete our graduation requirements. But when the bell rings and high school is nothing more than a diploma and a memory, we will walk out into the world with a certain skillset with which ASL has endowed us, but not the passions ASL should have given us.
For four years, we dedicate ourselves to self-exploration, and, though benevolent in and of itself, this virtuous goal is tainted by the motive behind it: Students – in England, in America, in public school, in private schools, me, you – seek more to be someone who universities want them to be than who they truly are.
It is deplorable of the education system we belong to inadvertently promote this message. We are tailoring ourselves so that in the fall of our senior year we can craft a compelling application that details a persona we sell. From this can never arise — excuse the metaphor — Joseph’s coat of many colors, only a series of monotone blue or black or red or yellow coats.
A tremendous shift in mindset is required to move from a college-centric culture to a self-identification culture. But the shift should be pervasive at all levels and continuous: Individual classes should excite initiative. Teachers should provide off-assignment opportunities. Assessments should judge innovation and not memorization. In short, conformity should be challenged.
For years the school system has slowly morphed, back and forth, to welcome changing tides in our society. But today, education faces its most defying, grandiose challenge ever: The potential of the younger generations —whether it be a result of the internet or a simple coincidence — has materialized in an unprecedented way. It would only be a self-destructive shame for this potential not to be realized.
Students must be allowed to strive “outside of the box,” and for years school has left the door open, but now, to create the most autonomous and productive generation of thinkers yet, school needs to kick us “outside the box.”
The opportunity is adequately provided: Students can participate in anything from a cappella clubs to the rugby team, can study anything from Shakespearean literature to polar graphing functions, and establish clubs that can do anything in between. No, the error lies not in what the opportunities provided to us, but in the subliminal, unmentioned spirit in which these activities are undertaken. It lines our thinking, underlines our motives, and emboldens our fervor; it is the most self-throttling question we can ask ourselves and paradoxically the most productive: “Will this help me get into college?”
The change required is colossal but at the same time minute: Change the prevalent mindset, so that we can be pulled in a direction of productivity, not necessarily university.
It is a movement no one individual can begin, but one a certain community can embrace.
When I bid ASL goodbye, and I leave Waverley entrance for the last time next year, I would consider having failed myself, and having been failed by the system, if my highest accolade – that which brings me the most genuine pride – is the résumé I have created rather than the person I have become.