Every once in a while, my grandmother calls to check up on me. In a recent phone call, after giving her an update on my life, I asked her what was new in hers. My grandmother, a Mexican woman of Japanese descent who worked as an accountant up until her early 70s, was taking up French. I asked her how her class was going, and she laughed softly with a hint of embarrassment in her voice. She then told me that she was planning on failing her final exam on purpose in order to have the opportunity to retake the class.
While I understand the value of my grandma’s strategy — achieving near-perfect comprehension without regard for failure — to fail a test on purpose would be out of the question for me. It is a luxury that I cannot afford. In a world in which we are evaluated by our grades, it often seems as if we do not have the option of subordinating them to the desire to truly learn. We are represented by our scores. Whether it is your SAT score or your cumulative GPA, in the eyes of colleges, graduate schools and companies, we are simply numbers.
As children, we make sense of life by asking questions. At a young age, the stress of college acceptances and obtaining jobs is far in the distance. We learn due to our innate curiosity, and we explore the subjects that excite us. The question that a child always asks is, “Why?” Why does the moon change shape as the days go by? Why does a rainbow form after a storm? Why do ships float in water?
But as we grow older and the pressures of achievement and success loom over us, the question we begin to ask ourselves is, “How?” How will I get into a prestigious college? How will I get the internship I want? How will I get a job? More often than not, the answer to this question is academic achievement, which is measured by our grades. We become incentivized to learn by the prospect of future rewards. Instead of satiating our thirst for curiosity, learning becomes part of a formulaic process, the necessary tool that will propel us to our next benchmark of success.
This way of thinking clouds our judgment. We make decisions about which courses to enroll in or which academic programs to pursue based on how well we might perform in them — rather than how much we believe we can take away from them or how much enjoyment we can derive. Our opportunities are then limited by our fear of failure.
While we are still in our formative years, we need to let our intellectual pursuits be less guided by the numbers that we mistakenly believe represent us as people. Let’s take a lesson from our former selves and begin to ask the “whys” again instead of the “hows.”
So the next time that you open a book, or the next time that you decide to sit in on a class, ask yourself why you are interested in Machiavellian literature or why you want to learn about macroeconomic theory. Take the time to think about your motivations for acquiring knowledge. Think back to a time when your pursuit of knowledge was fueled by an eagerness to understand. The innocence of youth does more to promote learning than our ambitions as adults.
I now know why the moon changes shape, why rainbows form after storms and why ships float in water. Reflecting on my grandmother’s example, I also now know that I must approach learning differently. While many of the questions that I used to ask as a child have been answered, I continue to question without reservation. We must ask ourselves why we want to learn things, and in turn, what constitutes success. Maybe that will force us to reconsider what it means to learn.
Ida Tsutsumi Acuna is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .