“You don’t learn if you don’t stumble. Having that challenge to get better at what you love to do is very important.”
I heard this advice from President Roth as a high school senior eagerly anticipating the start of my college career. To me, these words epitomized the educational journey that I desired. They further strengthened my sense that Wesleyan was the right place for me, and I was excited to start on a journey of my own here.
I had always enjoyed the feeling of doing well and getting good grades. At the same time, though, I was offended by the emphasis that was constantly being put on grades and on the empirical barometer of success. I wanted the focus to be on learning for learning’s sake, and I was elated to be spending the next four years at a place where that notion was shared.
I came here with every intention to put all of my focus on learning and on expanding my mind, placing grades on a much lower scale of importance. I know that I am here to learn, and I don’t want to let anything get in the way of that. But in the moment, when I am writing a paper or waiting with bated breath to receive a grade back, I realize that I am not following my own advice. I see myself feeling defined by the letter that appears at the top of the page instead of by the hard work I put in or the new knowledge I acquired. Why am I, yet again, so affected by this?
There is a drive instilled within many of us that is always demanding more. Usually, this drive is a wonderful propeller of achievement. It constantly reminds us to do better, to reach higher and higher and not to stop until we’ve reached our full potential. But sometimes, this drive can be more damaging than constructive. It can overtake us and make us lose sense of what we want to achieve. It can convince us that our accomplishments are meaningless if they do not lead to As. And this way of thinking belittles accomplishments that are even more important than the grade: hard work, learning, personal growth. That is what we are here to do. If we arrive at college and immediately begin receiving perfect grades, then why are we here?
Of course, there is great value in good grades. They are a necessary aspect of seeking the best possible academic and professional future, and therefore one should strive for success in this area. But while we strive, we must be careful that our priorities do not become distorted. What begins as a desire to do well can easily morph into an obsession that overtakes our most important values as students. Instead of seeing good grades as a step on our journey to ultimate success, we begin to make the mistake of viewing grades as the ultimate success itself, the pinnacle of all of our endeavors.
This skewed vision causes us to define ourselves and our intelligence solely based on the grades we receive, when in fact these concepts can be entirely unrelated to one another. We have all experienced the frustration of working assiduously for an exam or paper, only to discover later that there were areas in which we still needed to improve and that this need for improvement was reflected in our grade. Does this less-than-perfect result mean that we worked hard for naught? By no means. We are here at Wesleyan to immerse ourselves in a life of learning. We are on a personal mission to explore our intellectual potential through study. This is the exciting journey that we are undertaking as college students and as young people, and I would argue that the destination of this journey is learning for its own sake.
In high school, it was all about the numbers and the letters, and our inner drives reflected that goal. But college is a new world, and we need to adjust our motivations accordingly. Our new goals are perhaps even more difficult than our past goals. Here, we aspire to explore, to engage with new ideas, to think deeply about important issues. These aspirations are difficult, but they are also exciting. They are important goals, goals that remind us that we are doing something great and significant as college students. We are embarking on something meaningful, and no number or letter can hold us back.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.