Graduation or “Nothing”

Our society’s attitude towards education, and especially towards university, is unhealthy.


I gave advice to a student today. She’s in academic trouble, and that’s about all I can say. But the issue is seriously in doubt as to whether or not she’s going to be able to finish university any time soon.

At one point she said something like this. “I’ve always been at the top. I’ve always been someone that people come to for advice and listen to. I can’t become nothing.” That’s literally what she said. “I can’t become nothing.”

People think I exaggerate in my book, sometimes. People think I overstate the kind of misery and hopelessness that some students are going through. Of course I see the extreme examples, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that every unhappy student feels this desperate, but I’m truly amazed at how common these feelings really are. All you need to do is ask an academic advisor how many desperation cases he sees in a week. Go to wherever students file their last ditch petitions and appeals and speak with the university employees who have to deal with them. Then you get the true measure.

More often than not, the misery and desperation hides easily in plain sight. People aren’t eager to show their problems to the world. Everyone who can possibly manage it puts on a brave face. And so we don’t see it. But the truly hopeless students are more numerous than you’d imagine, and there’s a far wider group of students who are simply very unhappy but functional.

I believe that something is very wrong with our attitude, as a society, towards education and especially towards university. When perfectly decent people have got the idea into their heads that their choice is between graduating from university or becoming nothing, then we’ve lost all perspective. I’ve watched students trudge down the hallways of academia looking and acting like lifetime convicts without hope of parole. They endure year after year of frustration and failure. It’s only prolonged, in some cases, for the students who aren’t lucky enough to fail decisively. Some hang on by their fingernails for incredibly long periods of time. They’re convinced they must be in school but too depressed and dispirited to actually make anything of it.

Of course this isn’t every student. And it isn’t every family and social environment that conspires to produce this situation. But it’s frequent enough to be extremely disturbing. We’ve entirely collapsed the distinction between success in university and success as a human being. Is it any wonder that students who’ve bought into this crap can’t be honest with their parents, or with advisors, or with their friends? Quite a lot of them can’t even be honest with themselves.

I try to wrap up on a positive note whenever I can. I’ve got nothing here. Our society’s attitude towards education is unhealthy. Young people are chewed up and spit out year after year, because they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time doing the wrong thing, yet they’ve been raised to imagine they are “nothing” if they can’t succeed at it. This will continue until we manage, as a society, to foster a healthier attitude towards education. That’s all.

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Graduation or “Nothing”

  1. I don’t agree with the pessimistic view that it is merely our societal attitude that is encouraging a negative impact on young students thinking failure in school is synonymous with failure in life. It is in the interest of the universities that they graduate more people such that they will be able to earn a higher perceived quality of teaching and more revenue. Check out the registrar’s reports and I am sure attrition rates are on a decreasing trend compared to the past 20 years.

    I would like to take a constructivist point of view and argue it is a combination of today students’ lack of exposure with failure, and the ever decreasing trend in participation with extracurricular opportunities that are the underlying issues creating our generation of denial.
    Although our schools are becoming more and more test oriented, the practice of actually failing a student in the public school system is rare and discouraged for preventing damages to student’s self esteem. I would ask, how would you know how to deal with failure and presevere when you have not dealt with failure in the first 12-13 years of education? I think the process of learning how to cope with failure/dissapointment is not adequately addressed in our school system, hence when the stakes are higher in the post-secondary system, young adults do not know how to adapt to their peers which are supposedly as smart as they are.

    In addition, extracurricular activities could arguably provide a venue for less than stellar students to get a sense of excellment when they are droned in a competitive world of grades, hence relieving that feeling of imprisonment when school is dragging their ego down. Unfortunately, students today participate in less activities due to a heavier demand in school and a higher engagement with the highly demanding but seperative virtual world. Giving kids more chances to experience different opportunities is the best way for them to learn to cope with adversity.

