I Don’t Want to Learn

More and more Americans are going to college, but how many of them are actually learning anything?

Throughout most of my academic career, my only goal was to achieve the highest grade possible. If I took a test, my only motivation to study for that test was so that I could get the correct answers, and if I happen to retain the information for any time after the test, then that was just an added bonus. But that was rarely the case. More often than not, less than a week or so after an essay or an exam, whatever information I had crammed into my head the night before was completely forgotten. For a while I thought that was what everyone did. In his article “Live and Learn” in The New Yorker, former college professor Louis Menand discusses the importance of college and our education system. His description of education resonated with the way I thought about school for most of my life. However, in the past year, I have learned that our education system offers many different ways to be successful.

In his article, Menand suggests that there are three distinct theories of why we attend college. His first theory says that we attend college to sort the good students from the bad based on academic success. Theory 2 argues that we go to actually learn and gain knowledge in your area of study. Theory 3 states that we go to specialize in one area of expertise and go on to a career in that field. For most of my life, I was a firm believer of his first theory. I wanted to show everyone that I could achieve at a high academic level, and hopefully, that success would allow me to get a desirable job and live happily ever after. However, it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I learned maybe I could learn something from school.

Every year in the spring, an epidemic called Senioritis sweeps across high schools all over the country. This term is used to describe seniors and their lack of interest in school now that they are all into college and no longer have an incentive to get good grades. Anyone who suffers from Senioritis would also subscribe to Menand’s first theory because they are only interested in achievement, and now that achievement isn’t as important, the incentive to learn is lost. By the end of my winter trimester I had all the early symptoms. However, right as I was about to tune out school for three months, one of my teachers, Paul Denison, gave a speech describing his experience in high school, and it seemed very similar to my experience.

(It’s a long video, if you have the time watch all of it because it is very interesting, but the most important part is from 1:49 until 4:07)

Maybe you can see me in the back of the audience having my mid-speech epiphany. What he was describing was exactly how I went about my schoolwork: do the least amount of work to get the best grade. And like him, I became pretty good at that skill. I was honing in on Menand’s first theory. All I wanted to was to be viewed as successful. And at that time, I thought that his other two theories were completely separate and could not overlap. But with significantly less pressure to get good grades during my third semester, I thought, why not give this a try.

So I did. I stopped worrying so much about my grades. I learned only for the sake of learning, and I was surprised to discover that I continued to achieve at a high academic level. Even though I subscribed to Menand’s second theory, I continued to receive good grades and achievement. Menand gave three very distinct theories about our education system, and he suggests that they are all mutually exclusive. However, given my experience in high school, specifically my senior spring, I would argue that these theories are very inclusive. Our education system is what you make of it. If you want to just get the best grades possible and not worry about what you remember, you can. If you want to learn as much as you can and retain everything you learn, you can. You can allocate your interests with infinite different combinations based on what you value with your personal education, and my senior spring in high school truly made me reevaluate what I find important.