Perfectionism Continues to Take Over School Culture

By Jonli Keshavarz, Staff Writer

 //The other day I was in my AP Computer class working away at the week’s lab when a friend in my lab group began calculating his potential GPAs for the 1st semester. Before long, our entire table group was punching away not at code but at the number of B’s each of us would realistically get and how that would affect our GPA. I was frantically switching B’s to A’s on the calculator to see just how high I could stretch out my GPA.

   This is when I stopped and understood how crazy it all really was.

   Instead of focusing on class, we were playing God with our GPA in an attempt to release some degree of stress for the upcoming quarter. It was futile, however, because the anxiety generated by that calculator resonated with each of us for the rest of the day.

   This incident during my AP Computer class revealed to me a much bigger and rather malignant problem at Acalanes. Simply put, students are losing sight of the ultimate goal of education. We are marching just to march as we pursue the enormously impractical cultural expectations that are imposed upon us. Most of these expectations, whether imposed by our families or ourselves, degrade our happiness and joy.

   I have fallen victim to this. I come to school just to absorb information like a sponge, do my best to keep this sponge from leaking until I have to squeeze all the information out back onto a piece of paper. I do all this hoping that I receive some letter near the beginning of the alphabet for all my troubles. I, along with many other students, repeat this process class after class, day after day, month after month, and year after year.

   School should be about mastery and curiosity, not an arena to prove our ability to retain the most information.

   These cultural expectations that control our lives are rooted deeply in our limited views of success. Success to many is having a prosperous career, big house, fancy car, and a lavishly comfortable lifestyle. Success to others is to follow in the footsteps of their parents and carry on a family legacy.

But where does happiness fit in all this? This laundry list of goals only increases the amount of work, stress, and personal neglect each of us will face. Life should be more than just waking up and solving problems mindlessly. There must be a more profound calling for each of us rather than some procter notifying us that it’s time to put our pencils down.

   In addition, these rigid cultural expectations can cause a student to lose his or her individuality and uniqueness. The various prestigious institutions that learners will eventually apply to want every applicant to play varsity sports, to have a 4.5 GPA and a near perfect SAT score, an underdog story, and some ‘X factor’ to distinguish him or her as the best from a sea of qualified applicants. There is no room for who you really are on those application sheets, but there is a litany of boxes to check, numbers to punch in, and test scores to attach.

   To be clear, the problem isn’t so much the system, it’s the culture that spawns the system. The cultural notion that every student must either go or attempt to go to some Ivy League school is flawed. We need to change the culture to change the system.

The solution has two tiers. The first tier is to change the dynamic in the home and in the family. Expectations must be tailored to the student. Not every child needs that 4.5 GPA or perfect SAT score. Parents need to tailor their expectations to better fit their child, so that the child can truly be passionate and engaged in learning. Parents should also strive to put themselves in the shoes of their students to fully understand the struggles that each of us face day to day. If parents understand just how challenging school is, maybe then they will sympathize with the student.

   Denise Pope, a Senior Lecturer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, is the founder of Challenge Success and the author of Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed-Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students. She has started a movement across the country to provide schools, families, and students with the skills needed to embrace their own path to success. She believes that our culture is destroying the worth of uniqueness. For her, change must come from all angles because the expectations are from all over the place.

   We all want to be the richest, the best looking, the smartest, the fastest, and so on. Amongst all these wants, there is very little room for our needs. Where is the kindness? The happiness? The giving back to society? Life can’t just become one big gladiator pit, with those who achieved this narrow- minded notion of success cheering on the bloodshed. Pope is one of the few who is trying to destroy this colosseum. She is attempting to teach people that the path to success and success itself is different for each individual. This leads into the second tier of the solution, which is at the student’s (personal) level. Students should realize that they don’t have to be the best at everything. Being a human computer shouldn’t be the endgame. Every student needs to find his or her niche and pursue it passionately.

   The key isn’t that we should forget about grades- the key is that we should push students to do what they love and to fulfill their unique potentials. Not every single student needs to go to Harvard or Stanford. There are so many schools that will provide a great education that is tailored to you. The bottom line is that we all must try and be content with who we are and what each of us can achieve. If your aspirations are to go to Harvard, then do your best to get there. If your aspirations are to travel the world, then start planning. Don’t let others impose expectations that are not compatible with who you are. 

   The biggest thing all of us can do is to have an open conversation about this. These problems are deeply-rooted, and many students don’t even understand what they are going through. Sit down with your family, with your counselor, or with yourself and find your own path to your success.

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