Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Dear Orli

You wrote about the education system ruining your health because you started having panic attacks when you realized your future would be based on a set of criteria created by exam boards. You think young people are feeling pressure that shouldn't be imposed on anyone.  You ask,
"How can we justify putting the health of children on the line for an exam board’s definition of achievement? The most important achievement a person should aim for is being comfortable in their skin, safe in the knowledge they can live their life and define success on their own terms."
You feel that you're too young to make some significant life decisions, that politicians are to blame for the state of your mental health, and that "this isn't fair."

Have I heard you correctly?

Then listen a bit.

You don't have to let the school criteria judge you as a success or failure in life. Education is about teaching information and skills, but school evaluations are there to tell you what you're good at compared to others in society. It's a means to show you your abilities and limitations among the wider populous. Whether or not you decide your place on the list is a measure of your success in life is completely up to you. As my mom told me when I faced similar concerns thirty years ago, "It's important to do your best, not to be the best." She convinced me that I don't have to worry about being at the top of the class to be a good person or to be a valuable worthwhile individual, BUT the strength of my abilities in school compared to others would have implications on the job market.  Those are two very different things, and it's important not to conflate them. If I can be content to waitress, then I can ditch the stresses of school altogether. And I did drop out.

And then, bored to tears in an entry-level job, I went back.

Your ability to be among the best and brightest in a particular area - or not - will likely affect the kind of job you can get, but that isn't a measure of your worth as a human being. Being comfortable in your skin, however, won't get you far if it's the only thing on your resume. And defining success on your own terms is definitely how your should consider your value in the world, but it doesn't fit in the marketplace. If a bookseller decides she's a success if she can sell one book a week, then she might have great self-esteem, but she won't be able to pay the rent on the retail space she needs to sell books.

I don't think school affects mental health. I think it's our perception of the role of school marks that affects us. But that perception is a choice. We've been sucked into a competitive mode of living that puts a priority on being at the top. But it's pretty comfortable among the masses as well.  And, if we're working to our potential, school marks can give us valuable information about which fields we should pursue for money and which we should relegate to hobbies.

And about those life decisions at such a young age: don't forget that nothing is permanent. Choosing now gets you started on a path that can fork later. And you can start over at any time.

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