What in the world are we doing with high school students? Take a look around, look at all the "smart," "impressive" young people that make old people smile. Think about all the reasons they are impressive: Do they have two or more AP/Honors classes? — check. Are they playing at least one sport? — check. Do they have a 3.5 weighted GPA average? — check. Can they help you with the mental math you have to do when doing bills? — check. Do they complain about having three or more hours of homework a night? — check. Are they identical to basically every other smart kid on the planet? — check. And the final test, do they have absolutely no idea what they want to do at the school you are about to pay $50,000 a year for? — check. Good, your student has probably wasted the last four years of his/her life.
In America today, our definition of intelligence in young people is a student who can wear themselves down to the bone in AP classes all because we figured out at some point in their elementary/junior high years that they should be smart. Parents are spending thousands of dollars and years of their children's lives securing a sense of intelligence in students that means they are well skilled in the art of test taking, financial aid paper work, essay writing, lab write-ups and have little ability for much else. We seek out smart kids when they are young and put them on the fast track for academic success, fill up their schedules with cross country meets and badminton practices, and then have their counselors explain to them that they do not have time to take a baking class at the local community college because their academics are more important than finding a genuine passion in life.
Sit in any AP class in high school, and you can look around and see at least 10 students whose parents are about to drop upwards of $500 on multiple choice tests, so they can spend $200,000 in college tuition, so their students can take more multiple choice tests, and come out of their fancy education with English majors that mean they have to spend another $100,000 going to grad school because they still have no skills and no clue what they want to do with their life. In the last eight years, these students have become great at skimming documents to understand their key message, learning their personal alcohol threshold and memorizing the best way to tell adults that they still have no clue what they want to do with their lives. They have no life experience, no job prospects and nothing to show for themselves but a beer gut and $200,000 debt that they will be paying off long after they settle down, make a family and get their mortgage request denied. This is a pretty scary picture to imagine for the next 600,000 "smart" freshmen living in America.
However, this is not applicable to all academic students. Sports are not entirely a bad thing, college and AP classes are not necessarily evil. Even I am looking at the next four years of my life, planning them in between AP English and AP environmental science homework assignments, and figuring out which four-year institution I will be spending my money on. But there are smart ways students can spend their high school days in which they grow as people, discover their passions and have direction for their lives. This may make them slightly less impressive on paper, but far more interesting, healthy, empathetic and passionate people who will make the world a better place.
Students, listen up! Instead of taking AP chemistry because colleges like it, take marine biology because you love animals. Instead of running track because you need a varsity letter to get into college, take a dance class because you love jazz. Instead of taking AP English, spend your weekends serving at the local soup kitchen and meet people with a different life story than your own.
Intelligence does not help anyone if the only thing you are good at is taking a test. Go out and find out who you are and what you love. Take a year off before college (even if your parents disagree) and backpack through Europe. Eat weird food, meet amazing people, and get out of Petaluma. It does not matter how many times you have read "Pride and Prejudice" if you have never experienced the English countryside for yourself.
Smart people are boring. Go live a little.
Carlee Carter is a 17-year-old senior at Petaluma High School. She is co-Editor-in-Chief of the Trojan Tribune, but her passion is writing about politics and current affairs. She hopes to one day write about politics in Washington DC or New York City.