    Its not just the society’s fault, but the learners have to try to be engaged as well. I assure you I am not an old coot or professor trying to defend their myopic and self sustaining grade practices, but just a kid that did lots, fallen down a few times along the way and trying to get others to join.

  2. I see a positive side of this. Sure, it’s possible that this student shouldn’t be at university in the first place, but a shift in perception could be all that is needed. I think one of the most important things anyone can learn during the process of education (or other difficulties in life) is self-discipline, which in turn leads to cpnfidence and greater happiness. Perhaps this student is simply in the midst of that process and will come out of it a stronger and happier person. It sounds like she is used to breezing through “at the top” and may not have had sufficient challenges in life to prepare her for this situation. Maybe she needs this to grow.

    If she is indeed in the wrong place at the wrong time, then she is still learning something valuable from this misery. Either way, perhaps she should say to herself, “I’m going to get through this just to prove to myself that I can do it” or “I’m going to move on to something that makes more sense to me.” Nowhere should society’s perception of her as being nothing enter into the decision. This, however, is just part of growing up. For many there comes a time when one no longer cares whether their peers think they are wearing the right brand of shirt or whether their parents approve of their choices. One no longer internalizes society’s expectations. At any rate, it is a process that this student needs to go through. Eventually she may see herself not as “nothing” but simply as “something different” and may be okay with that.

    I have to wonder if she is spending too much time around academics and not enough time around other types of people who value things besides grades or the apparent prestige of a university education. This is where extra-curricular activities come in, as HL suggested. I would think that doing something completely outside of the university or residence and in particular an activity that requires concentration on manual or physical skills would be healthy.

  3. To HL, you seem to be getting at the problem where every student expects to somehow excel beyond every other student. I agree that’s a problem, but I don’t think it’s the same problem. For the purposes of this piece I’m not talking about students who aren’t able to cope with being unexceptional, I’m talking about students who can’t cope (even to the point of acknowledging the fact) that they are literally failing at university. Perhaps if you view university graduation as “exceptional” and other options as more “ordinary” the picture comes together, but it’s exactly my point that many sectors of society don’t support this view. For many people, university graduation isn’t considered optional. It’s considered the minimum acceptable accomplishment in life.

    To CD (and to HL as well), while I happen to agree with your opinions for my own sake, and those are certainly the values I’d encourage, I think it’s naïve to suggest that students should just take their lumps and learn their lessons. The point I’m making here is that not every student has the benefit of a social and family environment where the values you’re expressing are even considered valid. I wish the situation were otherwise. That’s what I mean when I call for a shift in our perceptions regarding education.

    I don’t want to pick on any particular culture, but it’s especially common in immigrant families that children are under the pressure of immense expectations. You can’t dismiss the pressure they feel by pointing out that it isn’t necessary. Appropriate or otherwise, this is their reality. Some families simply won’t accept any decision or any accomplishment that does not include university.

    I don’t expect everyone reading this to relate to my claims. I’m talking about a subset of students that not everyone has the chance to see and interact with, though I believe the experiences of this subset suggest important facts about more “typical” students as well. I’ll just ask, for those who doubt me, that you imagine a home environment where your parents literally won’t listen when you tell them you’re failing at school. And now imagine that you are failing, and can’t stop it. I thank God I didn’t grow up under the weight of those expectations, and I certainly don’t agree with them, but that doesn’t solve anything for the students who have to live in this reality.

    And yes, I firmly believe that our society’s unhealthy attitude towards the supposed privilege, status, and outcomes associated with post-secondary education is a big part of this problem.

  4. Maybe I should have specifically included in my comment families as part of society’s expectations. I agree that many individuals, and yes especially some cultures, feel extremely pressured by family and I wish that would change. However, I still believe that choosing to please your family, society, etc., or choosing to do what personally seems right is part of maturation. Being a people pleaser has consequences as does being an iconoclast. It’s a tough choice for a young person, but it is still a choice, and that’s empowering.

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