• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


School Sucks

Which is why students turn to so many extracurriculars.

April 12, 2016

School sucks.

Whoever said it first is lost to history, but who hasn’t said it, or at least thought it?

I think those who haven’t said or thought that school sucks must be disproportionately represented in the professorate.

I remember the first time I thought it, sixth grade, which not coincidentally was the first time the amount of homework (allegedly to prepare us for Jr. high) nudged beyond the token. I’m sure school was interfering with something I wanted to do more, like ride my dirt bike or play wiffle ball.

Either way, in sixth grade, school started harshing my mellow, and it only got worse with time. By college, with a few exceptions, class was the thing that got in the way of what I actually wanted to be doing.

I was lucky, though. When I ask the current generation of first-year college students when they stopped liking school, they look at me like I’m nutso for suggesting that school was ever something to be “liked.”


Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Prof. William Hurst of Northwestern says he’s noticed (as many of us have) students “routinely failing to put even modest efforts toward preparing for class.”

The problem? Too many extracurriculars crowding out the time available to do school-related work.

Hurst believes that students engaging in activities such as, “singing in a cappella groups, planting trees for the environment and playing intramural ultimate Frisbee” are “robbing them of their education.”[1]

Hurst has several theories as to why. It could be a “holdover” from high school where students have learned that more activities is better when it comes to landing those future opportunities. It could be part of the quest for, “competitive differentiation” as students try to rise above the crowd in an era of grade inflation.

Or maybe it’s a hangover of “helicopter parenting,” where students are so used to be programmed by their parents they have no independent ability to say no, and choose what is most meaningful to them.

I have a different theory.

School sucks.


Prof. Hurst argues for four things that together will de-emphasize the value of extracurricular activities: 1. Reducing them in terms of their influence on admissions decisions; 2. Reining in grade inflation so students compete in the classroom, rather than in this other arena; 3. Stop emphasizing the role of college in producing “leaders” and instead help students, “develop contemplative, thoughtful and mature, scholarly, emotional and social lives and personae,” and 4. Stop competing on amenities like “climbing walls” and “squash courts” and “return to their roots of rising or falling based on the academic rigor and intellectual vigor to be found on their campuses.”

Maybe the atmosphere at elite schools such as Northwestern is unique, but it takes a very narrow view of both history and the present to believe that schools “rise and fall” based on their “academic rigor” and “intellectual vigor.”

Has this been broadly true anywhere? At any time? When was this golden age? Can I see proof of its existence?

From here it looks like a mist-shrouded Brigadoon, a romantic fantasy appearing only in op-eds written by professors who believe that if students simply thought more like them we’d all be better off.

I am hard pressed to identify more than a small handful of students at any of the places I’ve taught that self-identified as “scholars.”

And why should they? What about their experience with school should have attuned them to the pleasure of scholarship? Is it the standardized tests? The relentless hoop jumping and competition? Does that 1000-person intro Econ lecture get the juices flowing?

Students love learning, but hate school, and with much justification. We know this.

This is not to say that scholarship isn’t pleasurable. I enjoy my version of it very much. I believe students can be brought towards these attitudes if we care to create the atmospheres that make such things possible. But the gap is vast and it’s not student attitudes that need to change in order to close it.

Color me skeptical that any of Prof. Hurst’s solutions will have a meaningful impact on students coming prepared for class unless he’s also prepared to take the radical step of making sure that extracurricular activities stop being, you know…enriching, fulfilling, fun.

Because Prof. Hurst’s solutions – while quite possibly worth doing for other reasons - do nothing to address the deficiencies of school itself. For example, curbing grade inflation so students are incentivized to compete for grades in the classroom does little to turn students into scholars.

But I wonder if Prof. Hurst actually desires students to be “scholars” in the way he is a scholar. Scholars have freedom of inquiry, the chance to pursue curiosities and passions, some measure deadline flexibility. Scholars are able to be motivated intrinsically.

Does that sound much like school from the undergraduate perspective?

Prof. Hurst’s lament is more about a lack of compliance with professorial and institutional authority - reading undone, problem sets untouched - than missing intellectual curiosity. His language betrays his biases. Students “squander” their college careers on extracurriculars. Their “main occupation” (there’s an interesting word) should be “as students.”

But if we want students to be scholars, rather than combating grade inflation, we should eliminate grades altogether and give them the kind of freedom we know is necessary for meaningful scholarship.

Would Prof. Hurst be horrified at the supposed lack of “rigor” in a grade-free classroom?

And what about those extracurriculars? What are they “robbing” students of?

In his essay, Prof. Hurst believes campuses suffer from “leadership fetishism” as a kind of goal for students to be competitive in the job arena. But for many of us, including me,[2] our extracurriculars were the most important and enduring experiences of our college careers. What if leadership experience is valuable for the sake of the experience itself, rather than a line on a resume?

What if life is something to be lived?

The Gallup-Purdue survey of college and post-graduate well-being finds that it is “experiences,” not curriculum, or courses, or even institutions that matter when it comes to being happy and successful post college.

In fact, the chances of “strongly agreeing” that education was “worth the cost” is 1.6x higher if the individual was “extremely active” in extracurriculars. If students had a “leadership” position in an outside organization, “strongly agreeing” that one’s education was “worth the cost” is 1.4x higher.

Prof. Hurst believes that we need to “restore sanity and sober perspective” to admissions and education, but it seems to me, in reviewing the evidence, that students are already making exceedingly sane decisions.

And since when is college a time for sobriety?




[1] Hurst leaves aside the students who are forced by circumstance to work, a group that increases every year. It’s now estimated that 25% of full-time students also have full-time jobs. http://www.cnbc.com/2015/10/29/more-college-students-are-working-while-studying.html

[2] In my case, being president of a fraternity was possibly a negative when it came time to apply to graduate school in creative writing (read: not one of us), but the lessons of leadership have endured throughout my life.



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