on underachievement

For a long time I had nightmares about school; only in the past couple of years as I've been deschooling myself (and unschooling my children) have the nightmares ceased. Josh Shaine, in his essay Underachievement From the Inside Out, eloquently puts into words how something as simple as homework could do this to a person.

I did okay in school, in terms of grades and testing. I generally got Bs. A scattering of As, a few Cs (which always made me feel ashamed,) and once even a D (which, along with a lecture from the teacher, made me feel like the lowest scum of the earth.) For the most part, I only did as much work as it seemed was needed in order to keep attention off me, because even more than I hated homework, I hated negative attention. Still, I more often than not did not do my homework, and I suspect that in most cases what coasted me through was the fact that I was a nice, untroublesome kid with a sweet face, and maybe to be pitied (fat, unpopular,) along with the fact that I tested reasonably well. In other words, I didn't do the work that I was supposed to in order to receive those grades; they were gifted to me by sympathetic teachers, who while disapproving of the fact that I was "not living up to my potential", couldn't bear to not pass me.

It's not that I had cognitive difficulty with the work. It's that to do work that was boring and pointless and meaningless was emotionally difficult for me. It was the pain of doing something (as Josh writes) "that goes against your grain, something internally offensive." If I managed to do it, the quality was mediocre. At the time I didn't see it as being a problem with the environment, though, I saw it as a problem with me. Somehow, like the other students and teachers, I defined "smart" as "the ability to do the given work well". If I was smart, surely I would find schoolwork interesting and meaningful? Surely I would be able to make it look good even if I didn't? This misunderstanding about the nature of intelligence created and fed a feeling that I had no natural talent, and therefore it was pointless for me to try to excel at anything.

I started to question that assumption when I went to college, in the few classes where debate was encouraged and work looked at communally. I could see for myself, now, the quality of others' thoughts and work. I could see what kind of work was graded well and why. And that's when I figured it out -- the standards and judgments handed down by those in positions in authority are not objective. They never have been.

It took me longer to come to the realization that there's nothing wrong with me for feeling a deep aversion to schoolwork -- that is, work that somebody else has chosen for arbitrary reasons that have nothing to do with me. The fact that my inner self rebels at this isn't a problem, it's a blessing. It means that I am smart, that I am not in danger of wasting my life doing things that aren't going to result in some benefit to me, or doing things just to please others, or doing things because "that's just the way it's done."

I get it now. I only wish I'd had someone like Josh to talk to then. As he says,

Your ideas are valuable. Your feelings are worthwhile. Normality is overrated and misapplied. You are more important than the sum of your grades.

You are not to blame for a poor fit with the schools. You are not to blame for learning the lessons the schools worked so hard to teach you - of your own inadequacy and failure. You are not a bad person now, and you were not then. You did not ever intend to cause pain through your non-performance of their work.

Don't give up.