The number of students, from middle school to graduate schools, are experiencing extreme stress, and its side effects are growing at an alarming rate. In an anonymous study conducted last spring at Irvington High School near Silicon Valley, Dr. Stuart Slavin of Saint Louis University School of Medicine found that over 54 percent of students showed moderate to severe signs of depression, and over 80 percent of students showed moderate to severe signs of anxiety. Last December, West Windsor’s school district in New Jersey made national headlines for calling for educational reforms after 40 students were recommended for mental health assessments and subsequently hospitalized. And yet, at the same time, graduating students often thank the stressful high school experience for preparing them for college education.
The greatest fear students have when it comes to reforming the education system is that the reforms will cause schools to lose their competitive edge in college admissions cycles. The immense workload given to many high school students prepares them for the next step of education, college, like nothing else. Being given hundreds of pages of reading per week, daily math problem sets and also balancing multiple extracurriculars teaches students how to prioritize, how to manage their time and how to develop reasonable expectations. However, high school students often don’t get more than five hours of sleep each night. The urge to satisfy every point on the theoretical checklist of college admissions (academic rigor, grades, extracurricular activities…the list goes on) turns into an ongoing obsession. The question to ask is whether alleviating pressure in high school should be one of the main concerns of college admissions reforms. We need to reassess the ultimate goal and the meaning of these academic struggles.
In a society where selectivity means eliteness, where quality itself is overlooked for quantity of students who are accepted, it is only natural that students try to become the most competitive applicant they can be — even if it means coming close to dangerous levels of stress and mental/physical fatigue. What comes of this education, though? Why is it so important to get into such a selective school, when students in the United States can receive such high quality educations at so many colleges?
More and more top-ranked students are choosing to pursue careers in finance and consulting, author William Deresiewicz says in his book Excellent Sheep. In these areas, connections are crucial to finding jobs and getting promotions. However, these are also sectors in which suicide rates are high; the highly competitive nature of these sectors mixed with the idea of “high risk, high reward” cause people to feel “replaceable.” Deresiewicz argues that students are choosing to throw away academic curiosity and “passionate weirdness” to instead take jobs in areas like the financial industry in order to gain material wealth and security; he calls this generation of students “excellent sheep.” In this day and age, with students being criticized for not having high enough aspirations, for conversely being criticized for working too hard to attain material goals, it gets more confusing to understand what is truly right for everyone, especially in a time when college-aged students are derisively called “sheep.”
That’s what it ultimately comes down to: education isn’t a one size fits all. Though grades are a measurement of success, they measure a very specific subset of skills. Perhaps educational reforms could be effective if they altered the way in which grades are calculated. If a student’s aspiration is to get into a highly selective college, they may need to be willing to subject themselves to the stressful high school experience that many of us students at Tufts experienced. But if a student’s main aspiration isn’t to get into a highly selective college, maybe it’s time that the curriculum can be adapted to suit their aspirations.