I’ve got an odd mix of feelings right now. I’m sitting on the sixth floor of the Martin Luther King Library in San Jose. A Max Weber book on sociology is to my right and a coffee that is almost certainly the definition of astringency is to my left. A bout of anxiety is coming on; I can feel it.
I just finished my last final of the semester. It was a grueling sixteen weeks. I took five history courses, one of which was the honors seminar, while working twenty hours a week. My average reading should have been about five hundred pages a week; but, like always I managed to slack on my reading and do well on my tests and papers. I should get all A’s and B’s, though I won’t have the feeling of having progressed any further in my education.
Sure, I learned things. Did you know that World War II was initially fought with World War I era weapons, and it wasn’t necessarily the war of technological innovation that we think of it as? That Byzantium was ruled by Latins for its last two hundred years of existence? That there was no monolithic slavery, and that the American Revolution galvanized black liberation movements?
Prior to this semester I certainly didn’t know many of those things. Now I do, yet I still feel like I haven’t accomplished anything. I wrote the essays dissecting these discoveries, and I wrote them well. I sifted through evidence, analyzed my primary sources, provided supporting argument with secondary sources. I wrote beautiful, soaring conclusions to put my paper into its proper context. What I can’t say I did, however, was make something of quality from my own original thought. I think that this is what’s bringing the anxiety on.
I am a member of a generation which was one of the first to be subjected to the ‘teach to the test’ model of education. Though the children in school now may be experience the apex of the trend, I am nonetheless a part of it. In moments when I receive B level grades for work that is purely my own and without teacher guidance, I remember how I was programmed to work in an educational institution from a young age. I can write a hell of a test; I can respond intelligently to a prompt. But, if you ask me to produce original content without help, I’ll have no idea where to start. My brain has become hardwired to look for the loop-holes in the test and the assignment. How to ‘game’ a class, essentially, to make it easier. In essence, I’m really good at making educated guesses, eliminating the most likely to be wrong answer, and, best of all, writing a cohesive and structured paper with a clear thesis and topic sentences—not to mention wonderful transition sentences. Those are what get you the grades!
Maybe this isn’t a generational problem. Perhaps I’m just lazy, or not nearly as intelligent as I think I may be—provided I apply myself. What if I have an undiagnosed learning disability that my pride keeps me from investigating? After all, who wants that social stigmatization? It very well may be true. I was an atrocious student prior to coming to university.
In K-12 I was the consummate slacker. I knew just enough to get back, to pass off my inklings as knowledge and my assumptions as well studied fact. People assumed I was intelligent. I knew I was a fraud—for the time being at least. For me, the atmosphere of K-12 and my private life simply were not conducive to learning. Both had the often expressed goal of simply ‘getting out.’ No surprise that when I actually got out that I began to succeed academically; but I don’t think I ever over came my status as a fraud, as a slacker. Perhaps my anxiety is guilt.
It’s easy to blame the school system and say that it taught me to be unteachable—that it destroyed my natural curiosity. But I knew that it was happening, that I was doing just enough to get by. This was especially true in high school. In my last two years, I knew the exact grades I had to achieve to gain admission to a CSU and I did just that. Now I’m here at SJSU, four years later, about to graduate, and I still feel like the teenager who was self conscious of his dishonestly and laziness. Of course the school curriculum had a huge role in shaping my approach to education, but even when I realized what was happening, I simply ‘went with it.’ I blended into the culture.
In my Freshman year of college, I came in determined to absorb all the knowledge possible and finally come to embody the ideal that I set for myself. No longer would I be the person who read Vonnegut and acted like he knew what was going on. Instead I’d be able to digest every single word of all the books I was so sure that one had to read to be intelligent—which is what I wanted to be above all else. Of course, I became very disillusioned once I came into contact with the administrative culture of SJSU. The faculty were always great, and I haven’t had any genuinely terrible class experiences. The structure of the school, however, once again made it simple for me to slack. Waltzing through GE classes, I felt like I was on top of the world. I hadn’t yet been directly challenged. Then I decided to study abroad.
By my third year I was already sick of SJSU, convinced there was nothing for me to truly learn here, at least in my given major. I was so cocksure that it still makes me cringe to think about it. Though I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do or study, I knew—without a single doubt—that it couldn’t be found in a lowly state school, especially one in San Jose. Once I arrived in Tuebingen, Germany to study abroad, however, my confidence was quickly shattered.
Here was a place where I didn’t understand the language or culture. I went to an elite university where it wasn’t uncommon for the students to read Latin or Greek. The school itself was older than my entire country—Goethe and Hegel had even studied there! For a year, I worked hard and constantly failed. I spoke German only to be answered in English. I took tests so sure that I knew what I was doing, only to nearly fail them. Of course I carried myself in such a way as to never betray that I didn’t know what I was talking about—I still had to embody the ideal I had made for myself—but I knew that I actually was the fraud that I’d thought I was.
Faced with a proper challenge, I proved to be the just above average student I’d feared I would actually be. As someone with a fair amount of self-confidence issues, insecurities, and anxieties, it was fairly disastrous. It was a gloriously humbling opportunity, and I wished that I had latched onto that humble feeling more closely. After a while, I’d always forget my humility and lapse back into hubris.
