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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


School Is Bad for Students

Yeah, I said it.

July 6, 2016

According to a survey of student counseling center workers, there are now wait lists for students seeking help.

The top two mental health issues are anxiety and depression, with over 4 in 10 students who seek help reporting the conditions.

Those of us working with students are unsurprised by these numbers. I first wrote about my experiences with student anxiety before I even had this space and since then, I’ve come to believe that we are in the midst of an anxiety “crisis” when it comes to students and school.

The obvious response to increased demand from students for mental health services is to ramp up the amount and availability of those services – and we should no doubt do this – but maybe at the same time we should ask a different question, “Why does exposure to school cause so much anxiety and depression?”

I have my personal theories, most significantly that students experience school not as a place to explore and fulfill their potentials, but a gauntlet to be run, where failure is severely punished, their futures of security and prosperity permanently foreclosed following even a slight bobble.

I work with many students who spend an inordinate amount of time fearing for their futures, despite the fact that many of them come from backgrounds of socioeconomic and demographic privilege.

Add in a climate of economic anxiety, the increasing costs of education (often in the form of loans that loom on the horizon), and a culture that encourages pursuit of “practical” studies that may be ill-suited to the spirit and desires of students, and you have an atmosphere that seems conducive to stress, depression, and anxiety.

What is the economic and human of moving students through a system that does so much damage?

How long will we treat the symptoms without examining the underlying causes?


Writing at Pacific Standard, Madeline Thomas asks, “Did we fail our kids by relying on prescription medication to treat ADHD?”

Thomas covers the struggles of a generation who has come of age taking prescription drugs like Ritalin and Adderall which were once, “considered a godsend when they first started being used to help hyperactive, unfocused kids succeed in school.”

Now, Thomas finds adults who feel incapable of doing tasks as seemingly simple as grocery shopping without the aid of ADHD medication. They view themselves as addicts, terrified to navigate their professional lives without chemical aids.

They have experienced years of messed up sleep, reduced appetites, feelings that they’re never quite themselves.

More distressingly, some report that medicating themselves to get through school prevented them from figuring out who they were really meant to be.

And yet, many also believe that without the medication, they wouldn’t have been able to get through college.

I have heard these same sentiments from my students, that they need the help, otherwise they’d fail out. I ask them if they foresee a time when they won’t need to take the medications.

“Retirement,” one told me.


Reporting on a Hillary Clinton address to National Education Association teachers, Politico education reporter Caitlin Emma tweeted this remark from presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Innocuous, right?

Maybe not.


Why do these stories converge for me?

With the epidemic of anxiety and depression, we have created a system that seems literally damaging to students’ mental health. The very nature of what we ask them to do and how we ask them to do it seems to be harmful, and yet our response to this damage is to provide more resources to buff them up and get them back in the game.

For students diagnosed with ADHD, I believe we have pathologized differences. As schooling increasingly focused on paying “attention” and exhibiting compliance, those wired differently had to be “rewired,” lest they “fall behind” their peers.

These two stories and Secretary Clinton’s statement on tests share something in common, namely that school is a system where the student is fodder to feed the machine, rather than the product itself.

Rather than asking “What is good for students?” – “good” in every sense of the word -  we instead orient policy and actions around abstractions like “success,” or “college readiness” without examining the underlying costs of pursuing those abstractions.

And so we get a culture where seven-year-olds who don’t get recess or art class and have difficulty paying attention for 45 minutes at a time become a problem in need of pharmaceutical intervention.

We get a culture where students see school not as a place to practice curiosity and grow socially, intellectually, and even spiritually, but a contest where the stakes are their future economic security and anxiety and depression are constant threats.

We get a culture where tests are not chances for students to test themselves and experience the fruits of their work and study, and are instead merely a chance to be judged by authorities who run the system.

These policies and perspectives are the result of prioritizing systems over people, of requiring conformity, and of valuing standardization over freedom and individuality.

They are anti-human, and it is not a mystery as to why they’re failing.

I am not arguing that we should make school easier, that we need to ease up on the kids. My experience is that students enjoy challenges that are authentic and meaningful. They want to be given the chance to figure out who they are and what they can do. They crave it.

But that’s not what we’re doing. Succeeding in school, as schooling is currently designed, seems to actively work against students developing the habits, knowledge, and self-concept that will allow them to thrive as real-world adults.

How can we believe we’re on the right track as students emerge depressed, anxious, medicated, and incapable of working without the oversight and approval of the authority figures?

We are screwing shit up. Each day we fail to confront what’s happening and begin the long, hard process of shaping education around what we claim to actually value is a day wasted.


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