Academic Culture Thrives on Insecurity


A painting by junior Catherine Frank representing her interpritation of academic culture. “It’s to show the effect of comments and criticism made from teachers, parents, and students alike,” said Frank. “Even if the intent is good, many people do not understand the additional stress put on students by pressuring them to work harder.”

Elisa Edgar, Managing Editor

When the phrase “academic culture” is said, images of studying in the library, learning in class, or working on homework may come to mind. However, for some, competition, inferiority, insecurity, pressure, and stress might replace those things. The truth is, whether the former or the latter more accurately reflects one’s academic experience, the structure of academic culture remains the same: it thrives on insecurity.

The competitive nature of school is structured to pit students against each other. The system is a process of elimination, separating those who can play the game of school well from those who can’t. Who gives the most correct answers in class? Who scores highest on tests? Who gets all the answers on the homework? Who performs at the highest level? It’s almost suffocating, because no matter how high a student’s GPA is, no matter how many advanced classes they take, how many extracurriculars they do, there is literally always someone out there doing more. Students are constantly reminded to “keep up” with their peers, to accomplish what they do in the same time frame. It becomes a face-off of who can endure what, and who can perform under the most stress. This encouragement of competition—which is oftentimes less than friendly—leads students to rank themselves among each other. When one person sees themselves as inherently better than another in school, an academic superiority complex is formed. And, on the other side, inferiority complexes become commonplace. 

The reason this competition is often not a healthy one is because it is one built on individual success instead of cooperation. When college admissions officers compare applications side by side, they look for applicants with the highest achievements (academic and beyond) and choose them over those with less. This fact is ingrained into children’s heads even from the beginning of grade school. For those who wish to give themselves the best chances at being chosen over someone else, there is little incentive to help anyone except themselves. 

Hannah Catalano began her first year as a State High counselor in 2021 for 10th-12th grade students with last names that begin with L, M, and N. One of the things she’s noticed most about State High in particular is the amount of stress that exists as it relates to students. SCASD in general offers many advanced and AP classes, so there are many opportunities for students to excel in these rigorous courses—but those opportunities can come hand in hand with stress.

Oftentimes, the rhetoric or advice students hear from adults at school follows the same lines. There’s a societal bias against those who do not leave high school for a private, four-year college, and for those who feel this option is either not for them or not within their reach, little sympathy or explanation is given. 

“We need to acknowledge that not everyone’s gonna take the same amount of courses, or that not everyone’s pathway is gonna look the same,” Catalano said. “That’s why I think it’s important to always look to not suggest that college is gonna be the next step for people, because then we kind of categorize everyone into that same pathway.”

When kids are made to feel like they don’t fit into the picture of what they are expected to be, it’s easy to lose motivation or a purpose. Without an awareness of your own talents, gifts, and potential, it is difficult to see a reason to continue working hard.

“We know that everyone’s picture looks different and what we do after high school is gonna be different whether it’s military, workforce, going to college, taking a gap year, that’s gonna be different for everyone. But I think many students feel that pressure of what their classmates are taking or what their path looks like. So, a lot of comparison can make students feel inferior to others. And I think that comes across with how big our school is, with all the different people you do have, and ways of life that everyone is so different that it is hard when you feel you have to compare yourself amongst your classmates.”

Although this view of inferiority might have many factors that built it into place, the message school sends often reinforces it. Students are sorted into groups by administrators, teachers, parents, and adolescents alike: the “bad kids” and the “good kids.” It’s not-so-subtle shaming about a low test grade in front of classmates. It’s more frequent and severe punishment for the same behavior of those who don’t have straight As. It’s those same people with straight As receiving leniency to an extreme. It’s which kids parents want their children to invite for a sleepover, regardless of character or quality as a human. 

In 2019, the infamous “college admissions scandal” had headlines in a chokehold after it was revealed that there was a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate programs in top universities into admitting the children of several celebrities. Code-named “Operation Varsity Blues,” this scandal demonstrates just how desperate our society has become to achieve the academic validation that comes with college—so desperate, in fact, that the prospect of jail time did not deter those involved. 

“The scandal showed the lengths that wealthy and highly privileged parents were willing to go to ensure that their kids got into the ‘best’ schools. The scandal illuminates the outsize importance that society places on academic achievement,” wrote Newport Institute. 

Every measure of academic success essentially must be provided from an external source. Whether that source may be a scantron, a teacher, a GPA, a course recommendation, or class rankings, these measures of success are not provided from within us. With such a strong cultural fixation on academic performance in place, it is almost inevitable that students tie their own self-worth to it. This turns school into a quest for external validation of worth, a reward system weighed upon either being fed praise or being starved of it. The truth is, relying on the external will slowly kill you. 

Seeking external validation and relying on it for happiness has many negative effects on the health of the body, mind, and soul. When they get a good grade, students get positive reinforcement of their worth, which is often tied to that success. It boosts confidence and self-esteem. However, even the best students can’t always be satisfied with the results they get. 

Academic success often comes at the expense of young adults’ social and emotional development. For every student acing their classes, or at least putting in the hours of work attempting to do so, comes a story of something they’ve sacrificed. Maybe they’re not as close with their mom as they used to be when they could spend time with her. Maybe they spend their downtime in class with their head on their desk, or quietly groaning to their friends about pure exhaustion. Maybe they haven’t picked up a paintbrush, guitar, or good book since middle school. Maybe they watch from afar while their old friends hang out after school. Whatever it is, there is always something lost, because it’s impossible to have it all. 

A 2019 review study by Taylor & Francis found academic pressure to be associated with a series of blows to one’s mental health: anxiety, depression, increased substance abuse, and poor sleep quality. Depersonalization, feeling disconnected from one’s body or thoughts, has also been shown to be a common response. These can lead to problematic coping strategies like taking sleeping pills, drinking alcohol to help sleep, or other outlets like drugs and smoking cigarettes. High levels of stress also lead to burnout, which ironically results in worsening academic performance. According to the American Psychological Association’s latest Stress in America report, 87% of college students report that their education is a significant source of stress, particularly the uncertainty around what’s to come.

A system built upon competition instead of cooperation, superiority and inferiority, insecurity, and external validation, is not a system designed to produce adults that exist at their highest potential. While the reward system of grades and acceptance is one that some know how to play, sometimes with supposed ease, it leaves hundreds of thousands behind.