That is essentially how this semester has felt, though in only sixteen weeks. Initially I was overawed by how difficult the task was. It proved to be easier than I assumed, and then I got cocky. Upon getting cocky, I became lazy. Though, I am very good at being a lazy student. I did just enough of the reading and paid attention in class so that I could answer mid-term questions superbly and write source essays like nobody’s business. The real trouble came, however, with two self-guided research papers.
Without any structure, without any system I could game, I had no idea where to go. I was in crisis. I was stressed. I was anxious. How can one fake original thought and still sound credible? I hadn’t figured out that skill yet. So, to challenge myself out of necessity, I began to do real work on the topics. Again, like in Tuebingen I found that I am not nearly the student or mind that I and those around me think I am. I struggled to produce average work. I was misguided at every stage. There was nothing special about my efforts, only that they were shortcomings in a unique topic. Maybe facing this realization again is what’s causing my anxiety. Either way, I’m confronting an insecurity that I know that I consistently repress.
I feel now that I’ve wasted such a huge opportunity to grow as a person, to actually learn and confront my insecurities about not being able to understand everything. I don’t know why it makes me feel so uncomfortable to imagine not fully understanding something, to become anxious when I have to do more than skim a book to understand it. I’ve never been able to do any of those things, ever. I just assume that is how intelligent people must do it, and act the part—even though I know that intelligent people in no way approach things like that.
It’s a contradiction in my personality that I don’t know how to overcome. I’m constantly plagued by it, and it keeps me from developing in a way that I need to. I wish I know how to confront and over come it. There’s no way that the solution is to keep doing this over and over again—in cycles of extremes. Even being of aware of it happening doesn’t stop the process from happening. It just feels like a tragic co-incidence of a child brought upon in a ‘teach to the test’ style curriculum who also had insecurities about his intelligence. Together, they’ve managed to make me wonder if I’ve actually learned anything at all, if I posses any intelligence, or if I’ve just been doing exactly what I’ve needed to get the grades, the validation, that assures me that I am intelligent, that I am worthwhile, that I am somebody.
There are three things that are likely causing the weird state I’m in. They are:
- How gross Black Friday is, but how good the deals are.
- Immense amounts of Pilgrim food.
- Writing a paper about Neo-Platonism and St. Augustine.
My gut says two, my heart says one, but my brain—my brain screams three.
It’s been four years since I’ve been in Heritage High School. I was reluctantly a member of its first graduating class. Personally, I didn’t feel that I fit into the school, or its vision of an ideal student body. As I progressed through my years of high school, I became more academically inclined, and began to resent sports and the like with all the angst that a sixteen year old could summon. Of course now I realize my embarrassing naivete; but that hasn’t warmed my heart to Heritage in any regard. Recent events haven’t helped.
A fair number of students recently took part in a non-violent, well-intentioned prank. From everything I’ve heard, the prank was marked by a lack of property damage. This is both surprising and a show of maturity by Heritage’s senior class—despite how immature senior pranks seem in the long run. The reaction by the administration wasn’t nearly as well-tempered.
While the students were prudent enough to make use of washable paint in their prank, the administration has vandalized and cheapened itself and its reputation by suspending eighty-plus students during finals week. Not only will these students not be allowed to walk—which would be a fair punishment for participating in a prank of this nature—but they won’t be allowed to take their final examinations.
Students know well how crucial these exams are, especially in a time when college admissions are as competitive as they’ve ever been. Failing these tests might mean dropping a whole letter grade. Even worse, the student might fail the class. All of the tentative acceptances which these students received from their universities of choice might well be revoked. And for what?
This incident strikes particularly close to home for me. My brother and sister were among those suspended. They also remain amongst the smaller group of students who are still suspended despite repeated apologies on their behalf and at their own behest. My brother and sister have never been the type of kids to run into trouble with authority. My brother gives his time relentlessly to his church, playing music for kids his age, among other things far too numerous to count. He also has worked at a movie theater for a number of years. My sister is an even more exemplary student, both hard-working and studious. She has baby sat for almost as long as my brother has worked at his job.
These aren’t the type of kids which deserve such severe punishment—not that any type of kid does deserve such punishment for such a paltry offense. The indirect consequences which will flow from what will be considered a watershed incident in Brentwood for years to come will be numerous. And they won’t just be felt by my family, but also the families of everyone involved.
As a brother, and an alumnist of this school from the class of 2008, I believe all the students who were suspended and their finals interrupted by this farce should have those suspensions overturned and make-up dates for their finals assigned to them.
This is not an outlandish request. I’m not calling for resignations or investigations—nothing dramatic of that sort. I believe it’s fair enough to recognize that administrators are prone to mistakes just as the students they’re supposed to watch over and guide are. In the same way that the students are to be forgiven and educated—not punished and stifled—for their mistakes, so should the administrators. It should be enough for the community for this situation to develop into a learning opportunity for our city. If not, it won’t be the students and their prank which sullied the reputation of Heritage, but the administration itself.