Questioning the ‘elite’ education

I’ll never forget the bursting excitement I felt when leaving home last year, anxiously anticipating life-changing college experiences to come. As I looked over my shoulder toward my family one last time before passing through airport security, I had tears in my eyes at the thought of leaving everyone I loved behind. I consoled myself with the fact that I was off to change the world. I was about to enter an environment where everyone cared about working toward building a better community and where I would be supported in both learning and practicing how to create these positive changes.  

Flash forward a little over a year later. Sophomore Brittni sits in McCabe overwhelmed by work, contemplating how on earth I’m going to complete all my readings and stressing over whether I studied enough for my next test. Letting out a sigh of frustration, I can’t help but notice everyone around me staring lifelessly at their laptops as well, probably considering similar fears. While I should take this social cue as motivation to get back to studying, this observation only drains me more. Everyone’s expressions are a cross between boredom and withdrawal from their surroundings, as if this studying is the defining element of their everyday routines.

I’m instantly overwhelmed as I feel suffocated by work and disconnected from everything around me. Suddenly, it seems that my ability to complete my academic work to the highest standards is the defining quality of my worth at this institution. Moreover, since Swarthmore is where I live, and therefore, my main community, this reality quickly translates into academic success defining my self-worth as an individual. It symbolizes my ability to succeed in the real world. This one-size-fits-all definition of success is both detrimental to mental health and unrepresentative of life in society.

At an academically intense, elite institution like Swarthmore, it is easy to fall into the trap of believing that the person who studies the most and sleeps the least is the most successful. There is this perpetual illusion of “if I am sleeping, I must not be studying enough” or “the more time I spend exercising, the less time I have to do my readings.” I don’t think I’m alone in stating that this type of atmosphere is unhealthy and does not properly prepare students for post-graduation reality.

Part of Swarthmore’s mission statement describes the goal of teaching students to prepare themselves “for full, balanced lives,” to make them “more useful members of society,” and to help students “realize their full intellectual and personal potential.” Unfortunately, as it stands, we are not meeting this goal. To live a balanced life, self-care needs to be prioritized, and part of self-care is learning that self-worth is obtained from more than just grades or studying.

To be more useful members of society and realize our personal potential, students need to accept that college is a time to explore more than just academics; it is a time to engage with extracurriculars and the outside community. College is where we are meant to begin discovering our passions. It is impossible to find that passion without not only exploring not intellectual subjects, but also joining extracurriculars that engage with the community, attending lectures by professionals in a field, and allowing yourself unstructured time to see where the mind wanders when it is allowed to be free.

This is not Swarthmore’s fault and may not even be unique to Swarthmore. As students, we have a tendency to engage in the unspoken competition of being the most intellectual or to strive for perfection, but we need to begin to ask ourselves how we should be defining perfection. Is perfection obtaining straight As and studying as much as possible, or is it creating a balanced life, engaging with the community, and becoming a role model for others?

David Orr, the author of “What is Education for?” states it best when he says “the plain fact is that the planet does not need more ‘successful’ people, bit does need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every shape and form.” In our current pursuits of academic and intellectual perfection to get into the perfect grad school or land the perfect internship, how much are we preparing ourselves for less conventional models of success, like change-makers, through actively supporting one another and mending issues in the community?

Leaving for Swarthmore last fall, I knew that I was signing myself up for an academically rigorous experience, and as an intellectual with a love of learning, I embraced this. However, I never agreed to let the academic intensity of an elite institution replace my love for community engagement. This an aspect of identity that ought not to be compromised. As Swatties, we have the opportunity to create a new vision for success. Through self-care, embracing our own talents, and sharing them with the community, we can transform the campus atmosphere and model a new definition of an “elite” institution that means so much more than academic rigor.


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