In the late 80s and early 90s, when I was in high school, the academic treadmill wasn’t as stressful and pervasive as now, but straight A students like myself were encouraged and expected to get on it. We were expected to join the student council and National Honor Society, care about class rank and Who’s Who Among Students and National Merit Scholarships, and do extracurriculars we weren’t really in to. Who’s Who and National Merit came along with the tests I had to take, but I skipped the rest of the script. I saw it as ill-fitting styrofoam. What did this have to do with who I wanted to be?
Instead, I was dialing into Bulletin Board Systems using a hand-me-down 286 and a 2400 baud modem. I was particularly captivated by boards run by engineers. The Digital X-Connect was run by telecom engineers in the telecom corridor north of Dallas. Bulletin boards showed me what I wanted to do and be. I wanted to be an engineer who helped build the infrastructure that would allow me to talk to the world with the written rather than the spoken word. I was working on cross-connects a few years later.
My neurodivergence kept me from fully stepping on the treadmill. The treadmill encourages a neurotypicality that is exhausting for me to sustain. The society I lived in didn’t have the vocabulary for me. “He’s just shy. He’s just quiet.” Autistic is the word. I credit my autistic operating system for rejecting pressure from peers and adults to get on the treadmill and give myself to a culture I found too talkative, too performative, and too obsessed with grading, ranking, and credentials. Introversion and an analytical skepticism of society drove me to the written word and alternative life scripts. Instead of eating stress and curating a fake self in hopes of entering a prestigious school and maintaining my credentials, I went to an affordable state university that gave me a scholarship. It happened to be right next to the telecom corridor. I entered the university’s co-op program and secured a position at a company making switches and cross-connects. I worked there full-time while taking a full-time course load and doing sys and network admin work for the school. The web and commercial internet were dawning, and I wanted to approach them from every available angle. I enjoyed collaborating and communicating via computers and text. “Written communication is a great social equalizer.” It allowed me to participate and be a part of things bigger than me.
I continued my straight A trend for a while, but the load was too great. Something had to give. Academic treadmill thinking would have me drop the co-op and sysadmin work and put all of myself into my course load. That was certainly what administrators wanted me to do. But, school was almost all theory punctuated with stressful high-stakes assessment in environments hostile to my sensory needs. I appreciated the theory, but I needed an outlet for the practical. Physics and math courses were much of the curriculum, and they were unenjoyable cut courses meant to weed out students. The narratives and pathologies of deficit ideology and the meritocracy myth make for bad learning environments. I wanted more than lectures and remediation. I wanted theory and practice and an escape from deficit model framing. I wanted to build things, online, with others. I wanted to help build not just software, but what would eventually become the culture of distributed work.
I invested myself in courses like Automata Theory – regular expressions are used by all developers all the time – but other classes I barely attended. I had to triage. I showed up on test days, did well enough to pass, and cared not at all about my GPA so long as I got the BS in CS that companies still required back then. Though I was already working full-time as an entry-level engineer, I had to get that piece of paper to make the position real and permanent.
Grades had too much power over me. Curbing that power allowed me to pursue passion. The deficit model is a gauntlet of extrinsic motivators that compete with and starve our intrinsic motivators. Helping make telephony, the internet, and the nascent web was a helluva lot more interesting and intrinsically motivating than much of my course load. Bringing open source and the web into stodgy corporations (through and around FUDdled suits and lawyers) felt great. While selectively skipping classes, I learned how to work on a team and ship. When I gave up “straight-A student” as an identity, I was free to take risks and create my own education. It was liberating. I got the diploma, and never in my career has it mattered that I didn’t stay on the treadmill to a prestigious cum laude. Only that first engineering job ever asked to see my diploma, and then only so that a box on a form could be checked.
That piece of paper is no longer needed, not strictly and solely. There are other paths through that must be acknowledged and bolstered. In the last fifteen years, I’ve seen and helped really smart people get off the treadmill, avoid debt, and ship cool things. They made their own education and found their own balance. The deficit model is not the only lens on or path through life. The treadmill is not the only way. In a structurally racist, sexist, and ableist society, hiring strictly from the treadmill is exclusionary, unethical, and bad for business. The deficit model treadmill is, among other things, a business model shaped by powerful forces. Question its narratives, and find identity elsewhere.
