The quest for success in this day and age seems to start from the first steps a baby tries to make to its mother’s arms. One must wonder if some overly hopeful pregnant women haven’t already started altering their eating habits and movement patterns so they can have the optimal newborn. And after those first steps, it’s a relentless drive for children to do more and more to the point of physical exhaustion. The social pressure to take more tests, to lead more clubs, and to accomplish more projects is overwhelming. But what is the point of more?
The age-old insistence that the younger generation has easier lives because of new technology is becoming obsolete with each study released on the distractions of modern entertainment. Yet more importantly, the students of today are being asked to do more in less time. With some students learning calculus before they’ve entered high school and advancing much further once they’ve entered, there is less and less time for everything that comes before. The pacing leaves little time for the curiosity and unexpected thinking that is the hallmark of critical thinking. By doing so much, many students are no longer more than the sum of what they have done.
Students since the first school bell have questioned the point of homework. The simplest assignments serve as practice, while others inspire students to think. Yet the compulsory nature of it seems counterproductive in the information age, where students use computers to perform repetitive problems and reducing thinking to exercises in search engine use. In addition, it is hopeless to assume that every problem will interest everybody, as it is the nature of self-directed learning to selectively pursue what is interesting and ignore what is not. For students where an excessive amount of homework is a burden, it truly does become pointless, as processes and concepts are more easily memorized than understood. That is the current state of affairs for high-achievement students working with an ancient notion of homework.
Similarly, in the classroom, the new main goal is to teach the curriculum in the time allotted. It is not the fault of teachers, who are bound by requirements set by administrators, who themselves follow rules set by a far away government controlled by old legislators. Less attention is paid on understanding the material at a deeper level, with discussion among curious students moderated by the teacher, than on simply understanding the minimum necessary needed to pass the government-mandated exam. Because of a strict syllabus, creativity, more than ever, has been pushed outside the classroom.
Curiously enough, undeveloped countries seem to have an edge. Without the structure and distracting resources of a developed country, students with only their livelihood left to lose go to school with ready minds. They have a firm idea of not only what is being accomplished in school, but also why it is being accomplished. With strong life goals in mind, they not only want to learn the material, but also learn it well. The lack of social pressure to overachieve allows them to focus. They do not simply want to be doctors, but good doctors.
So why do students try to do so much? It builds resumes. Colleges, in the interest of having interesting freshmen, imply that students with more activities are more likely to be accepted than students with just high grade-point averages and SAT scores. In their infinite wisdom, they now have students who can play five sports, manage ten clubs, and score nearly perfect on the SATs, all without thinking very much. Not much better than route memorizers they were avoiding before. But those same students will never again have the sheer number of activities they had in high school.
Having so many activities doesn’t create a “better person” or “build character.” It just results in a stressed out kid that can only put in half the effort he wants to put in. And by only putting in half the effort, they don’t know if it was worth it at all. Without that, they lose sight of exactly what they were aiming to accomplish in the first place. Not that a teenager’s life needs to be perfectly cohesive and logical, but the current pressures on teenagers force them to participate in activities they aren’t interested in for the sake of the application.
Clubs and sports are a place for students with a common interest to meet and partake in that interest. They are not an indicator of a student’s involvement in school. Students should still participate. But if a club doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean it needs to exist. And if a club doesn’t exist, it doesn’t mean that the activity is not worth doing. There are more than two options. Playing outside in the grass does not need to be a club, but everybody should do it! Just as importantly, books can be read outside of book clubs, an interest that should be cultivated and continued. It builds character.
Character is exactly what the students of today are missing. With the pervasiveness of social networking and mass media, it’s easy to take in entertainment and regurgitate it out, a phenomenon known as “memes.” These short snippets of comedy go “viral” and spread until they repeated, thoughtlessly. The informational overload means that less time is spent on everything, so less thought is put into content that is produced. It’s just easier to recycle old content. And each time it’s recycled, one less moment is spent on creating something new. Yet producing more content certainly doesn’t result in a better person.
The core of a character is what makes a character tick. Colleges, in looking for students with more activities, had a noble goal: applicants with a greater variety of experiences and interests would have a greater understanding and appreciation of the world they’re in. Motivated students seeking to bolster their chances at admission took the chance to fill their full resumes, while less motivated students soon followed by doing the same. Yet with their time spread thin, teenagers spend less and less time not doing anything at all. In fact, it’s impossible for many. Yet it’s during those times that experiences are not only synthesized, but understood and integrated. That is what makes a person more than the sum of their experiences. Spending long periods of time pondering is not a waste but a critical part of growing up, and that’s what keeps the character ticking.
Growing up is not a process; a progression is not progress. Maturity does not come with age, or with the number of hours of community service. No one can put an hourly requirement on how much introspection is needed for wisdom. Yet the development of an internal, personal philosophy that guides us is what separates humans from the machines they use. It provides a context for our actions and the reasoning behind it. More fundamentally, morals are not rules set in stone, and it is human for children to have different morals from their parents. As they grow, their interpretation of ethics and morality is continually reexamined and refined. Eventually, students will have a passion for life itself, for all the beauty it offers.
The society that pressures students to accomplish as much as Superman has lost sight of what Superman stood for. Working hard should be rewarded, but in the age of overproduction and breakneck automation, introspection needs its own time. And curiously enough, despite the breadth of possibilities, individuality is at stake as students try to be everything to everyone. In the sea of experiences, it is a shame to see that the essence of living has been lost: what it means to be human.