How are we thinking about school? What our culture of academic complaint says about us

Are we stressing ourselves out? The Upper School (US) attitude toward academics, reflected in the way we talk about homework and tests, treats schoolwork like a chore and assumes a constant level of anxiety among students. The language we use to describe academics has a direct impact on how we think about the role academics play in our lives. If we were to start talking about schoolwork positively, we would find managing our workload easier, and we would get more enjoyment out of academic life. 

The difference between how our athletic and artistic achievements are celebrated, as opposed to our academic milestones, highlights why so many of us dread tests and papers. How often have you heard a student leader or an administrator talk about the accomplishments of a certain class by describing impressive victories on the field or fantastic performances on the stage, only to then recount how the class “survived” difficult or stressful assignments in the classroom? That language shows we think of sports games and artistic performances as exciting culminations of our practice and discipline while we think of tests and papers as a necessary evil—something to be dreaded. 

For someone who has worked hard for weeks in a certain course, why shouldn’t a test be just as exciting and rewarding a culmination?

By reimagining tests as opportunities to try out newly developed skills or acquired knowledge, we would also shift the conversation of academic performance away from grades and transcripts toward personal growth. It is possible for athletes to leave a game that they lost feeling as though they have learned, improved, and enjoyed playing regardless; it should also be possible for us to miss the mark on tests and papers but still feel accomplished. Just as, in many cases, gaining competence and proficiency in a sport is more rewarding than winning, approaching mastery with academic material, even if that mastery isn’t reflected in a grade, should feel similarly fulfilling. Simple harmonic motion, the sophomore debates, and the junior history paper are all unique and challenging academic experiences that we should strive to do more than just “survive.” We should try to really enjoy them. 

Since all the material included in a high-level course can’t be covered during class time alone, we need to do some of our schoolwork at home. Complaining about that homework as students—or, as teachers and administrators, referring to it as a burden—can only cast homework as a chore, rather than a chance to expand and deepen our learning. While all homework is not equally engaging, and while late nights can take a toll on mental well-being, it’s nonetheless a privilege to be at a stage in our lives, and a school of this caliber, where our primary source of stress is our homework load. 

We are lucky to be students at a school where teachers are deeply invested in our becoming serious critical thinkers, and we should be grateful for the chance to grow. There are plenty of schools where homework is less engaging and where students aren’t challenged nearly as much. Such a rich intellectual environment may be harder to find later in our lives, so we ought to enjoy it while we can.  

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