What’s the F-ing Point?
How the meritocracy desensitizes privileged students.
A few weeks ago, our 12th grade English class read Lost in the Meritocracy by Walter Kirn. I won’t summarize the article, but as the title suggests, the piece is about Kirn’s journey through Princeton, where he chased meaningless accolades and achievements. He eventually realizes he is less engaged and less intelligent than a hometown friend in his own field of study and reflects on his “poor” life choices.
Kirn published his book in 2009. More than a decade later, much has changed, but the internal conflict Kirn speaks openly about is one that many students today still face. In this piece, I hope to explain what that experience is like for a high school senior who attends a public high school in a suburban, wealthy neighborhood. Simultaneously, I hope to reveal a common mindset I have found in friends and classmates and why I now personally find it detrimental.
The South Bay Area is known to be competitive academically for high schools and is the main attraction for many parents. Education was the main factor for why my parents, among many other immigrants, chose to relocate to this area. Our school has some of the highest standardized test score averages across the nation and an extremely high graduation rate. It’s the type of place where almost every AP class is offered, and those classrooms are packed. The housing surrounding the school is extremely expensive, and there are almost no students who receive reduced-free or free lunch.
Importantly, the demographic of the school includes a high number of Asian students. Many of these students have parents who immigrated to the United States from countries like China, Taiwan, Korea, and India. In many of these countries, the education system is based solely on test scores. All students wishing to attend college take an annual exam, and their scores are publicly ranked. Top students are given choices among many colleges, and others must fill into whichever spots remain.
This focus on test scores may have served these nations well, but the culture surrounding test scores and grades has created a group of purposeless millennials.
We’ve Got No Clue
It is common for many students to take on a course-load that is greater than what they can handle, with multiple AP/honors classes. My AP Calculus teacher who I am a teacher assistant to made a guess as to how many students would drop out after realizing they could not handle the workload, and despite teaching for over two decades he still underestimates the amount each year.
I myself am no exception to taking AP classes that I am either not prepared to or uninterested in taking. Now, taking these courses is not the issue. Academic rigor can build skills like hard work, resilience, and overall challenge one’s intelligence, but when the price many students are paying is their mental and physical health, it is time to reflect on our choices.
One night, I sat myself down and ran through a line of questioning.
Why am I taking this course? So I look academically impressive.
Why do I want to look academically impressive? So I am more likely to be accepted to various colleges.
Why do I want to be accepted to various colleges? Uhhh, to support my career.
What is my desired career path? XYZ.
Does that require me to attend college? Yes.
Why? Does it really? Actually, maybe not.
Do I enjoy this course? No.
Is taking this course necessary for my future goals? Maybe.
Is taking it in this structure the most helpful for me learning it? No, it’s a high school class 😂
Is this course building my character/personality? No.
Am I unhappy taking this course? Kinda.
Will taking this course prevent me from being happy? Not really, but it may keep me stressed.
Should I continue taking this course? Probably not.
So then I dropped the class. And I definitely do not regret my decision. I later walked up to my friends, and decided to ask them similar questions. The result was unsurprising. They too had no real answer to why they were taking certain courses. Many could not answer why they wanted to attend college besides the idea that their parents want them to or they believe a degree is necessary for their career (in most cases true, in others not).
What does this prove? We’ve got no damn clue what we are doing. Which may be fine, but it goes deeper: many of us don’t know what we want. Each day, we are so lost as to what to do with our time that we buy into the societal pressures around us and like sheep fall into a herd, trotting down along a road that we believe is necessary to take.
So what should we do? Is there a huge problem, or is this 17-year old kid just ranting about some life-changing realization he thinks he just had?
This perspective is far more cynical than the reality of the situation. At the end of the day, I do not doubt that my class of graduating students will leave an impact on this world because I know that some of us already are. Although it may not be through our profession, we will create positive change and leave behind a legacy.
But, it is important to understand the choices we make and to not force ourselves to achieve things that are of no value to us.
Disclaimer: These ideas are influenced by my personal experiences and conversations with friends. This post is not intended to target any group of people.