Missing the Mark: When Education Becomes a Means to an End

By: Angel Hu

In 1990, Leonid Fridman’s article “America Needs its Nerds” was published in the New York Times, calling attention to the pervasiveness of anti-intellectualism in American society. A society where there exist derogatory terms for intelligent individuals. A society where popular culture depicts studious characters as awkward, socially inept outcasts (bonus points if they also wear glasses). These caricatures become ingrained in collective perceptions as “intellectually curious and academically serious” become “nerds and geeks” and “nerds and geeks” become “freaks.” 

Yet Fridman unabashedly advocates for “the nerd and the geek” – the academically curious individuals who he argues are wrongly ostracized by a culture that “idolizes the athlete over the scholar.” 

To Fridman, the nerd is merely an individual who focuses on the pursuit of knowledge above all else – someone who would rather “read books rather than play football” or “build model airplanes rather than get wasted at parties with their classmates.” By depicting the nerd as the antithesis of American values, Fridman pays homage to their non-conformity; even in a world where their efforts and abilities are overlooked, the nerd is a silver lining for what must change within our education system. 

Over three decades have passed since Fridman called attention to the faults of a society that devalues education and academia. The culture that once prevailed – students being ashamed of admitting how much they study or putting their social lives above their education – hardly seems recognizable now.  

All across the nation, high school students meet each other on the playing field every day to compete in an intensive, high-stakes match. But they’re not competing in the athletic sense. Whatever they are competing in – whether it’s who has the highest grade point average or the most impressive list of extracurricular activities or who gets the last spot at a prestigious university – it all comes down to a battle of the brains. Academic achievement becomes synonymous with ability and potential, which translates into the difference between success and failure. 

Since when did the opportunity to explore different avenues turn into a competition where you cannot afford to be anything but “the best”? Since when did learning turn into a game where you’re either a “winner” or a “loser”

This has become the reality for high-achieving students, who greatly resemble the honorable nerd that Fridman uplifts. These are the students who select the most rigorous courses for their schedules, the students who not only boast high scores on exams but also stellar accomplishments outside of school – from internships to nonprofit organizations to cutting-edge research. In addition, the ubiquity of social media also facilitates peer competition. In an article by PBS, author Gail Cornwall notes, “Peers’ stories on Instagram feature the scouts who’ve come to check them out, the nonprofits they’ve started, and how they think they fared on the SAT.” Academic achievement is no longer considered a taboo subject only for so-called nerds. Online forums, such as College Confidential and Reddit’s ApplyingToCollege allow for open, candid discussions about grades, classes, standardized tests, extracurriculars, and as their namesakes suggest – college admissions. Year after year, posts flood the forum remarking that “this has been the most competitive year for college admissions,” followed by a list of (top) schools the users were accepted by, and the final touch – a polished resume detailing all their academic accomplishments.  

But shouldn’t we be championing this shift in values? After all, current students seem to be much more academically ambitious than what Fridman described of the 1990s. And these students are ultimately our future; if they are so accomplished at such a young age, who’s to say they won’t be the cornerstone of human progress and technological innovation? 

When we look past the students’ grand successes and intellectual endeavors, we discover a bundle of potential – potential for anxiety, depression, lack of intrinsic motivation, contingent self-worth, burnout, and academic entitlement, among other psychological implications (Cornwall). 

When students are funneled down the path of academic achievement, when pursuing a passion    becomes merely a steppingstone to gain admission to a top college, we are no longer creating an environment in favor of the nerd and the geek; rather, we are shoving down expectations of efficiency and competition at the expense of the pursuit of knowledge for learning’s sake and teenagers’ mental health. Students drop extracurriculars that offer no long-term benefits. They give up on hobbies if they aren’t immediately good at them. As Cornwall notes of 16-year-old Christina Zhang, a junior in North Carolina, “Other than reading, she doesn’t have hobbies that don’t have competitions attached.” For the efficient, extrinsic motivators – awards, recognition, and guaranteed future success – are more valuable than what they are genuinely interested in. After all, when there are potential outcomes attached, the rational approach is to choose the path that is the quickest and easiest. 

In recent years, the term “grind culture” was coined to describe the mindset of constant productivity within education. If every moment is not productive, students feel guilty. Each second wasted could make the difference between an A or B on an exam, which subsequently influences one’s GPA, which determines one’s rank, and the slippery slope only becomes more dangerous from there. Cornwall quotes Zhang, “[During free time], you’re just thinking about, ‘Oh, what if other people are working right now, and they are getting ahead?”  

