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Anxiety: A Mountain in the Educational Bell Curve
Just recently, I had the great “fortune” of reading an article authored by a man who brashly claimed that the American educational system is “slipping” in comparison to other foreign nations. This writer, while ubiquitously correct in re-establishing the ever so truthful doctrine that foreign test scores, particularly those of China, India, and Japan, far surpass those of the average American student, as well as the fact that foreign economies tend to experience longer periods of content and stability, was completely oblivious to the other equally important principles of our time-honored system, which when put into simple words, is characterized by the perennial belief that success is available and infinitely accessible to those who are willing to work for it.
This belief is heavily embodied in our approaches to teaching and administration; the opportunity to graduate college with a holistic view of society and climb up the ladder of attainment at an astonishingly rapid pace is what makes American education, well, American. Since the past few decades, American students have been known to be tenacious and strategic in getting what they need, and it is because of the resources available to them that they can do so. Indeed, these opportunities that we have been and will continue to be able to provide to our students (who by the way have the comfort of never being denied these chances because of trivial factors such as race, background, gender, or orientation), are much more easily extended to American students than our foreign counterparts, including those in China. And it is because of this system that those who graduate from an American college or university are much more innovative and equipped to tackle any problem that may stray upon their path than those professionals abroad. In fact, American graduates are predicted to have a 30% greater chance at achieving success than a student in any other nation.
Yet, this is not to say that the trend of test scores mentioned above carry no significance. If anything, they are the reflection of the one flaw in our system: the anxiety that surrounds it.
Anxiety!? How dare someone slander the good name of Uncle Sam with a term that in itself is defined by pessimism and misfortune? Well, call it what you may, but the more we, the American public, try to disguise it as something inconsequential, the deeper of a rut our students will be trapped in.
To fully comprehend the role of anxiety in this sense, it’s important to view the problem on a microscopic level at its roots, which in this case, is the secondary education system, particularly at the high school level. While many of you may be turning away in disgust, high school is far more important than a grotesque collection of pimples and overly flamboyant proms. Instead, it is the period of time during which students begin to mentally assess both their peers and themselves while developing an overall understanding of social Darwinism. It is during this time that our confidence is shaped through academic records, extracurricular achievement and standardized test scores, and it is this confidence that plays a dynamic role in our future relationships and interactions, whether you like to believe it or not. If anything, it is the most important aspect of one’s secondary education, and is truly tested during a fundamental point in one’s life: applying to college, for a job, to the military, or to any other professional program. If this confidence is not honed, disaster is sure to follow.
And bluntly said, the whole system has gone rancid.
Ultimately, it all leads back to the skeptic and misguided American principle of self-worth. Beginning in the 1960s, our nation was transfigured by the sudden and unprecedented emergence of the notion of “individuality”, which ultimately led us to believe that we as humans are unquestionably invincible and can accomplish anything. We went from being a humble average Joe to a blinded group of narcissistic people who mistakenly characterized success by what we said instead of what we actually did. We were on top of the world if we claimed to be, and anybody who made us feel otherwise was automatically a pessimistic brute and a threat to the patriotism and the democratic foundation that Lady Liberty perches on.
These feelings, since then, have not evaporated (as one would like), but instead have evolved and adapted to fit the modern generation, in the end poisoning the minds of our youth and giving birth to a new generation of self-aggrandizing teenagers as well as thousands of Internet “memes” and Facebook covers that for some odd reason depict Steve Carell from The Office equating himself to Beyoncé. (Do not scoff; you ALL know what I’m talking about.) Without a doubt, this boorish and ignorantly annoying attitude has given rise to one extreme level on the “confidence” meter, a level which I like to refer to as “Daffy Duck Egotism,” or DDE. It is because of this zealous mindset that today so many Americans have the skills to do anything but no poise to back it up.
Indeed, DDE is a contributing agent to the opposite end of the spectrum as well, which is characterized by an overwhelming sense of under confidence that I cannot resist from calling Porky Pig Syndrome, or PPS. Aside from the corny Looney Tunes references, PPS is a serious factor in personal growth, and its effects become more critical as time passes. It can diminish our achievements and unrealistically highlight our failures, turning us into nothing more than weak and subordinate drones. It determines what schools we apply to, how we view ourselves in the mirror, and the standards and morals that we abide by not just as a high school student, but as a college student and an individual in the work environment.
