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Reaching for the elusive star

June 24, 2012

Darwin’s theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’ has manifested itself in our student society, and there is an evident academic race which has instilled in students a fear of being average, writes Scheherazade Khan

A stereotypical psychological perception of a 21st century college or high school student is either that of an enthusiastic, ambition-driven or a stress-haggard teenager. College level is the fundamental transitional and maturing period for students, which helps in shaping and strengthening their abilities. The cut-throat and competitive nature of college life, which every committed student has to endure, can help to either make or break a student.

These dire circumstances give birth to an array of psychological problems — stress and mere fright of abysmal failure. Heavy doses of episodic stress may have a negative impact — inevitably plunging a student headfirst into depression or creating suicidal tendencies — while others may manage the stress and streamline themselves well enough to boost their work ethics and efficiency.

College, the prime years of a student’s senior school life ought to be flavoured with enjoyment to break the monotony of consistent studying. However, a student’s daily routine seems to be burdened by work, and their exam schedule is dominated by stress — which is detrimental to the student’s health, retention rate and mental capacity. It is always advantageous to do well in exams, but why do bad exam grades become a poignant memory? Average exam results weigh on students who see average results as an academic suicide — why? Many students have admitted wholeheartedly to the fact that the sheer factors instigating the extreme levels of stress is the intense competition, institutional standards, and parent expectations.

“The study load and constant reminders of how our grades should be in sync with our parental expectations can definitely be overwhelming and some of us just succumb to the pressure instead of fighting it,” explains a student on the condition of anonymity, “Favouritism and constant criticism from teachers in spite of the laborious effort and input can often discourage a student. This results in the student being in a perpetual state of stress and tension.”

Parents and institutions may very well be encouraging their children out of goodwill, but they fail to realise that the essence and beauty of learning remains absent throughout the educational journey — making it very bland — since the journey is so ‘grades-oriented’. It is made very clear to students in our society that without top results, they will not be accepted into world-famous universities and will have no future.

The fear of not getting into an Ivy League or into the world’s top 10 universities burdens students to the extent that they may enervate themselves till they are on the verge of collapse or a mental breakdown. The orthodox mindset of the Pakistani community is such that it drills into children from a very young age that getting a minimum of 10 As and getting into the best university is the be all and end all of their existence.

Our society’s perception of how good universities abroad are has disregarded the prowess of our local universities — contributing to the widening brain drain in Pakistan. “It is a common belief that to attain the best knowledge, you should travel far beyond — but the aim to achieve knowledge should be fuelled by the desire to want to know more, not by society’s expectations of you to make it big. Success is when an individual makes the best of the limited opportunities presented to him,” says a teacher who requested anonymity.

Darwin’s theory of the ‘survival of the fittest’ has manifested itself in our student society — and there is an evident academic race which has instilled in students, a fear of being average. What many fail to realise is that the immense pressure and stress does not subside once they get accepted into a famous university, it only heightens. Many brilliant students go to these universities with the confidence that they will be able to cope with the pressure and tests presented to them. However, once they get accustomed to the university mechanism they will realise that every student is brilliant, making them what they feared they would be — average. What will add to the stress of our students will be the initial inability to blend in with the rest of the students.

However, it should be understood that our local universities too put an immense amount of pressure on the students. It was estimated that the suicidal rate amongst the Pakistani students was 3.14 per cent. Cornell and other various Ivy League colleges have been cited as ‘suicidal schools’ where 7.5 out of 100,000 students on average commit suicide due to excessive stress and depression.

Chris Hedges, an established journalist, emphasises that the true purpose of education is to make minds and not careers. He states, “A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, and fails to understand that measure of a civilisation is its compassion and not its speed to consume, condemns itself to death.”