An Open Letter to Incoming Freshmen:

My biggest regret in high school was thinking.

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.”  John Dewey

Well, by that logic, if education is unfulfilling, it’s hard to imagine that life is any better... 

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Thinking was the worst habit I could have developed in high school.

Toward the end of ninth grade, I thought it was beneficial to think deeply about my philosophies, call into question values that my authorities assumed I would accept on faith and explore my unique intellectual interests. Critical thinking became my mantra: I questioned not only what I was learning, but also why I was learning it. If what I learned in school didn’t satisfy me intellectually or emotionally, I went home and searched till I found something that did.

At the time, it sounded like a great idea. But don’t let that mislead you.

Now, as a rising senior, having completed three years in high school, it’s important that I share what I have learned from my experiences with others. And so I begin with you, incoming freshman, by stating the following: If only I had been warned.

The academic and social systems of high school, particularly mine, are not built for one who begins to think “prematurely.” Better a student be a product of the school’s agenda — homework and tests — than of the student’s own cognition. Follow the school’s instructions, apply yourself and sure enough you’ll reach your college potential come senior year. Challenge them and you’ll wind up hugely behind on your schoolwork and with even less of a social life. But how does this happen?

Well, part of the reason is that challenging oneself academically is a heck of a lot different from challenging oneself intellectually. To reach my college potential, I’m instructed to challenge myself academically by taking the most rigorous course load. That’s four nights a week for all sorts of homework; Saturday for studying only because I am a Sabbath-observing Jew; and a loaded Sunday crammed with basketball practice and other obligations.

Every now and then, an assignment is tossed my way that engages me. But spend too much time on an assignment you like, and you’re inevitably neglecting one that you don’t like — the very reason why that dreaded assignment seems to take more time to complete. For instance, reading extra books for my term paper on the Beat Poets feels like a weekend trip to Disneyworld compared to the drudgery of completing my 15 physics problems.

All this excludes the time I spend quieting the voice inside my head that tells me my schoolwork is trivial in comparison to my other interests. Review the material for a U.S. history test or set sail on an Ayn Rand trek? Study for the SATs or watch online Yale courses on the psychology and politics of food? Get ahead on math or immerse myself in Middle East history while exploring different methods to peace-building?

“Put the book down Solomon — it’ll still be there for you when you graduate.”

I’ve heard that all-too-familiar phrase from just about everyone in my life. But I listen, temporarily. I put the book down and when I’m done with my homework, I pick it right back up again.

Only this time, my interest has waned. Saturday night is over and I’ve just spent the whole evening preparing a presentation for my open religion club on the Albanian code of honor that many Muslims employed to save hundreds of Jews during the Holocaust. This time, I’ve dedicated my free night to my own interest after I’ve spent the day forcing myself to fulfill my academic needs. Tomorrow is basketball practice and more homework and by Monday, I’m back in school with a group of friends wondering why they haven’t heard from me all weekend.

Why do I bother fulfilling my academic needs if I can’t enjoy, or even appreciate, doing so? Why compromise my educational and social ambitions for the sake of... well, for the sake of what? Proving myself to colleges, they say. But I respond: in order for me to prove capable and worthy of attending one of the country’s top universities I have to render as inappropriate for high school all I value intellectually? Is writing an essay on the philosophy of Ecclesiastes a waste of time since it has nothing to do with my Bible or English curriculum? To merit an elite university, am I forced to accept the tacit doctrine of the honors class: that which a teacher is not grading is surely not worth doing?

For all colleges know, my transcript is one juicy, phony and malicious lie — an utter fabrication aimed to deceive the admissions officer that I learned and retained something valuable from the courses in which I supposedly excelled. Little about my transcript conveys my true learning experiences to its reader. At best, it shows I’ve inherited a brain that can perform at high levels with less-than-maximum effort. Absent is any form of creativity or any sign of interdisciplinary breadth. But talk to me about any one of Freud’s foundational ideas and I’ll recall its practical application. Strike up a conversation about the antebellum period, as the AP U.S. History exam would, and you’ll feel like you’re talking to Aristotle about practical uses for the iPhone.

If there’s anything I’ve learned in high school, it’s not to think. In the words of a friend, high school is a big fat hypocrite that wasn’t very nice to me when I wanted to explore; it chuckles at the wit of Mark Twain while scoffing high school’s academic reality when he said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Any interests that distract from the goal — the Promised Land of Prestige University — are the antithesis to the honors student’s purpose, since that is what society deems the smartest students’ purpose to be.

High school can be quite rewarding — just do your homework and you’ll have a free night every now and then. And if you want to work extra hard on those nights, it will pay off in the long haul. As long as what you’re doing is for school, and you don’t try to add a hint of your own curriculum, you’ll be absolutely fine. In the words of an older friend, “in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who amasses knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

Yup, you’ll be absolutely fine.

author's bio: 
Solomon Wiener is a junior at The Frisch School in Paramus, N.J. 

Comments

Submitted by Avi on Tue, 06/25/2013 - 12:08pm

This is excellent. I'm a rising sophomore and the dilemma you describe in this article is all too familiar.