Escape the Herd

Students groomed to go to elite universities now must contend with a new question: what comes next?

By Meera Santhanam

Those of us raised in environments where college and success were something of a certainty were taught that life is a series of connect-the-dots. We’re supposed to learn how to cry, then walk, then tie our shoes as we move onto kindergarten. We all know what comes next—first grade, second grade, you get the picture, until eventually we’re moving on to middle school, high school, college, internships, maybe even grad school, and then… just the rest of your life.

We’re told when we’re young to work on our fractions and similes. As we grow older, fractions and similes evolve into calculus and analytical essays; colorful blocks and reading (dare I say, for fun?) gradually give way to formulas and tests of reading comprehension. Ideas—of success, of fulfillment, of passion—are hurled at us, neatly packaged in 21st-century lingo and shoved down our throats.

We are the number one recipients of a barrage of unsolicited advice. We are told to keep working hard, but not too hard, to get eight hours of sleep, but not too much sleep or else we aren’t working hard enough, to read often, but rarely for pleasure, to get good grades, to never miss a shot.

Then one day we are told to fill out applications, applications that seemingly hold the key to our future, that will transform our lives and grant us a certain salary, prestige, or job. We keep filling in bubbles, writing essays that are edgy, but not too edgy, self-promoting, and thinking critically, but not too critically lest we actually challenge someone in the name of what we want.

One day those applications end. One day we are in a new city, walking new halls, meeting a thousand faces a minute. Yet we are told to do just the same thing. We are told to keep working hard, but not too hard, to prepare for whatever it is that we’re supposed to be preparing for, to balance a respectable amount of sleep deprivation with enough actual sleep.

But what is it exactly that we’re so diligently preparing for? What are all those bubbles really about? Why are we working like this, like hamsters in a hamster wheel, running, sprinting, pushing ourselves oftentimes to the brink of exhaustion? Where exactly are we running to, and why are we running there? What is the light at the end of the tunnel?

One day college will end; fourth-years applying for jobs and contemplating their lives outside school perhaps feel this more vividly than the rest of us. We might even make it to grad school—law school, even, if the board game extends far enough. But the game will end for all of us. We’ll receive our diplomas, cash in our prizes. And then what?

My generation is criticized by loads of scholars for being what author and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz calls “excellent sheep.” We know how to work the system, how to get good grades, how to get to the top. In fact, we probably wouldn’t be at such a prestigious university if we didn’t. But we are sheep, he claims, blindly following the herd in the name of some perfunctory idea of success. He contends that we lack the ability to critically think, are bereft of a sense of purpose, and are inexperienced with failure.

To some extent, I agree with Deresiewicz’s claim that students at elite institutions have been conditioned to act like sheep. But I don’t think the higher education system alone is to blame. What is to blame, however, is the grossly linear narrative of success we’ve been told to believe from the time we took our first steps. First middle school. Then high school. Then college. Then…life?

What is the purpose of education as a form of preparation when we don’t know what it is that we are preparing for? And why does education have to be reduced to mere preparation? Why can’t I just take a class because it looks interesting, not because it has any kind of practical application down the line? How am I supposed to challenge myself and take risks in the classroom when I’m also tasked with protecting my GPA?

I don’t think these questions necessarily have easy answers. However, I do think that shifting away from this system requires an understanding that learning for learning’s sake shouldn’t be a source of shame. I want to be able to take pride in the fact that I’m investing my time in something that’s perhaps entirely unrelated to school; I should not feel the need to trivialize these academic pursuits as mere hobbies. I want to be able to enroll in a class entirely unrelated to my major without having to explain myself, without having to feel guilty. I shouldn’t have to sacrifice something I love for some abstract notion of success.

Shedding the guilt so heavily tied with treading off the beaten track takes courage; it requires us to venture into terrain rife with uncertainty. But I have confidence that we can do it. I urge you to take that class you’ve always wanted to take but have never been able to justify. Invest in something crazy, impractical even, and don’t feel guilty about it. Wear your varied interests as a sacred badge of honor. And never be afraid to invest in something for yourself.

Meera Santhanam is a first-year in the College and an associate Viewpoints editor.