Take Back Your Education

I just finished reading The Overachievers by Alexandra Robbins, where she chronicles the life of a few high school juniors and seniors in a top high school in the US (her former school) as they pile themselves up with activities and other things to keep themselves qualified for college. Like in Denise Clark Pope’s Doing School, these students are going through extraordinary stress and pressure to keep up with the rest. In both books, most of the students would rather concentrate on things they want to do, but they are constantly pressured (whether by parents, students, counselors, or themselves) to perform more than is necessary – or sane.

One of the students in The Overachievers is Frank (or AP Frank in the beginning), a half-Asian young man who is pressured by his Korean mother to go to Harvard to study medicine or law. He and his brother Richard are not allowed to have a social or otherwise non-academic life; instead, they have to study under their mother’s watchful eye, with only half an hour in between allowed for a quick dinner (something reheated) and television news (they are not allowed to watch anything else). His mother actually forced Frank to take all the AP subjects the school offered, and called up the school to ask why they didn’t have an AP for Physical Education. She pushed Frank into Harvard (even when he’d rather be elsewhere) and went through all the documentation, choosing his classes and dormitory for him. When Frank tries to stand up for himself, he is physically assaulted by his mother. This leads to a series of incidents where the social services are called in, his brother Richard is taken into foster care (and lives in what he describes as a “mansion” – the home of a schoolmate – which allows him greater freedom), and their parents are divorced (with Frank’s mother frantically calling Frank telling him to deny the abuse). Eventually Frank regains his strength and confidence, finds love, sheds the “AP” title, and goes into environmental science and public policy – something he’s more interested in than medicine. (Reading the updates, it seems that the relationship between him and his mum has improved, and the mother has relaxed considerably. yay!)

While Frank’s story is a bit extreme, it isn’t that unusual. Throughout Frank’s story, Robbins talks about the pressure Asian students face in school. Korean three-year-olds have to prove their proficiency in a musical instrument before being allowed into kindergarden. Your life and social status in Japan, even when you’re middle aged, is largely determined by how you scored in your exams when you were 15. There’s a whole breed of mothers – kyioku mama – who sit in their children’s classes and take notes for them when their kids are ill. Suicide rates amongst schoolkids are alarmingly high. And this is the system President Reagan wanted the US to emulate in the 1980s? No wonder American students are driving themselves insane!

And before you say “oh that’s a different country”…it happens in Malaysia too. We all know it. If you don’t take Science for your SPM, you’re stupid or wasting your intelligence. You have to get straight As at every level to get into a good institution. Medicine is the only university subject that matters. Even if you’re bright and knowledgeable, you have to take tuition classes to keep up. All the talks hosted by schools are “How To Answer XYZ Paper”. Let’s not even touch on this weird hysteria people have for overseas “top schools” – Harvard/Oxford/Cambridge, or nothing. (By the way, the whole ranking system? Complete bullocks. Many US colleges are opting out of it because they find it unfair and unrepresentative. Some of the “top” schools fudge their numbers to get high rankings. It’s a game.) No one ever cares about the suicides – they just take up a small column in Page 2 of the papers.

Why are we going through so much insanity? Apparently it’s because we have to “live up” to something – school standards, counselor standards, society standards. We allow ourselves/our children to be bullied, stressed, abused by the system, just so we could get in to something supposedly prestigious. Instead of schools and universities acknowledging students’ various talents and capabilities, they force the students to be someone they’re not, just to keep up an image.

Let’s stop this madness.

You’re the one that’s going to school. It’s your money that’s being spent. It’s your time that’s being used. You’re the one that has to go through all this trouble. Stand up for yourselves.

Don’t buy into the trap of going to a “good school” or nothing. Choose the school you like based on your own factors. Do you prefer big schools or small schools? Local, regional, international? Academic, practical, both? Casual, business-like, formal?

Choose your own subjects. What to experiment with science, or create art? Curious about international economics, or want to debate literature and philosophy? My boyfriend’s brother is a sports buff, and had he been in a Malaysian school, he would be considered a “meathead”, someone not smart enough, just because he wasn’t very academic. Now he’s doing Sports Science in university, which includes Chemistry and Biology – subjects that wouldn’t be open to him if he was in Malaysia. He’s doing OK, because it’s what he’s interested in and he’s putting his energy into it. Why don’t we let other Malaysians have this chance? Why bind them to school grades, and assume that all straight A people are scientists and all straight Fs are artisans?

Don’t let grades tell you what to do. Don’t let anyone else make your decisions for you. Do what you want to do. Make your own choices.

Take back your education.

4 Responses

  1. What does AP mean?

    And how about taking a page out of australia’s book? You can leave all the food craziness and aussie english alone.. just relax a bit, and focus on what you’re good at. Then rather than being ok at everything, and stressed about everything, you can know about everything, be really good at something, and enjoy it.

