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The UnCollege Blog

Should Achievement Be the Point of Education?

In a changing culture of education and work, more students are questioning what it means to be successful, and what path to take to get there. With races to the top--the top of the class, of standardized test scores, of college acceptance letters--being laden with the pressure of finding a dream job and being academically successful, achievement has a grip on our academic culture like never before. Everything we promote in schools points to an exact definition of success, a ladder to be climbed in order to grasp the next tier of achievement that stands to define not just what we do, but who we are. Our identities are interwoven with our academic successes, with good grades and college names serving as ways of defining ourselves.

Though research proves unrealistically high achievement expectations actually hinder academic performance, given that “simply raising aspiration cannot be an effective solution to improve success in education,” students are facing unprecedented levels of stress in an effort to achieve more, do more, and be more than generations prior.

Still, the question remains: Is achievement the point of learning? Should it be?

First, we have to examine what it means to be successful: Does it mean perfect grades and an idyllic college, followed by a steady career? Is that the aim of learning, or should it be something more than that?

There are two schools of thought regarding college success: That pursuing a university education is a vehicle to get a job, or that you go to college to learn how to learn. So, again, reassessment of the endgame of academic success has to be established...does success mean getting a job? To some extent, yes. We want to see a payoff from our time and money in education; that investment should better us in some way. The College Board outlines college success as getting a job, keeping a job, and making more money. While those are worthy aims (and necessary ones, as we do have to feed ourselves and pay rent), I think it does a disservice to learning to limit it solely to an end result. Of course, we have goals and outcomes we work toward, but in achievement-focused learning, the kind that means we’re focused more on the grade we’re getting than the knowledge we are actually gaining, we reject learning as a process. We go to college to get a degree. We have completely forgotten about the learning part.

The aim of higher education is to better yourself and create habits. That’s right: Not just a job, not just a degree. Thinking independently, learning to process information, and logical and critical thinking skills count for far more than being able to recount the Gettysburg Address from memory or do math facts. For success in today’s society, we should be striving to learn how we learn best, to better ourselves—not develop one skill set we will cling to for the rest of our lives.

Funnily enough, our achieve-at-all-costs academic culture is hindering students in school, but also failing them for the world beyond it: “Success can breed failure by hindering learning at both the individual and the organizational level.” There’s more to learning than successfully cinching your endgame goal, be it a perfect GPA or a job you have always wanted. It doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in those things, but at least part of that merit is developed through the process of them. While it is possible to learn from success, achievement is an outcome. The means of achieving, though, is a process, and requires moving through experiences, failures, opportunities, and various situations that we may not have experienced before.

The aim of education ultimately has to come down to what the student wants and their expectations of themselves, and that is part of the problem. In its current state, our collegiate system (and the years of schooling that prepare you to enter it) are system-centered, not student-centered. This system relies on certain measures of success to reinforce a student’s ability to thrive within it. But this doesn’t help students thrive; making achievement the only goal of education holds them back from discovery, skill development, identity formation, and critical thinking that should be cornerstones of any education, regardless of what a student seeks from it.

Self-directed learning is a “process by which individuals take the initiative, with our without the assistance of others, in diagnosing their learning needs, formulating learning goals, identify human and material resources for learning, choosing and implement appropriate learning strategies, and evaluating learning outcomes.” Learning for achievement’s sake is a race. It is who can move the fastest and know the most, rather than a steady progression toward understanding in-depth knowledge. The movement toward “alternative” means of education, like project-based learning or gap years, demonstrates that our culture is growing unsettled with the emphasis on the standardization of achievement. We expect our educations to do a lot--we want them to prepare us for life, enrich us personally, intellectually, and morally, and enable us to have careers that allow life to feel stable. We should want more out of learning than just an A+.