I met an old high school friend for lunch yesterday. We're five years out from graduation, so we like to think that we can reminiscence about it with the clarity of those far removed from the situation, immune from the teenage angst and hormones that made us want to be through with high school in the first place.
One of the things that we discussed was how our education caused us to too completely connect our self-esteem and self-worth with our career success. At a young age, we were told that our talents and future careers lay within the subject or extracurricular in which we demonstrated the most promise. Simultaneously, we began to believe that self-worth, personal prosperity and happiness should all be tied up within this career expectation.
This insistence on pursuing a college and career was pushed onto us throughout elementary school all the way to graduation. We enrolled in extracurriculars that we didn't enjoy because they would look good on college applications. We succeeded on tests and in writing essays because we wanted the grades, not the education. Essentially, we worked hard because we wanted career success--our only route to happiness--not because we thought of learning as innately valuable.
Common among American educational systems, this mindset has been punishing in a number of ways. First, aptitude at a young age does not and should not signal one's passion or quest for the rest of her life. A young person assigned this kind of weight--essentially to carry her happiness on hersuccessful shoulders--can be crushed if that ability ever fails to carry her where she is expected to go.
Second, career planning should never supersede the original intentions of education: molding a young person's character, shaping his or her ability to think and establishing a mode of intrinsic motivation within each student. It was ludicrous that I understood my career motivation (which I have now dropped) first, and learned internal motivation and self-worth second, in college. Only then could I rebuild the foundations for choosing a career--or as I prefer to think of it, a path--free of the expectations put on me when I was a child.
As we begin to see new and emerging career fields and begin to expect to change careers several times in a lifetime, I hope that education can shift away from creating little executives into creating little people.