If you were to study a class of thirty students, you would find that at least ten are bound to have DDE. These students are the lions of the pack, and tend to have “extremely” high SAT scores, “well-rounded” personalities, perceived GPAs well above 4.0, and a foot “already in the door” to an Ivy League’s admission office. They are, from a (false) human point of view, situated comfortably at the apex of the all famous bell-curve, and everyone else can for some reason only dream of being like them.
Yet if you were to pour over statistics for the class and oversee the situation from a practical and impartial point of view, you would quickly find that these individuals are no better than everyone else—they just know how to make themselves appear that they are. These students tend to be vigorously competitive, self-serving, and reluctant to change. These are the ruthless kind of people who are hated not for their brains, but for their attitudes that surround it. These are the people who grow up to become micromanaging bosses and despised coworkers. So watch out for them.
The other twenty students however, many of whom may be as gifted as those with DDE in the areas of athletics, academics or artistic talent, are going to find it frustrating to further hone their talents, simply because every time they make a personal feat, Daffy is right around the corner, ready to demean them by employing the classic principles of exaggeration and insensitivity both directly and indirectly. These twenty students are made up of the true geniuses, those people who know the correct way to achieve success but are reluctant to share their methods, as well as those students who may not have the natural brains, but are willing to slog as hard as it takes to touch the stars. Unfortunately, all of these students are easily manipulated by DDE, but only because they are not used to being surrounded by egotism. It is sad, but it has and continues to happen. So now, these twenty students, who have been degraded by the hurricane that is DDE, are exceedingly prone to PPS—and often time, they lose the battle against it.
In the end, at least eight are bound to become inflicted PPS, depending on the environmental variables at hand. And these eight students tend to become very anxious and apprehensive about their own abilities, even though they may actually be quite well-off themselves, because all they see are the “successes” of the other ten students. If for example, they end up scoring a 2100 on the SAT, they will dismiss it because the guy next to them scored a 2180, even though the former is an extremely high score that opens as many doors for them as it does for that person with the other score. These feelings of anxiety control their very being, hindering their performance on paper and in society, the latter of which will surface when it comes time for students to apply to college or for a job. The anxiety, if not assessed immediately, will automatically instigate an incessant psychological war that will only highlight feelings of inferiority and make them feel that they are at the bottom of the bell curve. And what about those students who scored anything below a 2100? How are they going to feel when they see their peer cry over the higher number?
In order to win this battle and find overcome the mountain in our system, America ultimately needs to change the way we view and appreciate the success of both ourselves and others. We as people must learn to tune out the hyperbolic vanity of others and instead direct our talents towards bettering ourselves preventing our individuality from giving in to the symptoms of PPS. In addition, we must understand that confidence, like all matters of life, is healthy in regulated amounts; if not controlled, an individual can easily come across as crass and conceited, a quality that we all know from watching the antics of Yosemite Sam (I’m a fan of Looney Tunes) is unwanted in both the classroom and office. In the long run, we as Americans must learn to objectively assess our strengths and weaknesses, making sure that the two never cross paths and overwhelm one another. Finding a state of compromise on the confidence meter is essential to success—don’t be a Daffy or Porky, but instead, a Bugs Bunny. Learn to recognize your achievements as achievements rather than failures. On the other hand, when you fail, assess the issue without blowing it out of proportion. Shoot for the stars, but be wary of those who will seek to push you out of orbit. Does the social bell curve suck? Yes, it does. But the only way you can get to the top is if you stop worrying that you are at the bottom.
And now, a small message to my fellow high school seniors: when it comes time for us to apply to college, make sure that what you write on that paper reflects what you have actually done. It will all pay off in the end. You must make sure that it is your effort that shines through, not your ignorance or fears. Is it true that the Ivy League schools frequently receive over 30,000 applications with only a room for a miniscule fraction of the students associated with them? Yes. Is it true that over 42% of all Ivy League applicants have SAT scores over 2150 and GPAs above 3.84? Yes. But, it is also true that many of these students get rejected, simply because their personalities do not shine through!
Do not let the anxiety win. I should know because at one point, I was that kid who was disillusioned by the 2100 SAT. I would have nightmares that all my peers won the race to success while I had barely left the finish line. I hope that this article helps to engage a personal revelation in you similar to the one I underwent.
The ladder of success was made for climbing. If we allow others to ram us off the rungs, we are no better than those who sit at the bottom to begin with.