    Oh, yeah, and smile 🙂

  2. (AP = Advanced Placement, an exam for high school seniors in US to gain extra college credit in university or better standing for university admissions)

    Apart from students who are pressured by parents, we can’t deny that there are many many students who choose to work extra hard on their own accord, and want badly to enter Harvard/Yale/Cambridge.

    From my experience too, overachievers are often over-achieving not due to pressure from society or parents, but by themselves. How often do we meet overachievers who can say that all their achievements were done for the satisfaction of their parents/society?

    If there is any reason for us to be concerned at all, it is that our society judges people from how well they do academically in school, not how well they can pursue their own interest. I don’t think there are companies who would hire a person who got into Harvard instead of one from Universiti Malaya if all else are similar.

    Throughout this book (and possibly the book as I haven’t read it) the assumption is that overachievers are unhappy with their lives (and thus suicides occur in top schools). But I think that’s not the correct way to see this issue. The question we really need to examine is whether cases such as Frank’s is the norm, or whether they are the exceptions. Maybe overachievers derive much satisfaction from overachieving?

    Also, statistically speaking, people who got into Harvard/Cambridge/Yale has higher chances of success in life. But then, what exactly do we mean by “success”? Happiness? Wealth? or something else?

  3. lol hi mark 🙂

    ming: Why do they want to enter HYC in the first place? What is driving them to enter those schools? Genuine interest, something particular in the school that attracts them (for example, I wouldn’t mind going to Stanford as it seems a lot of the people working in student welfare/school reform are based there), or because it’s been ingrained in them that they have to go to the best or nothing else?

    There are so many good schools out there which don’t have the luxury of being a brand name. Does that make them worse just because they aren’t famous? What about countries outside the US/UK/Australia? I’m applying to an alternative business school in Denmark that is well-known amongst those in the creative and business fields for its practical approach – but hardly anyone in Malaysia (say) thinks of Denmark as a place to go to study. One of the UN’s two universities is in Costa Rica, and it’s specifically placed there due to Costa Rica’s mandated lack of military and its open perspective on education – but how many students would go “hmm, maybe I’ll study in South America”? Where’s the attention we should be giving to those places?

    In the books by Robbins and Pope, as well as in the research they’re citing (admittedly low, as according to Pope there hasn’t really been much research into the student side of things – which was her impetus for starting the book) overachievers burn out eventually. Robbins mentions two types of overachievers – the healthy ones, which are able to balance their many things with keeping a good standard of life and keeping themselves healthy, and the unhealthy ones, which can’t balance. It’s the unhealthy ones that are growing, because no one has taught them that their livelihood and sanity is important. It’s grades, and nothing else. Hell, in my school we were told that even if you’re sick you must come to school – you’re only allowed to rest if you’re bedridden! (And even then, if it was exam time, they’d bring the exams to your hospital bed!)

    Companies hiring Ivy grads – it’s a half and half split:
    http://time-blog.com/work_in_progress/2007/07/does_university_prestige_matte.html

    It seems to depend way more on the industry and on the particular company, than any sort of overall trend. Work experience and outside experience tends to count more. Heck, I’ve had good jobs without even finishing uni, and many other people are in my situation, so no one can absolutely say for certain.

    Also, it’s been disproven academically that going to a top college means you fare off better in life:
    http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/003355302320935089?cookieSet=1&journalCode=qjec

    According to that research, it’s not the college that matters – it’s your own personality. They did research on students that went to top colleges, and students that got accepted to top colleges and decided not to go, and found that their levels of success were similar – showing that it was up to the students to make their own success and the school they went to didn’t have much to do with it.

  4. If getting treatment from the best oncologist in the world is within the means for a cancer patient, chances are she will do so. I guess the same goes for gaining an education. It is definitely true that the good education can be obtained in many places, not just the “top” schools, but if a student is good enough to get into Harvard, Cambridge, or Oxford, why not try to aim for those?

    I am not saying that getting an education in, say, Country X, is worse than going to “Top University”. What I believe most students think is that when faced with the choice of going to “University X” versus “Top University”, why not choose the latter – unless going to “Top University” means giving up many more worthwhile opportunities that could be gained from going to “University X”. And this scenario where more opportunities are present in “University X” than in “Top University” is very unlikely.

    First, “top” universities have huge endowments. This is especially true for US universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and the like. I read that if Yale’s total assets are averaged out per student, each student enjoys at least $1 million USD in assets. This does not yet include the >$20 billion endowment funds that can be used for various projects and research. (Sorry for not providing the source… too lazy to search)

    Second, for the academically inclined, going to “top” universities provide them easy access to the best minds available on the planet and also peers who are like-minded. For example, if a person wants to major in business/finance related fields, it is best to go to Wharton or similar schools where most of their friends will be passionate in similar fields. Simply put, Amartya Sen, Noam Chomsky, Peter Singer, and many other leading thinkers in our time are mostly teaching in “top” universities. So, if a student can, why not learn from the best as patients want to obtain the best medical treatment available?

