I dread being a straight-A student. As great as it seems, I’ve come to loathe it. Having good grades carries with it a pressure to maintain an image as a “perfect” student: the student who has all of the answers, turns in their homework on time and goes home to study for hours on end each day. Being a straight-A student has siphoned the joy out of learning for me. Because of the expectations that weigh on students with stellar academic performance, it’s always been something I’ve had a love-hate relationship with.
My obsession with academic achievement can be traced back to the third-grade classroom. Each week, my teacher had every student attempt a timed math facts worksheet. Starting off with basic addition, a student would progress to the next sheet only if they received a perfect score. My teacher had a board displayed where the progress of each student was tracked, placing a sticker next to the student’s name when they passed a worksheet. I excelled in this. Soaring through these math assignments, I received much praise. It was the first time I began to see a connection between academic achievement and validation from family, peers and teachers. It was the beginning of a deep-seated sense of academic perfectionism that, regrettably, still exists within me today.
From then on, I was enrolled in advanced courses for most subjects and encouraged by my parents and teachers to pursue my education to the fullest extent possible. Skipping ahead a grade in mathematics and taking Advanced Placement courses are things that I became entrenched in. My mindset evolved to view my report cards as integral to my identity. My grade point average became a number to not just quantify my intelligence, but my worth as a human being. My infatuation with grades became nothing short of an obsession. Especially with the increasing fusion of the internet and education as I aged, viewing my grades was always a few clicks away. Even at home, I could not separate myself from test scores. Focusing on grades destroyed my mental health, and it was a behavior I couldn’t nip in the bud.
As the leaders and best, many of us have pushed ourselves to strive and prosper in academia. But at what point does the time we put into our education have diminishing returns? At what point does that A become more draining than fulfilling? Education is important and crucial to cognitive and social development. There is no denying that. But education can also become toxic when the process changes from emphasizing learning to hyper-fixating on numbers, grades and performance statistics. From my experience, this leads to perfectionism and unattainable expectations of efficiency put on oneself that can decay the mind. As my educational experience defined me as one of the many high-achieving, straight-A students, those numbers and letters came to quantify my self-worth.
A massive restructuring of our culture of education must occur. There needs to be a recentering of the educational process, away from quantifying and back to learning. Now, I’m not sure if that encompasses doing away with letter grades and grade point average altogether, but it certainly includes a renewed emphasis on learning. Education must not be just in the service of career attainment and wealth accruement. It must cultivate the mind and our perspectives on life. At the end of my time at the University of Michigan, I do not just want a piece of paper and a career. I’d like to leave this school as a more rounded person in a cognitive and philosophical sense. The grade obsession that bedevils many students serves a competitive, capitalistic sense of education rather than a learning-focused one. It’s a phenomenon that I am unfortunately undergoing to this day. Although fortunately, I’ve come to realize that grades are not the be-all-end-all of the educational experience.
From my education, I want to become a better person. And I don’t think another A on my transcript is going to do that. Interacting with diverse ideas and people that expand and challenge my worldviews will. In order to do this, I feel that I must sever my identity from being a straight-A student. For me, that moniker has resulted in a mental concoction of anxiety, perfectionism and self-loathing. Once I become distanced from an identity based on my grades, I will be able to focus on learning again. A grade-centric education system is a poison to the mental well-being of students. Reforming the current culture of education away from rigorous evaluations will not only have psychological benefits for students but will also reinvigorate a love of learning in those students whose self-esteem has been crushed under the weight of the letters A through F.
Benjamin Davis is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.