Q: What Surprises You Most About Teenagers?
A: I am surprised by your pragmatism and startling efficiency at accomplishing goals. Surprised, impressed, and slightly unnerved. Take it as both a significant compliment and a source of profound worry on my part.
During office hours, students will often ask me what exactly they need to do in order to achieve a certain grade result. This question intrigues me, because it has nothing to do with their personal development as a writer. Let me be clear: students have nothing against becoming better writers. However, the way the question is framed prioritizes the quantifiable and ultimately arbitrary standard of a letter grade over their own growth as thinkers and communicators. The hidden assumption is that such growth is only valuable or discernible in the institutional terms of grading.
I understand this position. After all, you will be paying insane amounts of money to attend college. And since you only have so much time and energy, you will have to prioritize, which often means asking smart questions about what, in the bigger picture, constitutes an acceptable end. These ends are usually a specific grade: whatever you need to pass the class or maintain a certain grade point.
So, why does this surprise me? The impulse doesn’t, but I am often surprised at how incredibly deep these assumptions have sunk, and how they manifest in qualities at once good and bad: extreme, even incredible efficiency and diligence set off against the tendency to equate real learning with a number. In other words, the idea that if I receive X grade, I must have learned the material and fully incorporated it into my way of interacting with the world.
Grades are rarely indicative of this kind of deep learning. Again, I am not suggesting that teenagers do not desire or value transformative education. Quite the opposite: I believe this tendency results from the way education works in primary school, which emphasizes discrete objectives and produces testing-based educational models that, while offering benefits in terms of objectivity, also impose standards that are simply not reflective of what students actually go through when they learn.
The consequence is that teenagers become accustomed to jumping over hurdle after hurdle in a predictable sequence. And they get really, really good at it. Life is often about jumping over such hurdles, and to this end, I am often stunned at the level of organization and goal-setting that I see in my students. They know exactly what they need to accomplish in a given class to move onto the next "level."
But it’s also true that they often flail in situations where external authorities do not provide them with discrete tasks. This conditioned deference to externally imposed values becomes untenable in the exploratory, self-directed education that at least nominally defines university environments, and should really define all stages of schooling.
Yes, I am totally reiterating every cranky argument in the book right now. But that’s not the point. Remember, I’m not only surprised and unnerved. I’m also profoundly impressed. The diligence and pragmatism I see means that teenagers are often not bothered by the stale arguments that have defined our culture for decades. You are interested in results, and this makes you a uniquely philanthropic generation. Your work for others is not tied to a clandestine excuse for hedonism in the way that it was for the baby boomer generation. You are genuinely, from what I can see, interested in helping others, from other cultures and backgrounds, and are comfortable doing it on their terms, not your own. It is pure problem solving, and frankly, it makes me feel like a selfish lounge-about. Ultimately, I’d like to see this dedication and work ethic hitched taken farther outside the box. There’s really no telling what could happen. So, go on. Surprise me more.
Mr. Jung teaches college writing in Chicago, where he lives with his fiancée and their growing collection of street maps.
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Are you obsessed with grades?