On grades and self-worth

Photo courtesy of Blake Israel

Going to a school like Tech can be described as a lot of things: tiring, difficult, exciting, intimidating and some other less PG terms. 

However, the academic rigor of our school contributes to far more than a few late nights and UberEats deliveries at the library. 

The emotions associated with exam scores and course grades are stronger than ever, especially with classes transitioning back to fully in-person formats. 

People are more stressed than ever about getting good grades and doing the best they can in an academic environment. 

Some even may experience a correlation between their mental health and grades, with lower scores having adverse effects on general wellbeing. 

However, feeling attached to academic achievement is not a newly developing phenomenon. 

In the American public education system, students are continually awarded for high performance from a young age.

Large numbers of Tech students can recall their enrollment in gifted programs starting in elementary school. The schools would identify and isolate students that appeared to be performing higher than their peers. They would then be tested on their creativity, intelligence and academic performance and placed in separate classes.

Being in these programs was considered prestigious, and many parents would push their children to perform well in order to gain admittance early. 

Friends who were not in the program would often voice their concerns to me, telling me how the separation made them feel inferior to the students in the program. 

This terrible rift aside, pushing children to achieve high accomplishments at such an impressionable age, especially in a manner that rewards high performance, can result in students equating their self-worth to their academic achievement–many years in the future. 

This also stems from varying parenting styles. Children who never received praise for anything besides academic proficiency may find that it is the only thing that validates them later in their lives. 

Of course, positive reinforcement alone cannot be the reason people our age have such an unhealthy obsession with high grades. Part of it is the standard society holds for success. 

To be successful is to go to college, get a job, make money, and move up the ladder: a capitalistic success. 

Yet, we all live with these standards in the back of our minds. In the country we live in, in the economy we live in, can we truly follow our dreams? In reality, we are reduced to a single sheet of paper, and the vast majority of that paper is our academic accomplishments. 

There exists the cultural aspect of academic achievement as well. Parents often push their children to do bigger and better things than themselves, and this pressure can contribute to a decline in mental wellbeing as well. There is a constant feeling of, after all, if I can’t even achieve this, what value do I truly have? As a child of immigrants, I feel pressure to please and impress my parents after everything they have sacrificed to give me a good life. It feels like the least I could do is get good grades. Yet, this mindset is harmful, as it leads to these achievements holding far too much weight in the way we see ourselves. 

At this point, you must be wondering, what could we possibly do to fix this? How can we, as students living in this reality, change this system? Frankly, I don’t think we can. At least, I don’t think our generation can escape this equation of academic prowess and self-worth. 

The issue is too deeply ingrained into the minds of our parents, our grandparents, and even ourselves. 

Additionally, it isn’t like we could boycott “the system;” we have people to take care of, bills to pay, and necessities to purchase. We can’t force people to unlearn generations of familial and societal expectations in the blink of an eye. This all leaves us with only one solution: drop out and open a bookstore.