The Paradox of Education

Genre: Somewhere between essay, second person story telling, and free verse poetry.
Scores feel so hollow. They’re just a number made of pixels or ink, a 5 or a 20 or a 100 to say you’re incredible, a 0 to say you have no hope. But when that number turns up on screen, that number you’ve been wringing hands over and having headaches for, that number you worked so hard to achieve, the computer churns out the data just as it would any webpage.
There’s a moment, just after the number appears and just before your chest can stop clenching. It’s the moment where your eyes have just focused on the score of your report card, your program has just churned out its output, the second after you have read the last line of a book. Your brain just stares, blank, as if it’s forgotten how to interpret such a thing. 100? it asks. 60? 5? 3? What does this mean again?
And then it hits you – it’s above what you expected, below what you wanted, how are your parents/teachers/future college application assessors going to see this? But in that brief moment, you’re seeing the score for what it is. A number, infused with meaning from a thousand institutions and employees and societies, but in the end, only a number. Hollow. Not a description or an explanation or a congratulations or a comfort. A few digits. Marks on a screen or a page.
And it’s just a number, you may say to yourself. One little number you’re told is the key to your future. But that scale from 1-5 can’t tell you where you had fault, where you can improve, how brilliant or detrimental your essay was in comparison to the questions – do you even remember what the essay was about? It’s all a blur of insecurity now. If you get a 1, 2, 3, 4, whatever ‘below the line’ is for you, you stare blankly for a second before the ‘meaning’ of that number comes crashing down. “This isn’t right,” you think. “This can’t be me. I’m not a 1 student. I’m an A/B/C student, this can’t be right. I’m doomed.” Anything below your expectations tumbles you from a ledge of anxiety to the depths of despair. For some, it lasts but a second. For others, it will ring for the rest of their life. One little number.
And of course, in retrospect, in hindsight, with the wisdom of age and experience and failures to make a teacher scream, we all know that’s not realistic. One test doesn’t determine your life, we say. One score cannot define a human being. Yet, that’s how we’re expected to live. If not for that one little number, what’s the point of all that work? we say. If you really don’t think grades matter, why do you push us until we pull all-nighters to get one precious point higher on a project? Why are we wasting so much time and brain power, stress sucking away at our lifespans, to please one little number after another that will define our supposed value for some faraway institution with a popular name?
They always say “It’s about the journey, not the destination.” But when the journey ends, then what? Why have a destination if it’s the journey that matters? Sure, we might learn a bit before subsequently forgetting every model and equation and system in the short few months of heaven known as summer. Sure, we can gain experience about Time Management and Integrity and Organization and all those polysyllabic qualities they’ll surely put on your recommendation letter. But then, what of the destination?
For the Optimists, it might be easier. You’ve known forever that you would do great, and here’s the score to prove it. Or else, better luck next time. Next time will be better, easier, fairer. There’s always a next time.
But for those Pessimists, those Realists, those who just can’t convince themselves of an uncertainty, the destination is hollow. Well, what do you expect? I got a 1/2/3/4/5. Big deal. I expected as much. Why should I be happy about meeting an expectation? Well, and if I did poorly, I guess I should have expected it. What does this mean? I can’t get into this college or this university or this program, and what if I can’t get any better?
These numbers, unfeeling, say nothing in return. There’s no analysis to tell you what you exceeded on and what you could’ve done better. There’s no letter that assures you one test you took in freshman year won’t be the death of your record. There are teachers and parents, but if they loosen the bite, surely students will slack off and not care at all about their work, right? This institution feeds off stress, whether it means to or not. Got a 99? Well, great! But you can do better. Got a 60? You’re a failure. Come to tutorials to backtrack and redo and right the wrong that you’re unaware you have committed. You have tests and practice tests and pre-practice tests and diagnoses and this entire year has been leading up to this one exam and your parents have worked very hard for the money to bring you here and if you fail then this year has been pointless so don’t you dare screw up –
And then you may jump for joy after that second of anticipation and confusion. Or you shrivel in your chair. But for the majority of us, we stare at that number, mind running a thousand calculations at once. We might burst with a long-suppressed grin or slam a palm to our forehead, but the reaction is but momentary, a second, a minute, a day before it fades into our established archive of memories. And then we take a screenshot, print the page, close the tab, and move on.
In the end, it’s just a number.

– N

(This was posted on my blog The Writer Person as well, for all those copyright enthusiasts)

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