I remember the day I shoved my whisk into the drawer for the final time. It was painful, but at least we were doing it together.
Four years had passed since I’d met Sabrina. She was one of those people I knew I’d seen before: someone who, biking on the narrow sidewalks between the jacaranda trees or pitching a softball, was always within the orbit of our small neighborhood in central Los Angeles.
Sabrina and I were never best friends, but throughout high school, we grew close over a feverish obsession with baking. Every Thanksgiving, we exchanged photos of our respective desserts, noting the braiding style of the pie crust and the piping tip for the whipped cream. In our work, Sabrina and I were meticulous, studied and intensely focused on perfecting the craft.
In 2020, however, everything changed. After years of devouring hours of dough technique videos and developing the perfect lemon curd, Sabrina and I parted ways to attend our respective four-year colleges. We were told that attending culinary school after high school would be too limiting. To focus on careers more lucrative and practical than that of a pastry chef, we set down the spatulas and picked up our pencils.
The plight of sublimating a creative passion for a traditional career is a tale as old as time. However, in contemporary America, this tradeoff has become more popular because the financial earnings gap between adults with a college degree and those with a high school diploma is rapidly widening. Although there is a heightened need to obtain college degrees, attending the universities that provide those degrees has become exponentially more difficult. American universities have become hyper-selective, with admissions offices flooded with files that they need to assess extremely quickly. The increasing necessity of higher education coupled with high application rates produces a disturbing phenomenon. With a narrow focus on being admitted to hyper-selective universities, college preparatory education discourages creativity.
Even with some higher education institutions adopting a test-optional approach to admissions in light of COVID-19, American public K-12 education is still structured around a rigid college preparatory model. College prep education strives for high proficiency over unique analysis, which has led to a decline in creative thinking among pre-college students. As of 2019, 87% of American high schoolers agreed that high school favors academics over emotional readiness.
When I entered college, I immediately felt the chilling effect of a meritocratic admissions process. Emerging from a college prep system that encourages academic perfection, students enter a world of information silos in college. Every department is hyper-specific, rigid and isolated, with students conditioned to avoid risk and grapple with academic stress in an epistemic bubble. Students are pushed into a narrow academic track with immense external pressure to excel.
In college, departments are so isolated that students are forced to purchase and learn innumerable digital platforms just to complete their degree requirements. Different departments require students to subscribe to expensive digital learning systems, often with no overlap. This means that students are paying for and learning how to use a myriad of learning software rather than one streamlined platform simply because siloed departments don’t communicate. In addition to digital information silos, campus buildings, such as the Engineering buildings here at the University of Michigan, are often restricted by key card access to only students in the program that the building serves. Major universities, intended to be a bastion of collaboration and creative cross-pollination, can feel limited to pre-professional silos.
Although the University offers opportunities to pursue collaboration and cross-disciplinary projects like research and extracurricular clubs, it encourages and promotes its collaborative projects through a very narrow pre-professional lens. With hyperachievement and traditional career goals dominating the academic culture, the University encourages and promotes its pre-professional programs far more than encouraging creativity.
Allocating specific resources to different academic departments is not the death knell of creative thinking, and contemporary universities certainly encourage collaborative innovation. At the University, programs like optiMize seek to encourage social innovation, and the University offers a full-fledged Entrepreneurship Minor. However, despite these avenues, the real problem is that increased risk aversion among college students — as a result of academic and social pressures — has led students to push creative passions to the side for traditional pre-professional aspirations.
After Sabrina and I committed to our traditional colleges, forgoing the pastry-chef dream for fear that it was too narrow a field, I felt secure in my path. However, while in college, the pull toward the professional kitchen didn’t let up. I fell deeper into a defined career track with every class taken and every requirement checked off. The limitations of conditioned risk aversion and perfectionism from years of college prep weighed heavily on my mind. I knew I wanted to be more creative, I knew I wanted to be a pastry chef, but the silo walls were closing in.
Then one day, the unthinkable happened. One year into university, I heard that Sabrina had transferred to a full-time culinary school. The illusion that pastry school was foolish and unrealistic shattered in an instant. I wanted to learn how moving beyond college’s pre-professional silos affected her life, so I reached out.
In her own words, Sabrina detailed what pushed her to transfer to culinary school. “I let the pressure of a college prep high school culture get to me, so I went along with it until I just knew traditional college wasn’t a good fit for me. I knew I wanted a more hands-on, creative career that I just wasn’t finding in college.”
Sabrina’s experience of feeling creatively unfulfilled in the collegiate hyper-achievement bubble is an endemic problem. Presently, rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness among American college students are at an all-time high. Since pursuing her passion, Sabrina commented on her renewed sense of fulfillment, “My favorite thing about my experience so far is how satisfied I feel at the end of every day. It’s both a mentally and physically demanding career path, so I never finish a day feeling unfulfilled.”
To make sweeping generalizations off a singular anecdote would be ignoring a larger, more nuanced picture. However, Sabrina’s words and our divergent paths after high school illustrate how college and pre-college academic programs are far narrower and more oppressive than their “limiting” creative counterparts.
Too frequently, students with non-traditional passions are put under immense pressure to attend and excel in a traditional college setting. However, once in college, the promise of collaborative exploration on the way to a lucrative career is dashed by entrenched educational silos.
To overhaul the entire American college preparatory system is an unrealistic goal to achieve in the near future. However, there are concrete steps that educators can take to deconstruct the compartmentalized learning silos that exist in higher education. If universities employed a truly interdisciplinary approach to learning that broke down barriers between isolated departments, students with non-traditional creative interests could thrive. Until then, the omnipresence of hyper-achievement culture and educational silos prove that contemporary American universities can be far more limiting than non-traditional educational environments. And for many students, the path to becoming a pastry chef is far less narrow than the path to becoming a lawyer.
Avery Crystal is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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