Confessions of an Achievement Junkie

[A quick note: I originally posted this entry on June 6, 2011, on my old blog. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately, and since the blog has been taken down, I wanted to repost it (with some minor edits) today.]

About a year and a half ago, I came across the article “How Important are Grades to You?” by Marcella Purnama in the Melbourne-based Meld Magazine. In the article, she challenges the notion that knowledge and good grades go hand in hand and criticizes the fact that we have become obsessed with the evaluation part of education and therefore have lost the plot. She even goes as far as to quote Erica Goldson’s 2010 valedictory speech, and picks up the part that most people who were enamored of that speech picked up on, the “I was a good slave, you’re all slaves, death to the system!” part.

It’s not that necessary for me to repeat that there aren’t that many teachers out there who worship at the altar of evaluation and standardized testing; in fact, most of the people I know seem to accept testing as part of the job and strive for their students to get good test scores because … well, I don’t know about you but I don’t feel like standing on an unemployment line. But when you get to the heart of the matter and take something like standardized testing out of the equation, I honestly get frustrated by my students’ Pavlovian need for a grade on every little assignment to the point where they will not read an article or engage in a discussion if there no type of credit attached. “Is this for a grade?” is the second-most asked student question (the first, of course, is “Can I go to the bathroom?”).

But at the same time, grades are obviously necessary on some level. I know that knowledge is a formidable goal in itself and one should be happy that he or she achieved said knowledge, no matter if the grade is an A+ or a C-. Purnama seems to have a pretty balanced view of things and I think she realizes this; however, she ends her piece by saying:

University was never meant to be a pressure cooker. We come to learn new things, not just for the getting of good grades or jobs. More than that, we learn because we are passionate about what we are studying. It’s all about seeing the bigger picture. Good grades aren’t the guarantee for success in life.


And like I said, this is true to an extent. Just because you got good grades in high school doesn’t mean that you’re going to automatically ascend to the presidency and if you pull a D in 9th grade English you’re not doomed to destitution or a life of crime. You know, just like winning a senior award or a scholarship doesn’t make you any better than the person who didn’t. I sit through a senior awards ceremony every year, just like most high school teachers who have to babysit a throng of underclassmen in a gym. And if we’re not complaining about having to babysit, we’re complaining about how long the awards ceremony is, or how the same kids seem to win every award (of course, I’m always the first person to point out that very often they’re the only ones to apply for the scholarships they win). Somewhere along the line, usually when we get into hour three of the ceremony (seriously, they’re like an Oscars telecast), someone pipes up that there’s no point in these awards because in the long run, they’re all insignificant anyway. I’m sure there are plenty of people who agree with that sentiment.

Obviously, being the person who is given the perfect attendance award in high school doesn’t mean that you’re set for life. I know someone who was awarded the perfect attendance award in high school and then wound up flunking out of college because he never went to class. And I know people who spent a significant amount of high school “in absentia” who are successful in their jobs as police officers, lawyers, soldiers, or whatever passion they followed. Of course, that all goes without saying because if you think that who you are at 18 defines who you will be for the next 70 years, you’re either naive or stupid. Maybe both.

At the same time, however, it’s tough for me to follow the cool kids crowd and embrace the pooh-poohing of awards, achievement, and good grades because … well, I was one of those kids in high school who showed up every day and got excellent grades. The last time I was digging my college graduation gown out of a box in my basement for Saturday’s graduation ceremony, I spotted a stack of stuff from high school. Among old journals, student newspapers and event programs were several awards that I’d earned from elementary school all the way to graduation. I wasn’t surprised that I’d kept all of that stuff, but as I briefly thumbed through the high honor roll certificates, President’s Academic Fitness Awards, and a Lincoln Avenue Elementary “Citizen of the Month” commendation, I was a little surprised that I’d forgotten that not only was I an achiever in school, I was pretty much an awards chaser.

Not in a cutthroat sort of way, mind you, but ever since I was excited that I recieved all “S’s” on a second grade report card (second grade was tough for me and I’m amazed I wasn’t labeled ADD because of all the daydreaming I did) I spent my academic career trying to get the next award. All S’s on a report card led to struggling to do three pull-ups in gym so I could net the Standard Physical Fitness Award; the President’s Academic Fitness awards and Honor Roll certificates led to me graduating in the top 25 of my class; graduating in the top 25 in my class led to maintaining a 3.0 in college (harder than it seemed, though I won’t go into details); and that eventually led back to high school where I netted a “New Teacher of the Year” award my first year of teaching (funny enough, I have no idea where that award is).

I guess if you were to run a profile on me based on those last two paragraphs, I clearly sought some validation by winning all of those awards. I was really smart and I worked very hard to get the grades I did (and took a lot of shit for being a “know it all”) and I know that I received some sort of psychological benefit from all of it, but other than that, was it worth it? Did it matter in the long run?

All things considered, probably not. Like I’ve already said, I’m sure that if I graduated #100 in my class and wanted to become a high school English teacher, a doctor, a lawyer, or a writer, I probably could have. But at the same time, to say that such achievement and awards are useless kind of makes me feel like an ass for caring about those things when I was younger. Yes, that’s my ego talking. I understand the sentiment that we are too awards focused, it’s hard for me to let go of the idea that it’s nice to get awards, so I can’t exactly join this chorus because I don’t feel like I should apologize for being proud of what I did accomplish.

Those who harp on their achievements, awards, and accomplishments are arrogant; on the flip side, those who go out of their way to tear down that wall and piss all over said achievements, awards, and accomplishments are bitter. My man, Aristotle, always talked about living in extremes being unhealthy and that life is a search for a mean. Not that I know what that mean is because it’s a lifelong search, but I do know that I’m grateful for what I was awarded when I was younger, I refuse to be ashamed for my being a grade monkey, and that I will continue to search for knowledge whether I am awarded for it or not.


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