    I do agree that there are misguided students where going to “top” universities become the sole aim of their education. But checks do exist during application, in the form of essays, interviews, teacher references, and also academic grades. There are certainly flaws using such methods for admissions, but do we have better alternatives? Even where alternatives exist, are they feasible?

    To clarify, while I am making a case for aiming for “top” schools, I am in no way saying that “lesser” or less “well-known” schools are not good places to obtain an education. I have seen many of my peers – very intelligent, extremely active in co-curricular activities, and certainly deserving to be in the “top” universities being denied entry. The admissions game can be unfair, and such is the way society works – what we should do is not to discourage students from aiming to “top” universities, but to find ways to teach them the correct mindset, while at the same time, thinking of better ways to admit students than what mechanism we have at present.

    Having said all that, I agree fully with your post that students should learn to take back their education. As a Malaysian, I do understand how few Malaysians think that Denmark is a good place to study. I faced the same thing when I applied to UK and contemplated whether to apply for a Philosophy degree. Extremely few people I met see philosophy as a good course of study. Ultimately, there is always a trade-off between idealism and realism. I might like studying philosophy a lot, but as a student just starting to enter the real world, I really can’t face the possibility of having a degree that has minimal commercial value. I applied for “Economics and Philosophy” or “PPE” in the end – since economics is next on my preference right after philosophy.

    “Take back your education” is a good slogan, but what if “taking back your education” means forgoing your “security” in the future? The best is to have your interests and everything else fit nicely together – like your blog – where you write about what you love passionately, and earn money through donations and sponsorships, and also gaining fame on Malaysia’s cyberspace. Am I right to say that you are constantly thinking of how to turn your interests into something you can monetize, or do you pursue only your interests, and let everything else fit in naturally?

    For me, I have applied to “top schools”, not for the fame, but for the freedom it will give me to take back my education and explore what I have always loved.

    In short, the discussion in this post and comments that followed is much like the discussion of whether money is important for happiness – while money is certainly not sufficient for happiness, it does provide great help in achieving happiness. I don’t think a person can be happy if he lives paycheck by paycheck every single month. Furthermore, do universities have more purpose than being solely academic? Have the purpose of universities shifted from being a solely academic institution to one that is more utilitarian? If the latter is true is true, then I don’t think it’s wrong for students to aim for top universities. I would like to believe otherwise where universities are places for acquiring knowledge.

    Again, as I mentioned in my previous comment, the real question is how prevalent are “overachievers who are unhealthy”. My personal opinion is that the number are not growing. What exactly is the method used to support Robbins and Pope’s “growing number”? (Sorry that I have not yet read the book).

    Also, a half-and-half split indicates that the “prestige” of a university matters – because having a degree from a “prestigious” university means you can satisfy both types of employers where otherwise, you would only be considered for employment by half of your potential employers. I agree though with the Time article that the “famous” degree is not an indicator for future success beyond the hiring stage.

    As for the article on MIT Press Journal, I can’t read the full article since I do not have university access to those academic journals. However, based on the abstract, I can say for certain that it has not been disproven academically that going to a top college means a person fare off better in life. (Clarification: I am not supporting the opposite conclusion – that going to a top college means a person fare off better in life – either.)

    The abstract reads:
    “Estimates of the effect of college selectivity on earnings may be biased because elite colleges admit students, in part, based on characteristics that are related to future earnings. … Using the College and Beyond data set and National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972, we find that students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective schools.”

    I emphasize “seemingly comparable ability”. This implies that these students would have likely gone into any “top schools” anyway. As an employer, what would you think? For me, I will say, since top schools admit students who have excellent abilities, why not use the “prestige” of the school as a fast and effective preliminary screening for potential job candidates?

    In addition, the last line of the abstract reads “Children from low-income families, however, earned more if they attended selective colleges.” This might be another reason why many students aim for top colleges – to move upward.

    Lastly, this is just a guess – I suppose you are from a financially secure family? Because my experience is that students who dare to “deviate” has at least something to fall back on. Maybe for you it’s in the form of your blog popularity?

    All said, like you said, it is the mindset that matters over where a student ends up studying. I wish so much that my parents would let my brother drop out of school and start homeschooling… I wanted badly for that too, but how could I change the mindset of my parents, friends, enployers and society that not having PMR, SPM, or a university degree is ok? By the way, the earnings of people with college degrees are outpacing those without.

    Finally, I want to say that you have a nice blog – keep writing! =)

    [Note: I have not checked through this comment – I apologize for mistakes]

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