Achievement: that singular attainment of glory, the validation of talent and diligence, the subject of our peers’ coveted admiration. But what qualifies as achievement? Does it need to have a title? A numerical ranking? A name engraved in bronze?
At North, our admiration is, for the most part, partitioned into packages and shipped off into specific groups: the select few who win the race to nowhere and come out holding an Ivy League diploma and a doctorate or two; the hard workers who claim their stake in the acquisition of knowledge through diligence and can be counted upon no matter what; and those who devote themselves to the service of those who need their time and energy far more than they themselves do. At North, there is a culture of praise for each and every one of these traits and accomplishments.
However, there is a fourth category of students that is often overlooked. In some circles, they are called troublemakers, rabble-rousers and miscreants. I call them individuals. And we all have something to learn from them.
They’re not the future bureaucrats or white-collar workers of this country. They are the artists, writers, journalists, ACLU lawyers, activists. Their skill sets cannot be measured by their GPA or by how many clubs they form. They can only be evaluated by risk-taking, and passion, and a craving for knowledge that goes beyond the pursuit of a specific goal. They are wide-eyed and dizzy in the pursuit of learning everything, and they possess a heartfelt desire to understand and not just comply. The questions they ask sound a little different, maybe: instead of asking “what are the rules I need to know to avoid conflict?” they might ask “who made these rules? What was their motivation? How will they affect us?” This attitude is not gratuitously provocative, but derives itself from an innate and insatiable curiosity. However, when the rules conflict with something they believe in, they do not bend to the whims of a greater power—the structural integrity of their Individualism is too sturdy for that. Henry David Thoreau once said, and I’m paraphrasing, that if a rule is unjust it is one’s duty to break it. How can one determine his responsibility in the workings of his life if he allows others to make the decisions for him, never pausing to ask questions and understand?
Some students get great grades. Some fail classes because they can’t focus in the industrial-era teaching style most of this country still uses. Others know that their experiences can teach them far more than any textbook or lecture about life and how to make the best of the short time allotted to it, and treat class time as merely supplementary to their attainment of knowledge. Any way it goes, I would like to pose to you the controversial hypothesis that it doesn’t matter—that each one of these hypothetical students may or may not possess inquisitiveness and adventurousness: the two qualities that make for true learning.
This is not to take away from qualities like hard work and respect—admirable traits, no doubt—and it is no fault of our own that our upbringing and education have thus far shown that success and admiration are best achieved through compliance. The purpose of this column is, however, to serve as a much-needed voice for those who will not squeeze themselves into a box, an effort to broaden the horizons of what we value and who we look up to at this school. And, much more importantly, it is a challenge to you, my fellow inmates, to become the individuals simmering inside each one of us, to use the sharp edge of your imaginations to file away the steel cages of our expectations. It is the most powerful tool we possess as human beings. To neglect it is to become complacent. To hone it is to embrace one’s full potential.