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Articles > Student Life June, 09, 2020

Is the education system teaching us to base our self-worth on grades?

Alisha Carver
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At school and college, one lesson that stood out to me was how important it is to achieve the highest grade. It was never about the content of the subject or how it will apply to practical life, but always about the grade. What is this teaching young people?

Taking a year out of education has opened my eyes. I’ve realised how much I let my grades determine my self-worth. If I didn’t get an A in my A Level exams, or a First in every module at degree level, then I would feel like a failure and my self-esteem would drop. I’d then study to the point where I’d feel physically ill just to overcome this feeling. I fell victim to misconceptions of worthiness.

It turns out that I’m not the only one experiencing these feelings. In a study by Jennifer Crocker at the University of Michagan in 2002, 80% of students base their self-worth on academic performance. More than ever before, society is basing worth on numerical values. I now wonder whether that percentage has increased in young people in 2020 and if it has, what is the impact of this on mental health?

A Society of Perfectionists – But at what cost?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. And since leaving university, I’ve learnt just how dangerous it was to base my self-worth around grades.

The pressure of having to continuously demonstrate our knowledge, has turned so many of us into perfectionists; something which is dangerous in itself. Research has proven that there are links between perfectionism, anxiety and depression (Lessin & Pardon, 2017).

We live in a society most achievements are not good enough and we’ll always be striving for more. And it all starts with our education. We mistakenly learn from a young age that the higher the grade, the worthier we are. This is validated by other sources such as the number of likes on social media.

Finding your own identity

I used to see students who were achieving As and A*s being validated for their work, and I started to confuse this validation with ‘worthiness’. Like so many others, I was made to believe that I wasn’t ‘enough’. I believed that perfecting every essay and striving for praise from teachers and parents would make me feel worthy. And for a while it did.

Achieving ‘good’ grades had become a big part of my identity for a long time. So, when this got taken away from me, so was my feeling of worth. It was at that point that I learned the biggest life lesson: your self-worth is not defined by a grade or any other number (like the amount of money in your bank, or the number of followers you have, or the amount of calories you eat).

I learned that your identity and self-worth cannot be defined by any of these external sources.

Final thought

If you take anything from this article, let it be that you self-worth comes from within – and that is where we will find happiness.

Each and every person is born with their own potential and purpose, which the education system often fails to fulfil. After all, if you judge a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree, it would live the rest of its life believing it’s stupid.

Society will profit from our insecurities, this includes the education system (think about bottom sets and the class divide). But remember, you’re so much more than a number and realising this is true success.

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  1. Emily

    I totally agree! If I used to get anything below a merit or even something that wasn’t distinction worthy I would automatically put that on myself that I wasn’t good enough, even though that grade doesn’t define me I still let it do that.

    I don’t think education systems realise how effective these grades can be on us and our mental health, and it is so important to break that because whatever grade you do get you are still worthy of. It is important to remember that we worked hard for that grade and we deserve that grade whatever it may be!

  2. Magy

    I often miss such meditation training programs in my life