The over-emphasis on academic failure

Bill Nye the Science Guy once said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” 

As college students, this should seem truer now than ever before. Yet it doesn’t. Why? Because sometimes it seems like we’re expected to know everything. 

Honors program, honors society, honors housing…shouldn’t we all just be honored to be here? Considering we’re the lucky ones in the world who have access to education, shouldn’t we all be walking to class with smiles on our faces and a deep willingness to learn? Instead, we walk with fear—fear of the paper we’re about to get back, fear of the test we’re about to take, fear of a pop quiz. 

During a recent Harvard scandal, around 125 students were investigated for cheating on a take-home final exam. The class was apparently too hard, and the students decided to work together in order to get the coveted “A.” The situation is ironic. From a young age we’re taught how to share, many of our classes have group projects and we’re constantly told that working well with others is a skill that will help us in the “real world.” But beyond this obvious irony, the situation is also sad. These students (who accounted for almost half of the class) decided that it would be better to earn a cheated “A” than to receive an honest “F,” “D” or “C.” Or whatever grade is considered to be unimaginably bad at Harvard. 

On Pinterest you can find a million pastel, glittery and cat-backgrounded photos telling us that “life goes on” or that “failure is not falling down, but refusing to get up.” Yet, a bad grade still stings. Yes, life is still going on and we may still be standing, but that doesn’t negate the effect a grade can have on our confidence. Because despite how many times we are told that perfection does not exist, a 4.0 does, and in the college world, the two are one in the same. 

Aristotle said, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence,” yet if you’re reading negative remarks in the margin on your philosophy paper, you probably aren’t thinking of that. You’re thinking of what you did wrong, what you could have done better. Mostly though, you’re thinking about what letter grade you will find waiting for you on the final page. 

Assumption requires we take 16 core-curriculum courses in order to ensure that we get a well-rounded education. This means if you’re an English major, you’re going to probably suffer through elementary functions. If you’re a biology major, you’ll have to struggle through philosophy. 

Are we learning? Yes. Do we know that some of what we learn may never be used in our future careers? Yes. But these courses, no matter how inconsequential they may seem, still have the power to make our confidence waiver. If we’re going to be getting a well-rounded education, we should be okay with having well-rounded grades, as well.  

The idea of grades, in general, is not bad; sometimes there’s nothing greater than getting an A on a paper. But for every happy “I got an ‘A’” shriek, can’t we be granted a “Get out of jail free card?” An entire semester’s worth of hard work should make an occasional bad grade okay.

To the professors who allow us to drop our lowest exam, quiz or paper grade: thank you. And though some may say this doesn’t accurately represent the “real world,” I think it does. In the “real world” (What do we live in now? A fake world?) there are no “pop quizzes” asking you to list all the presidents in order. And if there were, no one would care if you got some wrong, phoned a friend or relied on Google. Maybe in this “real world” there are no exam grades, but there are days when parents are late to pick up their children from pre-school and there are “sick days,” because the real world allows you to be sick, with or without a doctor’s note. 

We constantly hear people talking about the harshness of this “real world,” but maybe what’s nice about this real world is it is just that—it’s real. It’s forgiving. It’s understanding. 

So what’s wrong with right now? What’s wrong with where we are? Why can’t this be real? Better yet, who’s to tell us it isn’t?

Our problems are real. Our emotions are real. Our workload is real. Our stress is real. So what is this “real world” we’re waiting to hit us? 

We aren’t driven by a want for success; we’re driven by a fear—a fear of failing. This wouldn’t be problematic if that fear didn’t leak out into this “real world” we’re preparing for.

We should be able to want any job and we should be motivated and confident enough to go after any career, no matter how bizarre or unconventional it may be. But we should not settle because we are afraid of failing at something else. 

If we let fear control us, we will end up being well-rounded students with GPAs no one cares to notice and a job we hate but that society commends us on having. 

Our coffee addictions shouldn’t have begun while we pulled our first all-nighter studying for a marketing test. Our coffee addiction should be fed by our constant desire to stay awake so that we can be enjoying every beautiful moment that life has to offer. 

So maybe we shouldn’t fear the red “F” that may or may not ever greet us, maybe what we should fear is fear itself. One grade doesn’t have the power to hold you back, but fear does. And what’s worse is we might very well let it.


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