The first thing—the reason I'm writing this article, and the reason I find it almost impossible to write this article—is that I went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for my bachelor's, starting in September 2006 and graduating with a degree in "Art and Design" (that means architecture) in June 2010. I usually tell people who ask that I went to school in Boston. This, besides being a factual inaccuracy, adroitly captures my ambivalence about the whole experience.
There's a lovely dramatic absurdity to the fact that most of my opportunities and severe personal problems have the same source. MIT gave me the means and the reason to travel to Japan and Spain; it gave me an in to study in France and Switzerland; its name on the top of my CV made finding internships merely terrifying instead of terrifyingly difficult. I also got a nice going-away basket filled with crushing insecurity, low self-worth, severe issues with time management, sporadic panic attacks, and depression ranging from mild to suicidal.
I'm grateful, aaaand I'm not. Many of the characteristics which made me a good candidate for an elite school were the same things that made that environment toxic for me.
Let's take a brief tour of what gets you into an elite school in the U.S., shall we? Using myself as a case study, we can derive the following requirements:
- straight As in the most difficult courses available at your school
- high scores on a smorgasbord of standardized tests
- extensive involvement in a wide variety of extracurricular activities, ideally spread out across many disciplines, including sports, arts, and academics
- an excellent interview with an alumnus of said school
I'll tell you what that adds up to: a young person who has never really failed at anything (the gradepoint), who is good at figuring out what is wanted of them and molding themselves accordingly (the test scores), who is accustomed to over-committing schedule-wise (the activities), who is good at working under stress —
-- and who is accustomed to asking not, “Is this what I want?” but rather, “What is expected of me and how can I exceed those expectations?” Someone who wants to please people (the interview -- actually the whole project of being a "smart kid," if you think about it). Who has honed their ability to delay gratification to the point of not being able to distinguish between “unhappy for now” and just plain “unhappy.”
This is the exact kind of person who gets picked up, chewed, digested, and shat out by elite schools, and who then spends the next ten years wondering where all these teeth marks and acid burns came from.
I'm not bitter, dudes, I'm just -- oh, hell.
Yes, I am bitter.
I am bitter that forty-eight hours of class and study per week was the official minimum expected of us, and that sixty hours of coursework was totally unremarkable.
I am bitter that when I had personal crises -- I got dumped by my freshman-year boyfriend, my family's home and business were flooded, I felt abandoned and directionless in my major -- I had so little energy left for coping that my life slipped out of control.
I am bitter that when I tried things that didn't work out very well -- a minor in biology, a collage presentation for a studio pin-up, studying Japanese and Spanish at the same time -- my professors and classmates treated that like an embarrassment, instead of an experiment.
I am bitter that at the age of eighteen I willingly dived into an environment where failure was inevitable, but there was no acknowledgement of our limitations or needs as people. Schools like MIT pay good lip service to having a "balanced lifestyle" while matter-of-factly informing you that you'd better get your physical education requirement out of the way the first year, because you're not going to have time to do regular exercise after that. They have great emergency mental health services, but they do a piss-poor job of creating an environment where mental health is valued and respected in the first place.
But mostly? Mostly I am angry at the way MIT, while very efficient as a machine that churns out papers and patents, fails its potential as an institution of higher learning. What we need from our institutions is not for them to cull young intellectuals who fail to make the grade, but to create a rich and supportive environment where all kinds of people can learn.
Young people need help learning not only to succeed, but to fail, particularly when you are expecting them to do the academic equivalent of juggling chainsaws while walking a tightrope. The time after a personal or professional failure -- figuring out what went wrong, what to try next, what you learned from that attempt -- can be a wellspring of creativity and resilience.
But that doesn't work if your metaphorical tightrope is also stretched over a metaphorical alligator pit, i.e. failing a course or needing to take an extra year means you are the target of jokes, silent judgment, and $40,000 extra in tuition fees.
I realize that, to a large extent, U.S. American elite schools reflect U.S. American cultural biases. We are all about putting the blame on the individual rather than the system, because it's frightening to admit that there are factors beyond our control determining our success. I've heard, too, that brutal educational systems are justified because they prepare you for the brutal reality.
To which I say: screw that! What made my education worth it was not seeing people bludgeon themselves into predetermined molds; it was watching people build lobster robots and wooden roller coasters, talking with people chasing unlikely dreams of (musical) organ-building and performance art, seeing them make sometimes bizarre but always delightful hybrids from mathematics and music and theater and transportation engineering and sewing and Latin.
What I want to see is an educational environment where there is not so much pressure, both subtle and not-so-subtle, to cut yourself loose from your support networks to go to a school like MIT. I want for students to respect their own needs for sleep, good food, and social interaction, instead of seeing those as some sort of "concession" to their weaker human natures.
Moreover -- though this would require change in the entire American system -- a strong educational environment needs to be free of the overhanging shadow of debt. Debt forces people into untenable and unproductive situations, like taking seventy hours of coursework rather than registering for another semester, or dropping activities they love rather than risking their grades over a scholarship.
I want students to learn to learn to pay attention to what they want much earlier. High school students have to fit a certain "college material" template to have access to the kind of opportunities that MIT and other elite schools offer, but that template demands that you dedicate a lot of effort to subjects you don't necessarily care about. Rather than training to tolerate what they hate, teenagers need better preparation to choose what they love. High school students learn early to measure their worth as person by external measures: grades, test scores, number of AP credits.
When those markers of worth are still in place but they are suddenly beyond their reach—as good grades were for many of us at MIT—students who have been encouraged to value themselves by these numbers suddenly have no identity at all. Education should be about developing your potential, not achieving a lot of superfluous markers of success.
The sad truth of the matter is that these changes wouldn't just benefit the kids who get wrung out by the elite school system. I think of how much time and energy I wasted on shame and exhaustion, born of living under expectations I could not possible live up to -- this is all time that could have been spent creating, working, caring for myself and others. We do ourselves no favors by supporting institutions that only cater to a narrow range of people.
Students (even very smart ones!) are people, not tools needing to be ground into their proper shapes. They need to be encouraged and allowed to grow.