Excellent Sheep and Most Likely to Succeed examine and indict the treadmill. These books resonant with my experience. Reading them prompted me to share my story. For a taste of Excellent Sheep, here are a handful of quotes from the opening chapters. This straight-A compulsive overachiever, reformed, relates to all of this. Abandoning this script was one of the best things I did for myself.
The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today’s elite students have learned to project, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. We all know about the stressed-out, overpressured high school student; why do we assume that things get better once she gets to college?
Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote that “increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior.” As a college president wrote me, “we appear to have an epidemic of depression among younger people.”
But the compulsive overachievement of today’s elite college students— the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can— is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish. Something more insidious is operating, too: a resistance to vulnerability, a fear of looking like the only one who isn’t capable of handling the pressure. These are young people who have always succeeded at everything, in part by projecting the confidence that they always will. Now, as they get to college, the stakes are higher and the competition fiercer. Everybody thinks that they’re the only one who’s suffering, so nobody says anything, so everybody suffers. Everyone feels like a fraud; everyone thinks that everybody else is smarter than they are.
And make no mistake; today’s elite students are, in purely academic terms, phenomenally well prepared. How could they not be, given how carefully they’re bred, how strenuously sorted and groomed? They are the academic equivalent of all-American athletes, coached and drilled and dieted from the earliest years of life. Whatever you demand of them, they’ll do. Whatever bar you place in front of them, they’ll clear.
You need to get a job, but you also need to get a life. What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.
Never to have failed is a sign not of merit but fragility; it means your fears have kept you from doing or becoming what you might have.
And here are a handful of quotes from Most Likely to Succeed.
The bulk of U.S. education is a largely hollow process of temporarily retaining the information required to get acceptable grades on tests.
Education credentials are our country’s caste system.
Students who only know how to perform well in today’s education system—get good grades and test scores, and earn degrees—will no longer be those who are most likely to succeed. Thriving in the twenty-first century will require real competencies, far more than academic credentials.
Fifty years ago, before the Internet, it made sense for schools to teach kids “just facts.” But in today’s world, there is no longer a competitive advantage in knowing more than the person next to you because knowledge has become a commodity available to all with the swipe of a finger.
It’s quite striking that, almost without exception, the great contributors to civilization were educated as apprentices, not as note-takers.
These grammar schools revolved around four core educational principles: standardization, time efficiency, minimization of error, and intolerance to accidental or—God forbid—creative departures from the norm. Sound familiar?
U.S. education is failing, in large part, because of the misguided belief that it’s imperative to test on a massive scale. To test millions of students every year is expensive in terms of time, money, and opportunity cost. With the goal of rank-ordering millions of test-takers, assessment inevitably gets reduced to simple multiple-choice quizzes, even though there’s a complete disconnect between what is easy to test and what really matters.
So we, as a society, have pushed emphatically for our kids to have an “elite” white-collar education based on abstraction and symbolic manipulation, with the goal of earning esteemed academic credentials.
almost all kids are now pushed into college tracks in high school, while almost no schools still offer shop, even though it’s a powerful way to learn and apply math.
So what’s in America’s education DNA? We’re a hypercompetitive society that loves rankings and numbers. We have inherited an education system designed by business and education leaders, well over a century ago, to train workers for manufacturing jobs. We have been conditioned to think an education that involves memorizing Coulomb’s law and conjugating Latin verbs is superior to one that focuses on understanding the home electrical system or learning to love reading through Harry Potter books. And we place more importance on the college sweatshirts people wear than what they’ve accomplished with their own sweat and tears.
If students learn almost nothing in a process of memorizing and cramming, it’s pointless to debate the relative priorities of what they will soon forget. These students will be poorly educated whether they spend their school days memorizing and forgetting Plato’s categorization of the three parts of a human’s soul, the definition of the Cost of Goods Sold, the date the U.S. Constitution was written, the rivers shaping commerce for the Mesopotamians, the chemistry equation determining how 2,3-dibromobutane is formed, or the definition of the quadratic equation.
The problem in elementary education today is test prep—plain and simple.
It’s sheer lunacy to make students compete with computers.
There’s an inherent conflict between what’s best for our kids and what’s best for the organizations selling tests, textbooks, and test prep materials.