Getting Into the Ivies

I took a look out at my back yard a few weeks ago, and my heart constricted as if it were being squeezed, slowly, to death. This is what I saw:

Beautiful, old trees choked by English Ivy.

The possibilities of my property suffocating under the English Ivy.

The long, twisted fingers of English Ivy reaching up the sides of my house, my deck, my fences, longing to take over, to cover, to absorb.

For the past two years I’ve lived here, I’ve looked out at my back yard and said, “I’ve got to get rid of most of this ivy,” but the task was too daunting for a single lady like me. So I did nothing. And so the vine spread.

Recently, I saw the film, Race to Nowhere, and it moved me because as a high school student, I, too, was caught up in the Race to Nowhere. Not only was I running it, I basically won it. I made straight A’s in mostly AP classes, I played three Varsity sports, and while I had some fun with my friends, by my senior year, I did not like learning, and I didn’t enjoy ANY of my extra curricular activities. I remember longing for the end of each sports season, patiently waiting for the day when I did not have to go to three hours of sports practice and then also do four hours of homework. I remember one of my friends saying how much she liked learning, and I looked at her like she was crazy. She couldn’t believe that someone who “did school” as well as me disliked it so much. Predictably, when I got to college, I was totally burned out, and I had no interest in doing anything but as little as possible.

I believe part of what killed my desire to learn and my interest in atheletics was the attitude that permeated my school culture. Success was measured not by enjoyment or fulfillment or interest but by the grades you got, the colleges that accepted you, and the number of activities on your resume.

This is the attitude that Race to Nowhere examines and condemns; it is the attitude that turns learning into a chore and grades into the goal; it is the competitive attitude of well-roundedness that is falsely adopted by many students hoping to get into the ivies or other “good schools.”

“You’ll never get into Princeton/Harvard/Yale/Stanford/Insert-dream-school-here unless you have straight A’s in all AP classes and have a well fleshed out resume in sports, music, the arts, and service.”

Who first told me that? Did anyone? I can’t remember who said it, but I knew it.

Whose idea was it that everyone should strive for Harvard? Who compiled the list of “good schools”? Who decided that if you didn’t go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Dartmouth, UVA, Duke, or UNC you were clearly a failure?

Now, I am not condemning any of these schools at all. They are incredible institutions, and I attended one of them, and despite my best efforts, I did learn a considerable amount.

What I do not like, however, is the way that the college application process has turned from something you did to continue your education into something you did to prove your worth.  When the destination instead of the education becomes the goal. When the status of a place rather than what the place can offer the student becomes the focus.

This attitude is as pervasive as ivy. It sneaks through the gestault of many high school (and now some junior high) campuses. Initially it sleeps, then it creeps, and by the time sophomore year comes around, it leaps into the mindset of students, strangling their interests in the name of grades. Constricting a definition of success into a one-size-should-fit-all mold.

Isn’t it time to do something about this attitude? We’ve let it smother learning long enough.

Yesterday, I looked out on my back yard at that pervasive and destructive ivy.  It occurred to me that I couldn’t kill it all right away without doing damage to the things I was trying to save. I had to pull up each finger of ivy, one by one, and throw it away. Even so, despite the enormous task ahead of me,  I donned my hat, my fleece, my boots and my work gloves, and I got to work pulling the vine. Though I worked for a solid hour in the freezing cold by myself and barely made a dent, I did make a dent.

I will have to work hours upon hours this winter in order to fully eradicate this ivy by myself. Truly, I may never be able to do it all.  I’m tempted to enlist some of my friends to help. In the same way, if I work with dedication much of this winter and into spring and into the years ahead, and if I enlist some of my friends to help, then perhaps I can help to make a dent in the attitudes towards education that are fostered by a false understanding of success.

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6 Responses to Getting Into the Ivies

  1. this is awesome. It’s what I fought for every day when I worked as a college counselor, and I’ve worked in places where it the college process is an uplifting journey about discovering who you are and embracing the incredible opportunities that await at any of the more 4000 colleges and universities across the globe.

