In the midst of our Andover hustle, days often manifest themselves as checklists of things to do. My thoughts, like my planner, revolve around the places I have to be and the assignments I need to complete. Such a mentality, states David McCullogh, Jr., who gave the popular commencement speech “You Are Not Special,” to the Wellesley High School Class of 2012, should be discouraged. McCullogh argues that “life is a great adventure to swallow whole rather than a checklist to complete.” While one might easily dismiss McCullogh’s statement as a byproduct of the emergence of New Age philosophy into popular culture, I am still inclined to adopt his disposition, and I’m not the only one.
Pamela Paul, a features and children’s books editor at the Book Review of the “New York Times” and a Brown alumna, questions the effects of our goal-oriented culture in the school system in her article, “Regrets of An Accomplished Child,” published in the Times. She argues that by understanding each task in school as nothing more than something-to-be-done, we fail to learn from our endeavors. Using the college application process as an example, she details how students are encouraged to do only what is necessary to gain admission into colleges. As a result, students refrain from pursuing their interests further or from making choices which could negatively affect their chances of admission: in other words, students avoid making mistakes. According to popular research, one learns best from mistakes, so such stratagems inherently stunt the education process. In effect, our desire to complete the checklist on our way to success prevents us from truly growing intellectually.
As students here at Andover, we are presented with opportunities to stimulate our minds and progress educationally every day, and we undoubtedly yearn to utilize them. Along with this yearning, however, the aspiration for success—as depicted by accolades, achievements and recognition—permeates our student body, just as it does Western society on a whole. With systems as prevalent as the college admission process encouraging success, it is no wonder that students often choose to pursue an accolade or some other form of recognition over a “learning” experience.
Yet a life characterized by relatively static intellectual growth certainly fails to provide a complete experience to the one living it. It is the responsibility of all Andover students, as declared emphatically in the school’s own constitution, to “learn the GREAT END AND REAL BUSINESS OF LIVING.” And in some ways, students do just that, but there could be improvement. Regardless, as long as perceivable success remains students’ primary goal, they will be affected despite the Academy’s best efforts otherwise.
In order for Andover to achieve the purposes outlined in its Constitution, that external influence must be minimized.
Such a feat would require a complete reversal of a mentality that is widespread and firmly rooted throughout Western and western-influenced societies. Its strength is quite understandable: to reuse college admissions as an example, the current systems utilize quantifiable information, such as test scores and the number of awards bestowed on a person. Systems that would encourage personal development as the highest priority would have to use factors such as cognitive ability to compare students. How does one measure cognitive ability? Frankly, no one knows for sure. But research is being done on the subject. If there were a way, conceivably we could redesign the current systems to promote a more satisfying form of personal development.
While such an overhaul of society is a daunting task, societal conventions merely represent popular thoughts. Change the way you think, and change the way we all act. Consciously place personal development over the desire for accolades. Take up a sport you’ve never played before, go to practice and struggled with it: trust me, your ego can take an hour’s worth of bruising. Pick a harder song to play or to sing; be sure to give yourself room to fail. Say ‘yes’ to too many things; stay up too late and struggle, struggle, struggle. Act to improve yourself, not just the test scores. And most importantly, scrap the to-do list: I think you might just find you can actually live without it.
Makenzie Schwartz is a three-year Upper from Bradford, MA, and an Associate Commentary Editor for The Phillipian.