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Tilting at windmills and school newspapers

November 20, 2010

So I recently saw this editorial in my school newspaper, written by one of the paper’s editors, which to me serves as exhibit 1 for what is wrong with education today:

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My reaction was so strong, I had to write the following response:

Dear Editor,
I was dismayed by the terrible plight portrayed in the editorial “A tired senior vents frustration with the woes of senior year.” Having to face the choice of attending a college next year, rather than having to choose between enlisting in the military and serving in Afghanistan, or working the third shift at Wal-Mart in the hopes of one day being able to afford college, seems tragic.

I think there’s a wholly different way to view senior year and the college process, as a year filled with hope and possibility, rather than stress and cynicism. It probably starts with those boring information sessions where those annoyingly peppy admissions officers try to entice you with all the awesome things about their school, like the incredible opportunities you’ll have to study everything from astrobiology to film production, macroeconomics to Arabic, or the amazing new gymnasium that has two skating rinks and a Jamba Juice, or dining hall that serves all the sushi you can eat. Sure, I bet going from school to school, hearing about all the cool things you could do probably gets dull and repetitive, which makes me wonder what would have happened if you had slipped off the beaten path and visited a class on computer game design, or a art history seminar discussing the connection between 20th century post modern painting and quantum mechanics—would you have been amazed by all the things people just a few years older than you are thinking about? Could you feel the freedom they have to explore and deepen their intellectual interests? What if you’d stopped by the newspaper office to see how students are able to run a multimillion dollar enterprise that publishes a 20 page newspaper EVERY DAY? How exciting would that have been? Oh, right, but you thought you just had to stick to the path. Too bad—you missed a pretty amazing world of opportunities, that sadly, are not available to everyone. But given all these opportunities, maybe you can see why a college might be pretty careful and ask a couple more of those bothersome essays about why this college is a good match to see if you really are one of the students to whom they should bestow such incredible opportunities.

Sticking to the path, that’s probably what made you think your senior year has to be all about grades, APs and extracurriculuars, rather than really connecting with your teachers, developing your deep interests and making a difference in the world, not for your college app, but for yourself. You might not know this, but there’s an entirely different path out there—one that sees all those bothersome college apps and essays really as a chance to get to know yourself better and figure out who you are, what interests you, and what you would do with the chance to study anything you want, anywhere you want, for the next four years. This path avoids seeing all those senior year classes as one more semester of stress, followed by a semester of slacking. Instead it views senior year chance to connect with some incredible faculty here at Westminster, finally coming into one’s own as a scholar and leader. You get the opportunity to explore ideas in American History or Advanced Physics at a level you would never have thought possible even a few years ago. When you are on this path, you find yourself working not for the grade, but for the joy that comes from solving a difficult calculus problem or really digging into text of a challenging novel. And of course, this path isn’t concerned with filling in all those extracurricular boxes on your college apps with superficial participation in a host of clubs, but instead it is focused on using Westminster’s incredible resources to pull off something that will make a difference in the world—publishing your novel, producing your first feature length film, or extending our work with RRISA from last year to follow up with some of the refugee families we helped to resettle to see how we might continue to aid their transition to the U.S. Sure all of this is hard work, and some of it isn’t pretty or fun, but with the right perspective, it can be enjoyable, and it can leave you with a senior year you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

So I wish you well as you try to make the most of your senior year, and I hope you’re able to find that “stress free super fun year” you’re looking for—it might start with going back and looking at how to get off the well worn path of what everyone tells you senior year should be like. And, I’m sorry that I (though I don’t know you) and school have failed you by not helping you to see this path earlier. But your year isn’t even half over yet, so you still have plenty of time to find your own path.

And my message to you underclassmen is, you don’t have to follow this senior’s path through the woes of senior year. Why not go to backwork for one of your classes, not simply to prepare for a test, or go over a problem you missed on homework, but to ask the teacher how you might really deepen your interest in this subject and talk about where it might carry you. Who knows—you might suddenly find yourself on a completely different path…

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 5:24 am

    Also, a strong argument for the “gap year”.

    • November 21, 2010 4:13 pm

      Definitely. Gap years were much more popular at the schools I taught at previously. I’ve seen kids grow incredibly during a gap year, but there are still lingering issues of equity around them, and there seems to be a stigma attached in some minds. It also shouldn’t be that the remedy to our educational system is having kids take a year off after high school to really figure out who they are. Somehow, this should be built into the program, IMO.

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  1. My Quixotic quest made the school newspaper—I’m published « Quantum Progress

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