Awhile back I was listening to the Ted Radio Hour. The guest was a Harvard psychologist, Dan Gilbert, an expert on happiness. He wrote a widely-read book, Stumbling On Happiness, and was describing a common experience he has after people find out about his research. They want him to tell them the secret to happiness. Listen to the entire episode here.
According to Gilbert, the secret to happiness is not much of a secret. He says researchers have known for quite some time that prioritizing social relationships, focusing on experiences rather than material things, and being “in the moment” are consistently found to be the key ingredients of a happy life.
But when he tells people this they are almost always disappointed. He believes this is because they don’t want an answer that requires work, what they really want to know is “the secret”. They seek the single ingredient they could discover that would magically lead to happiness.
Hearing this reminded me of a conversation I have too often with students. Each semester, usually after the first mid-term exam and more frequently as the end of the term approaches, students come to me wanting to know “the secret” to getting a good grade in the course.
As it turns out, the secret to getting good grades, like happiness, is not much of a secret at all. So, I tell them: “the secret is to learn the material.”
I am usually met with incredulous looks. They don’t know if I’m being serious or just being a jerk. But like someone asking for the secret to happiness, the questioner is not really interested in making an effort. What they really want to know is the secret. They want a recipe to follow.
It is maddeningly rare for a student to come to me with substantive questions, like: “what is the relationship between identity formation and socialization?” Or, “What does it mean that reality is socially constructed?” Questions that would indicate that they have at least tried to engage with the ideas they are learning. Instead, most of the time it is “the secret” to a good grade that they are looking for.
What do they expect me to tell them? “Attend at least 80 percent of lectures, never come to class stoned, memorize the list of key terms, and read each chapter in the text book from back to front, and that will be good for a B.”
The idea that there is some secret formula for getting good grades is rooted in our orientation to education where the goal has become the credential. The reason for being in a class, or in college generally, has been reduced in the minds of many (probably most) students to a means-ends calculation. The substance of the course is irrelevant. The education part, learning, and thinking are superfluous. The value of a class rests on its utility, whether it satisfies a requirement for general education, for their major, for graduation, or to pad their GPA.
From the student’s perspective, the goal of each step in the education process is to complete it or, to “get it out of the way” so they can get on with what is really important — making money. The grade has become the primary goal. The class and its content are merely obstacles standing in the way.
They pursue “A”s with the same zeal that they will one day pursue “$”.
But it’s not all their fault. Students today are the products of a high stakes testing regime in our public K-12 education system implemented to hold schools and teachers “accountable”. Long before they get to college, the joy of learning has been squeezed out of them. It starts in Kindergarten when schools begin “teaching to the test” for fear that low scores might jeopardize the school’s reputation or its funding.
Five and six year olds who are naturally curious and creative learn too soon to color inside the lines and that there is only one right answer. It only gets worse as they march K through twelve. Students are rewarded when they parrot what the teachers tell them. And those who resist are labeled miscreants.
By the time they get to college, their love of learning has been replaced by a simple instrumental drive to get good grades. Like lab rats trained to push a bar that releases kibble, they blindly pursue “points” or “extra credit” that will lead to letter grades so they can “get out of here”. Not only is the joy of learning gone, but the link between the grade they covet and mastering some body of knowledge has been lost.
Which brings us back to the secret to happiness and its connection to good grades.
There is remarkable similarity between pursuits of happiness and good grades. First of all, there is no “secret”. Stay focused, get into the flow and appreciate the course content and the learning process as an experience. Don’t get distracted by things you can’t control (like how many questions there will be on the exam or how will getting a 75 affect your grade). Don’t fixate on the material outcome – students who have worked hard and earned C’s often actually learn more than those who didn’t have to work for their A. You’ll remember what you learn in a class long after you forget your letter grade. Finally, treat the class as an experience to be cherished as the privilege it is. Given that fewer than ten percent of the world’s people ever get the opportunity to sit in a college classroom and contemplate the collective wisdom of humanity, they should be relishing the opportunity, not fixating on grades.
Those who spend their time in college zealously pursuing points may very well end up being the ones who orient their lives to making money and accumulating stuff believing that it will lead to greater happiness. But experts tell us that this is a fools errand, that after a certain point, making more money does not in fact lead to happiness. Rather, they stress that happy people tend to be those who value relationships and experiences more than material objects.
Nobody wants to be that sad sap who doesn’t understand that money can’t buy happiness. So why be that student who fails to get an education because all they care about are grades?