Is school bad for us?


Brian J. Matis, The Longfellow Lead

Is it me, or is this the most ghastly semester ever?

Eric Fogle, Opinion Editor

I fully endorse the idea of the university as an active core of freely exchanged ideas, projects and experiments in pursuit of knowledge and for the sake of knowledge.  But as I look around at the people forced to stay up late to do work, barely awake for tests the next morning, I seriously wonder whether the structure of any given university may unintentionally be working against its broader purposes. Throughout this column, “the university” I reference is not specifically John Carroll University, but the concept of the university itself. 

When I reference the function of the university, I mean to pose the question of why they exist. After asking a few students and friends, the average answers averaged out to this: universities exist to build and encourage the building of knowledge. My purpose here is to evaluate whether the collegiate student experience reflects this function of the university. 

This semester has been my busiest ever. Whether it’s class, RA obligations, Writing Center work or working on law school applications, my checklist never seems to end. Every minute I take to relax and practice “self-care” is a minute I can’t spend doing the next thing I need to do. I’ve undertaken more than necessary, but that argument can be made for any athlete, any member of a student org, anyone with an on-campus job. This column assumes that most students on campus are more than only students, in the same way that professors are more than simply professors. 

Higher education faculty are evaluated based on teaching, service and research. In addition to their presence in the classroom, full-time faculty must serve on boards or committees as well as publish their own research. Etymologically, “university” comes from the Latin “universitas,” meaning “the whole.” Clearly the university intends to develop the whole person who may then leave prepared to take their place in the whole world. The question: do smaller universities such as our own successfully accomplish this task?

I don’t think so. To a great extent, the academic mission is not to build knowledge, but to get A’s; it’s not to learn the material, but to get it in on time. Students learn differently and professors teach differently. Though the common themes of reading material and practical application flow throughout disciplines, the expectations placed on students make education a character building exercise instead of a knowledge building one.

In theory, the university should breathe life into us rather than drain it. But I witness students who have almost no time to reflect on what they’ve learned considering the almost endless influx of new information. I genuinely believe that the amount of work students are required to do is unhealthy, and that it does more harm than good. At the end of each week, I’m exhausted, which is probably how chem majors feel at the end of any given day. 

In high school, I was told that college would be much more work. They were right. I’m told now that law school will be even more work. I know that’ll prove true. Liz Marcelli, class of 2020 and a friend of mine, called law school “soul-sucking.” Many students have likely felt that sense that school physically drains the life out of them. Is this the purpose of higher education? If it’s not, why is this so often the effect on students? I see two possibilities, almost entirely different.

The first possibility: it’s not that bad and we’re ignoring the long-term positive gains of our education by focusing on the short term pains. This academic exhaustion we’re feeling (probably for the first time in our lives) comes with the reward of learning; at the other end we are better, more complete people for what we’ve learned and how we’ve learned it. Our education focuses on the development of the whole, which we can carry into the workplace and with us everywhere for the rest of our lives.

The second possibility, a bit more bleak: school conditions us to be continually unhappy while driven by a sense that we need to get things done by the deadline. The purpose of education is to get us comfortable with the feeling of hating what we do so that when we do earn a degree, we signal to workplaces that we can tolerate a monotonous life because school has preemptively eaten our soul. Both the endless stream of work and the pressure of grades combine to cause a lot of stress in the student body. 

Neither of those options are sufficient on their own. Too often, though, I wonder whether school is good or bad for us and it hinges on the lack of time I find to think about it. If the university is good for us, why don’t we have more time to reflect on it in and out of the classroom? If it’s bad for us, are we just too busy to notice?