Kelly McGarry | Monday, October 26, 2015
The university is idealized as a place that fosters love of learning, but what’s more evident is the love of success, ambition and elitism.
I might have a unique perspective thanks to some advice I received at a highly impressionably age. In our teens we become aware of our own talent and propensity for success. We find success to be desirable. We’re praised for things that come naturally to us. The honor roll high becomes an addiction, and sometimes a crippling one. We live in fear that we’re going to lose that superiority and the praise and admiration that comes with it.
When I was a 14-year-old freshman in high school, my English teacher made a bold and unexpected remark I will never forget. “You all care too much about your grades.” For my whole life I’d been stuffed into a classroom with a whole spectrum of students. We were constantly pushed as a group to care more about our grades, and now the “right” thing to do was not care about them. I had to take it in, but the difference between learning and grade-seeking became distinct. Later, I was inadvertently thrust into accepting this academic style.
I took art class, regular old art class with no fancy honors or AP extra points in the GPA calculator. I got a B, and even that was generous. It seemed inconsequential at the time, but that B made all the difference in my academic experience. As many will remember, the top students pretty much need all A’s. So in my first semester as a high school student, I was effectively put out of the running for the valedictorian, salutatorian, whateveratorian … I was free from enslavement by the pursuit of perfection, and I basked in that.
I was free from strategically choosing classes for GPA points. I learned whatever I wanted. So I’m a lucky one, by chance not sucked into ambition addiction.
When I called the desire for success “crippling,” I didn’t mean that loosely. When a freshman comes into college already having shadowed surgeries, knowing in her heart that she wants to go to medical school, knowing the type of surgery she wants to do, then responds to a below-average first gen chem exam by dropping the entire pre-med track … then yes, it’s crippling. It’s stopping you from doing what you want, achieving your dreams and it’s a situation with too much pressure for perfection. This pressure is made even worse by the high level of students here. You can be an incredibly brilliant student and still score below the average because everyone else in the class is brilliant, too.
So no, I haven’t calculated my likely GPA for the semester, I don’t know what score I need on the final to get an A in the class, I don’t even know what the grade cut-offs are. And to be honest, this all sounds petty to me.
Success is great. Most people go to college with a career goal in mind. But I’m just saying, there’s something deeper, a profound experience of learning that’s only possible at a place like this. I don’t argue for throwing the GPA out the window, only that knowledge be appreciated as good in and of itself.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.