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Academic arms race

Updated June 09, 2019

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The writer is an instructor in the Social Sciences Division at New York University’s Abu Dhabi Campus.
The writer is an instructor in the Social Sciences Division at New York University’s Abu Dhabi Campus.

‘OPTING out’ of the success treadmill appears impossible, particularly in the age of social media, where striving for meaningless perfection is the hallmark of a happy life. In such a context, the academic arms race, the ultimate measure of self-worth, takes on greater significance in the Global South. Parents, worried that children from First World countries have a head start, overcompensate. The result: ‘parenting’ and ‘childhood’ become constantly scrutinised words. Our efforts, instead of producing individuals who can shake up the system, push children to become conformists at the expense of originality.

Recently, a colleague and I collaborated on an undergraduate class and assigned grades based on progress instead of only tallying assignment scores. Being pros at playing the school game, this approach evoked mixed emotions among the class. While a few students recognised the benefits of rewarding effort and improvement, others were sceptical. In a world of precision, certitude and auto-correct, such ambiguity appeared unsettling.

The grading experiment poses difficult questions about building curiosity, inventing pedagogical tools that accommodate intellectual risks, redefining success and normalising failure. Does learning serve a purpose if all we do is teach cramming tricks? What’s being evaluated remains unclear — is it how fast students are running on the success treadmill, or is it whether they are questioning, exploring, thinking critically and learning?

One must stand in line before sunrise to collect admission tokens.

As parents, we are guilty of locking our children in the millennial hamster cage, convincing ourselves of its pay-off: to secure futures through a formula that offers (false) guarantees and arms you with prestige. An elite education is no longer just about knowledge production, skill development and allowing yourself a bit of fun. Its brand promise centres around selling cachet: a sealed, fast-track ticket to the Old Boys Club.

Most of us fall for this velvet-rope syndrome, which warns us that a club is as desirable as the quality of the people it turns away. Now that we know this, we want to get in more desperately than ever.

The cult of private school admissions points in the same direction, stemming from the conviction that it opens doors to even more elite colleges and yields six-figure salaries. This may or may not be true, but the problem lies more with the race-like process. We stand in lines before sunrise to collect admission tokens, pay for private tutoring so that our three-year-olds can present the best version of themselves to strangers, and enrol our toddlers in posh preschools, which often self-select a handful of ‘high potential’ children and offer bespoke grooming to prepare them for top schools. As parents, do we ask what happens to the rest who possess qualities other than extrovertism? What happens to rewarding kindness, creativity and tenacity? The system separates ‘us’ from ‘them’, making ‘them; believe they have been left behind. This is how many three-year-olds begin the cycle of life, allowing self-worth to be dictated by a mostly impersonal process. But the question is: does the system genuinely work or is it perpetuated by our complicity to accept what is handed to us? If required, our dreams must be downsized to fit our reality, rather than the other way around — this is the lesson-goal the system perpetuates.

Social ostracisation is a byproduct of the academic arms race. Academic success offers bragging rights, a rite-of-passage to enter social circles. In an already divisive society, this gruelling, cut-throat rat race creates a new kind of ‘other’ and this is what needs to stop. So what can be done practically to change this?

Schools: adopt admission practices that don’t shy away from offering empathy to parents and children, which account for qualities beyond the child’s ‘performance of confidence’ on a single day. Universities: restructure learning to embolden students to take creative and intellectual risks without fearing grade backlashes. Employers: develop a recruitment rubric that recognises a candidate’s worth beyond transcripts. And what about us? Speak up about failure, in order to normalise rather than demonise it.

Most of us, including myself, have been part of the academic arms race at one point or another. In retrospect, it is clear that whilst important, admissions and scores aren’t the sole ingredients to succeed at life, less so to determine emotional intelligence. So if there’s one thing I could tell my younger, undergraduate self, it would be this: grades matter, but so do white water rafting, basketball tryouts, rock climbing and conversations about the meaning of life over a midnight beverage. Since you can’t put a price on everything, the latter is a harder sell. 

The writer is an instructor in the Social Sciences Division at New York University’s Abu Dhabi Campus.

Twitter: @SabaKarim

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2019