    But it takes persistence to combat the message that kids feel and hear every day, and get reinforced with every award, memorization rewarding test, and “you’ll need this for college” statement we make. How often do we talk about how most celebrities/politicians/famous people didn’t attend top 40 schools? When do we sing the praises of the schools kids have never heard of? I think you’re asking all the right questions, and would love to look for more ways to begin to change the zeitgeist.

    • dobbsep says:

      And even if all of our kids still think that the Ivies are the place for them, that is ok with me, as long as they are desirous of attending those schools not for the name but for the learning they want to do there; as long as they want to go to college because that place will be the best place to help them further their interests, not because it is where their parents want them to go or because it has a prestigious name.

      I want desire of learning to come before desire of status. Now if that were only possible…..

  2. great post! you are right on.about the high school quest for “well roundedness”

  3. Bo Adams says:

    Dobbsep, what caused you to rediscover your love of learning? Was it a definable, solitary event or experience? Was it a slow evolution that occurred when the stranglehold of ivy was released? Do you know what brought back that love of the journey?

  4. dobbsep says:

    That is a great question. Looking back, I think it was a combination of things, and more of a slow evolution. Just like pulling back the ivy in my back yard is taking some time, I think that the attitude shift I had took time and great effort.

    Getting out on my own and realizing that any work I did was for no one but me was really important. Part of the problem with my high school experience is that I worked so hard to please other people: my parents, my teachers, my friends. (Part of that was the gestalt of the place, and then that was compounded by my very type A personality). Unfortunately, when I realized that their approval did not bring me fulfillment and the awards did not bring me joy, I found the work hollow, but I could not get out of the rat race by that point.

    When I got to college, nobody cared that I was anything special in high school. No one cared about my previous “accomplishments.” So I had to start over. That starting over process was incredibly difficult, and it really forced me to look at my motivations and look at the reasons why I did what I did. I experimented with other mindsets in college (one of which was the I-don’t-care-about-school mindset during which I made my first C. This was an enlightening experience because the world didn’t blow up when I did not make an A.) I began to see the validity of a more leisurely pace of encountering life. I opted out of the race.

    When I set out on my own, I began to realize that anything I did should be for the joy it brought me, not the joy that my doing it brought other people. (Ironically, when I started to find joy in my work again, I could much more easily bring joy to others.) In that way, I began to work for the learning itself rather than what the learning would bring me. That was a very important shift in focus.

    Becoming a teacher also helped because I could see the amazingly cool patterns and insights in the literature I taught, and I wanted to make sure that my students saw that too. My focus was not on whether my students got straight A’s or whether they passed the EOCT, but whether they learned and grew. In trying to help others shift their focus, mine shifted as well.

    I think the third thing, and possibly the most important, that helped me really leap back into loving learning was that after college I met Kat, a girl who is one of my best friends now. She epitomizes the love of learning for learning’s sake. Her enthusiasm for all things new and interesting really helped me re-frame my mindset. She and I would attend plays and movies just for the conversations we’d have afterwards; we would devour books and attend author talks at the Margaret Mitchell house just for the deliciousness of discovering new ideas. She introduced me to people who wanted to talk about ideas rather than people and events. I so enjoyed my experiences with her (and still do!), and I began to realize the fun of learning.

    I think that last part is the most telling. School today is not like that. Our system is very much an if…then system. If you learn, then you will make it to the next grade. If you get an A, then you will make honor roll. If you take all AP classes, then you might get into college. In all of that IF….THEN we lose the learning for fun. We lose the learning for the relationships it fosters. We lose the learning for the real reason we learn–because it enriches our lives.

    I talk to friends all the time who say, “I wish I could go back to college now and do it all over again. I would do it so differently.” I wonder if as a student, knowing nothing else, I could have been able to appreciate learning for learning’s sake. I wonder if school is something we have to “get through” so that then we can appreciate our education after the fact. I hope not.

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