Harvard Won’t Make You Happy

By Melissa Quiter, Editor-in-Chief

I ran into the worst student I ever had in my 10 years as a high school teacher earlier this week, and he is really happy.

I was heading into a community center with my two young children for an event, and there he was, holding open the door for a group of rambunction elementary school kids running into the building for an after school program.

“What are you doing here?!?!?” we said in unison, both looking a little bewildered.

It was fortuitous that we ran into each other that day because Austin was starting a new job the following day at Education for Change, an innovative charter school in Oakland.

“It’s ironic, isn’t it,” Austin mused. “That I am working in education.”

Not at all. The education system didn’t work for Austin, and he ended up earning his high school diploma at a continuation school. Austin knows what doesn’t work, and he is going to fix it.

Before leaving the community center, I peeked in at Austin’s after school program and saw two kids leaning against him while the other kids played basketball. It was obvious that the kids felt safe. And it was obvious that Austin is happy.

Who would have thought that the high school drop out would be so happy nine years later?

In my years of teaching high school and working with teenagers, they seem to be getting more and more miserable. Teens are experiencing extreme levels of academic and performance stress which causes emotional and physical ailments, like stomach aches, panic attacks, and depression. Academic pressures and competition to get into top colleges cause students to pull all-nighters, take unprescribed drugs, and cheat.

Researchers Mollie K. Galloway and Denise Pope studied the relationship between homework and stress and reported their conclusions in “Hazardous Homework?”. “Students,” they wrote,  “who spent the most hours on homework each night experienced more stress-related physical symptoms and poorer mental health.”

Is it worth four years of misery to get that acceptance email from Harvard? Will nirvana be achieved once you walk down those hallowed halls?

A 2014 Gallup poll says no. According to the poll of nearly 30,000 adults who have at least a bachelor’s degree, the college you go to does not correlate with later workplace engagement or current well being. What matters is what you make of your college experience.

From a parent’s perspective, I want my children to be happy and hopefully do more to improve the world than harm it. I would certainly feel proud if my child was working to improve the public education system like Austin. Hopefully their paths won’t involve dropping out of high school, but I also don’t want to see them get burned by the pressure cooker many high school students are in today. And despite some moves education is taking in the right direction, as long as my friends are considering academic extracurriculars and tutoring for their preschoolers (to be written about at a later date), this system of stress induced high school competition isn’t going anywhere.

1 Response

  1. I love this! I truly believe the important thing we can do to empower young people is to help them connect to their passions, values, and strengths. Then they can find the school that is best suited to them. For example, if someone dreams of starting their own design firm, the focus should be on finding a design school that will inspire them, with classes that will truly activate their creative potential. Let’s get away from status-based bandaids and help kids create authentic and meaningful lives.


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