A dean’s plea: let students discover knowledge without pressure to impress

Students no longer have the time for self-discovery. Student image via www.shutterstock.com

Is today’s competitive environment making high school students pursue a polished resume and not their passion?

As a university vice president and an admissions dean, we’ve just finished contacting students whom we did admit, did not admit and would have liked to admit, but simply couldn’t.

Regardless of outcome, each group had in its midst students who have been caught up in the growing phenomenon of credentialism, a practice of relying on formal qualifications, that too often undermines what should be four wonderful years of self-discovery in high school.

More than a numbers game

Whether it’s taking an Advance Placement course that really doesn’t interest them, holding office in an organization because it will “look good,” on their resume or playing a sport that they really don’t enjoy, students are too often trying to impress, instead of trying to discover, enjoy and grow.

Every student seeking admission to college wants to present a “strong case.”

But what’s becoming increasingly clear to admission officers like me and to guidance counselors who advise high school students, is that “credentialism” is being practiced more and more by students, high schools and institutions of higher learning.

To some degree we have ourselves to blame.

College rankings rely heavily on metrics and lets face it, people love being on the “A” list. In some cases, the metrics are about the school; in others, about the students who apply and are admitted.

We begin, despite our best intentions, to question not whether a student is a good match for our institution but how admitting the student will affect our “profile.”

Too often I worry that colleges feel obligated to play the “numbers” game and admit students solely on the basis of board scores, grade scores, number of AP courses, number of extracurricular activities, number of recommendations and so on.

Students are not pursuing their passion

As a result, many students – urged on by their parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and, yes, colleges and universities – conduct their lives as though the only purpose is to build a resume to get into the “best” school they can.

So what’s wrong with that?

For colleges and universities,that means we assess students on professed interest and performance that don’t always reflect what the student is really all about and capable of doing. And that’s not good for the student or the institution.

It subverts our desire not just to recruit and admit a class but to create a class, one whose members will thrive synergistically, often energized more by their differences than by their similarities.

Students end up chasing the right courses to get into the right colleges. Student image via www.shutterstock.com

For students, it turns their high school careers into a grab bag of experiences, many of which were pursued to impress others rather than for self-discovery and the pursuit of interests and excellence for their own sake.

Don’t get me wrong.

Many students are truly driven by the best motivations to understand their interests, abilities, and aspirations.

But too many are told they need to go to the right schools, study the right courses, participate in the right activities, have the right friends, volunteer for the right programs, plan for the right careers…and on and on.

What often results is an early and unwelcome appreciation for Thoreau’s observation that, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Too many students fail to understand that they are quintessentially “a work in progress,” always in the process of becoming, never finished. (Most adults aren’t much different.)

And in our rush to help them prepare for the rest of their lives, we prevent them from taking full advantage of what’s going on right now in their lives.

Students deserve better, from everybody who is pressuring them to display success to impress rather than for its inherent self-worth.

Colleges need to restore love for learning

Can colleges and universities help?

We can proclaim that we seek more than numbers, more than honors, more than achievement for its promotional value. And we can demonstrate our commitment by accepting students whose accomplishments are rooted in exploration, passion, self-discovery and even plain old fun.

We tell students that college is a launching pad for successful careers and lives. And that’s what it should be.

Both high schools and colleges may do students a grave disservice if we suggest that resume-building trumps exploration in pursuit of self-awareness and fulfillment.

So what should we be telling our young people as they undertake their journey to what we pray will be successful lives and careers?

Here are some things that I suggest to help guide that journey:

  • Establish what really matters to you so you’ll have a compass.
  • Invest in yourself. You have gifts that need to be developed.
  • Do the best with what you have. It’s OK if you aren’t good at some things.
  • Take risks. But be smart about it.
  • Own it – it’s your life. Take responsibility for it.
  • Build integrity; above all else, this is what matters.
  • Find mentors who inspire you.

This isn’t meant to be a “feel good” list.

And it isn’t just a list meant for the students. We must remain committed to a holistic evaluation.

As educators, we need to restore equity, perspective and a reverence for excellence for its own sake.

We need to connect our kids with the wisdom – from family, friends and trusted institutions – that previously helped each generation blossom, for their individual and collective benefit.

If we can’t come together to change the system, then shame on us.

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