College Pressures

26 September 2010

After having just read two essays from my AP Compostion Norton Reader anthology, (which is, by the way, my new favorite book) entitled “College Pressures” by William Zinsser and “Boring from Within: The Art of the Freshman Essay” by Wayne C. Booth, I am immensely inspired. Inspired and discouraged about the state of my generation. I’m not sure where to start, which actually leads me to a good idea for a start: ought I to invest time and effort and thought into making this post into more than just a post, into a deep essay, or ought I just get my thoughts out here and share them with the world? Since it’s a Sunday afternoon and I still have all of my weekend homework to do, I think I shall take on the second option.

But it’s still a good question, and one that has been nagging on my mind in many ways lately. We’ve discussed it in my 11th grade AP Comp class, I’ve considered it in conversations with friends, I’ve been fed the controversy from my AP US History teacher, who agonizes over the distinct under-abundance of critical thinking ability in my class. And still the question stands. It’s more than just a time question; it’s a thinking question, a culture question. And I’m still puzzled about where to begin.

In Zinsser’s essay, written in 1979, the dean of Yale’s Branford College mulls over the disturbing culture of his students and the unnerving conflict between the pressures of the American Dream and our world’s desperation for substantial, curious, well-rounded people. “If I were an employer,” he writes, “I would rather employ graduates who have this range [of broad subject matter and C-area grades] and curiosity than those who narrowly pursued safe subjects and high grades. I know countless students whose inquiring minds exhilarate me.” As a high school student in Clovis Unified School District, this is a shocking statement, one that gives me hesitation. If you are a high school-age student at any respectable institution in this state, you know that your counselors question you, from your earliest years of high school, about your career goals. It’s nice that their job is to help you achieve what you want as a professional by guiding you through the correct secondary and college courses, but I think it fosters this goal-oriented urgency in my generation, our generation (which will, frighteningly, be taking over the world eventually). Zinsser’s essay struggles with this very trend in his essay. He explores its causes, the pressures that mold students in his day. I think the pressures he lists (economic, parental, peer, and self-pressure) for college students at the time he wrote this still stand, but they probably exist to an even greater extent today.

I’m not a college student (yet, hopefully), but I’m an honors/AP high school student in a type-A school district, surrounded by very academically competitive peers, so I feel I’m somewhat qualified to have an opinion on the subject. Zinsser’s paper stretches me. It draws out a few tangled strings from my mind. It speaks to my soul. I know many of the pressures he cites. I’ve been fortunate enough to have parents who love me for who I am and don’t place heaps of pressure on me to become some academic superstar. They don’t have money and thus have no plans to send me to Stanford or Harvard or Yale. By God’s grace, I’ve also been blessed with a liberal reservoir of self-motivation. But I still have long nights, days that never end, assignments that frustrate me.

One example I can give is my AP US History class this year. This year, it is taught by one of my favorite teachers: Mr. Hawkins, my former English teacher. Last year another teacher directed the class, and no one who signed up for it this semester expected it to be a challenge. We had heard the stories from last year’s juniors, trusted that it was way easier than AP World. But we were in for a surprise. Mr. Hawkins is a fabulous teacher, and he’s working hard this year to be a history teacher, not an English teacher. But his irritation with our class’s analytical disability is no secret. We have a hard time thinking critically, to put it nicely. And it’s killing our grades. In a discussion the other day in my English class, students tossed around their thoughts on the reasons for our generation’s remarkable inability to think. There were many causes proposed, but that is beside the point. The point is that we are learning how to think critically, and that handicap, which sets us behind in the race, combined with the required masses of homework in the AP curriculum, is causing endless amounts of frustration.

Booth discusses the occupational disappointment of English teachers/professors who grapple with unsubstantial students and writing assignments in his essay. “Boring from Within” really targets the fact that students, even in his day (the 60s), suffer from a lack of mental/soul substance. They don’t know how to think. They are idea-deficient. Now that I think of it, I suppose the ideas in his essay are what stirred me up more than the ideas in Zinsser’s paper. Because I wrestle with my own laziness and my own life stresses, I find the conjunction between living a meaningful, well-rounded life of curiosity and our culture’s way of achieving intellectual prowess a tough pick. As I write this, I imagine some graph where the x-axis denotes the amount of emotional intelligence and the y-axis shows my book intelligence. I know that’s incorrect. I know the two are not incompatible. I know I chose my own year of AP hard knocks. I know I shouldn’t complain.

But where do the lines meet on my graph? I really want to know how our world can ask us to be good students with strong time management and critical thinking skills, how it expects us to be creative and inquisitive and well-rounded, and how it expects us to be emotionally disciplined and spiritually enriched, and physically competent–all at the same time. Of course, I’m using a little hyperbole when I say that, and I’m being a little sarcastic. But seriously, how do I find time for even a fraction of those things in one day? How do I read my Bible and pray and do three hours of homework (many of my friends have more than that) and love the people around me and be a positive influence in their life and enjoy the love and knowledge around me and form new opinions about life, in one day?

I sound like a total whiner, but I truly struggle with doing my homework comprehensively with attention to detail and a strong dose of contemplation, and getting it done before it’s due in class the next day. Sometimes, it’s a matter of pick and choose. I just haven’t attained that level of thought and efficiency to finish reading of my history chapter in one night and to muse over the complexities of the ideas in the reading. Hopefully–by God’s grace–I will gain this skill, this mental competence by the time I reach college. Because it sounds like it matters even more there.

I’ll wrap up my essay/rant/post now. It would be wrong for me to leave this with a despairing, grumbling tone. The truth is that I like learning, I like thinking and growing, and I am increasingly inspired in class. I will progress in my ability to rise to society’s standards and above by God’s grace alone. It’s nice to know that there’s more to life than academia. But that’s for another post/rant. (:

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5 Responses to “College Pressures”

  1. I think I learned o hate Sunday after 5 PM because that was usually when I realized I had to actually do all the work I’d been putting off that weekend.

  2. I am inspired by precocious writers like you! Keep writing. I will add you to my blogroll. No pressure!

    Lessons From Teachers and Twits

    • Felicity Says:

      I just realized I never replied to this. Sorry!
      Thank you so much for your comments and attention! They completely made my day and they inspire me to write even more!

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