This hyper efficient mentality has manifested in a preference to learn only the useful, most evidently seen in students’ approach to learning to the test. If I have learned anything at school, it’s how to be an expert in standards and guidelines. I anxiously study every conceivable way a concept could be asked on a test, only to forget the content days later. In history and English class, I commit rubrics to memory to maximize my points. Many of my friends have described themselves as “merely good at taking tests.” Even teachers must prioritize students’ performance on standardized tests above all, thus reorganizing their schedules and cutting out activities just to finish the curriculum in time.  

Anne Helen Peterson, a writer for BuzzFeed News, describes her current students: “They were anxious grade grubbers, paralyzed at the thought of graduating and regularly stymied by assignments that called for creativity.” Education has become a game of optimization – why take risks when you’re guaranteed a good grade simply by following each direction precisely?  

Even Leonid Fridman, who argues that a good life requires “stretching one’s mind and pursuing knowledge to the full extent of one’s abilities,” strengthens his claim based on the additional fact that the United States will lose its global influence if its society does not see education as valuable. He initially sympathizes with the nerd, humanizing them as the “bright kid with thick glasses who has been persecuted from kindergarten to the grave.” The image of the nerd, “ashamed of who they are” and “deprived of a chance to learn adequate social skills” strikes a chord with the audience, many of whom, like myself, connect with Fridman’s message and are inclined to rally in defense of the “ostracized” individuals.  

However, Fridman’s argument shifts from embracing education to better the individual to embracing education to uphold the greater good of the nation. He argues that “for America’s sake,” we must fight against anti-intellectualism. In that case, it was never truly about the kids who pursue knowledge for the sake of pursuing knowledge – especially if the knowledge will not enable the United States to “remain a world-class power.” The message is clear – and effective – if the United States does not change its stance on education, our society will lag behind other nations. By appealing to the readers’ patriotism and fear of one’s nation losing its influence to “rival countries,” Fridman instills a sense of urgency – one analogous to the anxiety high school students face amid constant competition. There is always the internal monologue of “how could I be improving right now?” or “how do I get ahead?” or “how are others doing compared to me?” Fridman embodies this when he cites the “technology race with Japan,” the necessity to “remain a leading political and cultural force in Europe,” and the success of our “economic rivals” as evidence that America must optimize to survive. In this case – and in the case of today’s high school students – education takes on the role of efficiency and optimization. 

When a “highly educated workforce and innovative intelligent leadership” is a manufactured product of “the demands of our time” rather than a natural result of curiosity, passion, and determination, education has become treated as a means to an end. The problem has never been anti-intellectualism, rather the hyper efficient and competitive mindset that students are pressured to adopt. Better for the kid who enjoys “playing baseball or dancing” for the fun of it than the kid “studying mathematics” just to seem intellectual. 

Of course, encouraging students to adopt a focus towards academics provides long-term benefits – developing study and time management skills and promoting critical thinking. But when we view academics as the only form of learning and the one-way path to success, and when we sacrifice our interests to pursue goals that we internalize are ours, we are not reaching “the full extent of our abilities” (Fridman). We all know that learning can’t be measured solely based on multiple-choice question tests, so why not acknowledge that the definition of learning is not limited to a set standard that revolves around stereotypical conceptions of academia? 

If there’s anything I’ve realized while constantly being surrounded by (and feeling the need to compare myself against) high achieving and bright peers, it’s that intelligence isn’t the highest score on the test, the most eloquent essay, or even the most smart-sounding answer that causes me to sit at my desk in awe thinking, “Wow, how did they come up with that?” Intelligence is the willingness to pursue the unconventional, the ability to discover the lessons that don’t fit into a curriculum. When I’m not stressing over the five tests I have at the end of the week, I find that hanging out and engaging in “non-intellectual” activities with my friends teaches me how to be creative and how to freely express myself – lessons that are just as important as the math and science I read in my textbooks. 

If we truly want to move past a society that pigeonholes the intelligent into derogatory terms like “nerd” and “geek,” we must shed our perceptions of who and what is considered intelligent in the first place. Although cliché, the phrase “think outside of the box” is the ideal we should strive for. Labeling anyone – even the idolized athlete – as a stereotype that only extends to what they do and not who they are, only limits us as we fail to recognize the potential that everyone has to learn and educate. 

After all, we can learn just as much from the “athlete” as we can from the “scholar.”  

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