With the passing of five of our beloved peers, people are rightfully debating what contributed to this difficult semester. In sum, three dominant views have come to the fore: undergraduates simply aren’t reaching out enough to their peers; undergraduates aren’t taking advantage of all the many support systems existing at Penn; Counseling and Psychological Services is not sufficiently meeting its demand.
There is a common theme: With the exception of CAPS, they seem to be more eloquent forms of victim blaming. Sure, it is plausible that if our peers utilized these options, perhaps, they would not have taken their own lives. It’s too late to tell.
But perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is: Why is there such a high demand for CAPS?
If our goal is to get to the heart of the problem, then these explanations are only symptomatic. We are not discussing the culture.
We all know what the culture looks like. We all live it.
We get up and put on our thinking masks, drink our daily coffee or choice of energy drink and pretentiously smile throughout the day. We are all leading some organization, juggling applications for internships or jobs, performing in some troupe, competing in a sport, leading some type of research or worse, doing all of the above. For those who know the social scene, you know that moderation is not our game. Add midterms and finals, and the need to distress is more than real.
Call it what you want — the struggle bus, the grind, hell week — it is a road to exhaustion, depression and worse. It is a road of alienation, high expectations to succeed and an unspoken pressure to not appear to fail — at anything.
It is possible that this culture is a self-manifesting. We chose to come to an Ivy League institution. We all obviously don’t want to be ordinary. But, perhaps, we should also rethink some of the expectations placed on us.
Our culture is inextricably tied to institutional arrangements and, more importantly, institutional incentives. As freshmen, we did not have much say in developing the rules of the game. We were welcomed in and told to do our best to win.
Apparently, winning means being able to jump a lot of arbitrary hurdles with a smile on your face.
I would like to focus on a few things that I believe contribute to the problem.
I maintain that we continue to follow an archaic model of lecturing (skewed to one learning style), high-stakes testing (consistently proven to inhibit creativity) and openly endorse competition amongst our students (the opposite being better for learning and production of knowledge). There is a growing body of evidence demonstrating how outdated our methodology truly is.
To this mix, we have rigid and demanding requirements for our majors and in the process, charge a pretty penny — which inevitably creates familial stressors.
On one hand, we are encouraged to be creative and explore our genuine interests. Then, we have to jump these hoops and hurdles that make it difficult to do just that. These are loud contradictions that have huge implications.
We all want to become our institution’s definition of “success.” Subsequently, we are often willing to pay a heavy psychological price: little sleep, stress, a low self-esteem and loneliness are all part of the semester ritual.
This actually pits us against our friendships, passions and other, personally derived ideas of success. It is maddening.
Perhaps, midterms and finals have outlived their purpose. Perhaps, we don’t all have to “be the best.” Perhaps, we can focus on improving our individual strengths and abilities and better yet, make sure that everyone makes it in a healthy and dignified fashion.
It is time to demand new values that are more consistent with a healthy and humane life.
And don’t get me wrong: I am not saying Penn should be easy. I am saying that between what we have and all the existing alternatives, demanding some humanity is more than just reasonable: It is rational — especially from such a well-endowed institution.
It’s time for us — students, staff and faculty — to work together and reject this rat race. My peers and I welcome the opportunity to do this — who’s with me?
Jonathan Paz is a College junior. His email address is email@example.com.
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