Today, education is geared toward testing, achieving, and aiming to be someone ultimately recognized for talent, position, status, and/or wealth. Youth and parents are perpetually bombarded with messages that they must climb certain very particular ladders to be successful.
Lost are the days when each person was valued for the part he or she played in the local community: the baker, the seamstress, the plumber, the doctor, the grocer, the mechanic, the engineer, etc. Outdoor playdates and neighborhood parties have often been replaced by a web of disconnected people staring at flat screens. Stories of success now mostly emphasize celebrity or wealth at the expense of effort and ethics. Communication is rarely about the quality of true face-to-face connection; it is a lightning-speed affair where the fastest ping rate and the number of “friends” and likes” are what really matter. We have moved from the excellence of presence and service to a consumer-driven frenzy to acquire status and power.
Consider the trajectory of the youth who are sent to and through the educational institutions, with their measures of achievement tied to these markers:
• High grades
• High test scores
• Abundant structured extracurricular activities
• Acceptance to a high-status four-year college
• Choosing a major related to higher earnings post-bachelor’s degree
The underlying assumption is that those who garner these top five “rings” will be guaranteed security in a highly stressful, increasingly competitive world. Those who pursue these goals exclusive to all else may well become grandly monetized, but this by no means guarantees emotional satisfaction. Unfortunately, getting to the top of the rickety ladder of success very rarely turns out to have justified the means for getting there, in terms of inner well-being.
Institutions and educators responsible for shepherding youth focus on the achievement of tests, grades, and extra-curricular accolades. Although none of these pursuits are intrinsically cold, their collective trophy hunting has led to a standardization and mechanization of primary and secondary education that emphasizes quantifiables above all else. These educational systems are often experienced by youth and their advocates as soulless and robotic, and they tax teachers with molding each student to a standard instead of drawing out the unique gifts and contributions of each youth.
Making a champion student is prioritized, at the expense of creating a sense of meaning in life; those who fail to exhibit potential for greatness are often marginalized, shamed, and ignored. Youth come through this system filled with ideas about what the right grades, test scores, colleges, or majors might promise them, and they often have no idea what they can offer to the world that isn’t tied to self-interest or what the world needs from them. Youth who have reached the pinnacle of achievement — a spot in an Ivy League college — report staggering amounts of depression and anxiety, even as they have grasped the “golden ring.” And those who do not see themselves as able to participate in this “race to the top” are left, sometimes in anguish, with feelings of inadequacy and often irrelevancy
Equating academic excellence with superiority may prop up the egos of top performers and their parents, but it can also create a raspy emptiness. Across the spectrum of achievement, in those who grasp the golden ring and those who see it as out of their reach, there is a common ground: a lack of feeling truly connected and belonging to the world.
Parents who equate their own competence with their offspring’s achievement are frequently filled with anxiety that is transferred to the budding psyches of their progeny. Their attempt to provide their children with every available resource offered in order to give them an advantage can unintentionally stymie the development of important skills such as grit, resiliency, and tenacity — skills that will enable them to thrive on their own. More youth and parents today are on medications for anxiety and depression than at any other time in history, and this race to the top has not revealed any increase in social and emotional health.
The ladder to this type of success is so laden with people struggling to climb up hurriedly and impatiently it has become emotionally, politically, and socially unstable. The discontent is palpable. Listen: you can hear the ladder creaking.
Perhaps it is time to redefine excellence.
Imagine if excellence were embedded in qualities of being and interdependency that focus on the flourishing of the community, not just on the primacy of the individual’s rise. All current evidence, both research-oriented and anecdotal, suggests that connection, cooperation, support, empathy, and creative expression — not financial abundance or social status beyond what’s needed to meet basic needs — are the true keys to happiness of a life well lived.
Our educational systems should incorporate factors like these which affirm social and emotional wellbeing, not just those that create enormous competition, stress, and social segmenting, with no clear payoff in terms of happiness.
What questions could we ask our youth to make this new standard a reality in their lives? What questions should education support them in asking? A few ideas:
• What unique gifts do I have that make me essential to my community?
• How well can I get along with others in this globally complex emerging world?
• How well can I work through inevitable failures, frustrations, and disappointments?
• How can I test and stretch my capacity for continuously learning new ideas and skills?
• How can I care for others in such a deep, reliable, and ethical way that my connections consistently support and nourish my growth?
If we were to prioritize this list equally alongside academics, tests, and high-status college acceptance, consider how differently we might train teachers and imagine the classroom. Consider how differently parents might relate to their children and how this would affect the teacher-to-student relationships.
Isn’t it time we excelled in a world that is better for us all and brings out the gifts of everyone in it?
In the context of meaning, growth, grit, and empathy, we can learn not only subject matter and content, but how to actually be the authors of our own lives within a robust, generative, and connected community.
Jennifer Freed, PhD, MFT, is executive director of AHA!, an education program to promote social emotional learning, peace building, and joy through creative expression.