I will never forget the first time I failed a test. It was in fifth with one of my favorite teachers. I remember receiving the test back with a zero on the front and instantly covering the test up so no one could not see the sign of failure. The teacher must have seen my shock because I was told to stay after class. She explained to me how I had made a 100 but I did not “take the test right” which is what resulted in the zero. From then on, I developed what college students call “test anxiety.” I worked to follow directions, to be structured, and to never ask a question that could possibly be wrong. I made straight A’s, participated in school organizations, was president of my class, and lived to fill the resume that would be sent to potential colleges. I did what students are expected to do. When I came to college I was excited because I could finally learn outside the perimeters of standardized tests. What I did not expect was to hear phrases from professors such as, “don’t worry this will not be on the test,” or having to spend thirty minutes of class listening to students ask how many questions will be on the exam. Teachers from my high school always told us, “college will not be like this, so enjoy it while you can,” but it was all the same. Listen, take notes, memorize, take test, repeat.
I began to realize that maybe this was what education was intended to be. A system that engrains students with the idea that to conform and restrain one’s mind to standardization is what makes us “successful.” David Brooks discusses how college students are “goal-orientated… a means for self-improvement, resume-building, and enrichment. College is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement and they are always aware that they must get to the next step.” Students go through elementary, junior high, high school, and now even universities not to “free our minds” or truly educating ourselves, but to climb the ladder of social order. One can relate education to Plato’s cave allegory, “they are in it from childhood with their legs and necks in bonds so that they are fixed, seeing only in front of them unable because of the bond to turn their heads.” This system of education that parents, professors, politicians, employers, and even students talk so highly about is not about producing the world’s next great minds, it is about producing the world’s next source of capital. Society has taken a liberal education and twisted it to where it will fit students into its workplace.
Everyone says that your first semester of college is the hardest. You move away from home, meet new people, and are thrown into a whole new environment. I knew it would be tough, but never thought I would be the student that curled onto her dorm room rug and cried over a seventy-eight on a couple of tests. I had made back-to-back “failing grades” in my mind and had the mindset that I could never recover. What could I accomplish without a 4.0 GPA and four years on the Deans List? To make matters worse, I received a zero for a homework assignment. Believing that there must have been something wrong, I made my way to my TAs office hours where he proceeded to tell me that I did great on the assignment but had to give me a zero based on a small technicality. That is when I had the realization that a modern-day college education has nothing to do with a liberal education. From then on, every test I would take and grade that followed would no longer determine how I would go about learning. I decided that in order to receive a true liberal education I had to throw away every concept of what I thought education was. In Plato’s book I was reminded that “education is not what the professions of certain men assert it to be” and when I decided to make my way out of ‘the cave’ of education I was thankful for the realization that I had broken the bonds that society tried so hard to place tightly around me. Leo Strauss said that a “liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful,” and that is when an individual is truly free.
I sometimes think about where I would be if I had the mindset that I do now about education when I received that zero if fifth grade. Would I have waved it in the air as a badge of pride representing how I refused to conform to the institution instead of hiding it from my friends in shame or would I had done it all the same? A true liberal education is what enables individuals to achieve, admire, and model greatness. So, when I hear a professor repeat the phrase “don’t worry, this won’t be on the test,” a part of me wonders if even they have given up on helping break the bonds placed upon us.